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“Just the Facts, Ma’am…”

Persons of a certain age who remember the TV show Dragnet can no doubt identify this laconic catchphrase. Sergeant Joe Friday wanted simple facts, unsullied by the witness’s opinion or bias. He believed he could get the facts simply by asking for them. Modern psychology has shown that eyewitnesses, once the stalwarts of crime investigation, are frequently unreliable. Their “facts” are almost always subjective.

Who, as my detective heroine Elaine Hope asks in my novel SOULS OF MEN, decides what the facts are? In mystery novels the answer is, of course, “the author.” The author determines which evidence the detective discovers and how and when the readers discover it. To achieve a level of verisimilitude with real-life investigations, it’s helpful to understand the basic rules of investigation.

In the “Senior Investigating Officer’s Handbook” authors Cook and Tattersall present the “ABC Rule.” This rule asserts that detectives should:

1) Assume nothing. The list of evidence should always begin as a blank sheet.

2) Believe nothing. Nothing a witness says should be taken at face value. Who knows what bias or hidden motive might cause a witness to be inventive with her testimony?

3) Check everything. Only when eyewitness evidence has been verified should it be treated as fact.

As writers, we can either observe or breach the ABC Rule to advance our characterization and plot. Perhaps the detective is an extremely methodical, cynical type. We can use the ABC Rule to make sure he’s thorough and suspicious when he interviews the poor elderly widow and drives her to tears. Perhaps your sleuth is a brilliant but impulsive rebel. We can use her leaps of intuitive faith to embroil her in a trap, or to get her in trouble with her long-suffering and by-the-book boss.

In the course of this blog, I’ll discuss various rules of investigation, and the questions the detective must ask and seek to have answered in any complex investigation.

By the way, Joe Friday never said “Just the facts, ma’am” in any episode of Dragnet.


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