Dots … and More Dots
Mysteries, whether real or fiction, have always captured my attention. My favorite author is Sir Conan Doyle, which of course means my favorite detective is Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a master at creating the understated, subliminal hints and clues Holmes always understood but left Dr. Watson in a muddle. But once Holmes declared, “Watson, the game is afoot,” I knew what followed would take me into a twisted, oft times inexplicable investigation.
Clues are the heart of any mystery, to tease, tantalize, pull you into the story. To keep you guessing, wondering, who did it?
In my paranormal suspense novel, Not Dead, a child disappears from her home in a small, rural Texas town. Police Chief Chad Bishop, a man with his own bizarre secrets, walks the crime scene. “When he spotted the tricycle, with another doll sitting in the basket, he stopped. After staring at it for a few seconds, he turned his gaze to the gate that stood open. The latch was simple, lift the bar to open it. A good investigator collected details … details that could have meaning, and then again, could be so much useless trivia.”
The essence of an investigation is the flotsam, the minutia, trivial details. A clue can be anything, what a person saw or did, clothing, time of day, sounds, crimes scenes, physical evidence, inconsistencies, even an investigator’s intuition and senses, that gut feeling. When does a minor detail become a telling clue? That’s the tension, intrigue and challenge of a mystery.
A not uncommon term used to underscore this process of sifting and sorting is “Connecting the Dots.” It’s the thought process of a detective or investigator as they follow a nebulous trail to the mystery’s conclusion, connecting seemingly inconsequential details into a pattern.
If you are a fan of thrillers, cozy mysteries or suspense, you’ve come across this phrase. I’ve certainly used it and the concept many times in my books. Is this phrase simply fiction, an imaginary device used by authors to tell a story? Or is it grounded in reality? Speaking as an author, I’ve discovered my writing takes the same path as my investigations as a police officer. There was a crime, and what did I learn from the crime scene, witness statements, and other evidence? How about the pattern of criminal behavior, the MO, method of operation. That’s a big one. Criminals tend to repeat their actions.
In my debut crime thriller, Sentinels of the Night, I introduced a new team of FBI agents, Trackers, more than just the elite of the elite. Each agent has an unusual ability, one they hide behind ambiguous and vague explanations. The head of the unit, Scott Fleming, is himself an enigmatic agent with his own secrets. This excerpt is from his first meeting with his new team, one he handpicked.
“Seated, Scott sipped his coffee, his gaze shifting to each agent. If he had to choose one word to describe this team, it would be extraordinary. One of his unique abilities was analyzing patterns in human behavior and what they meant. A handy advantage when applied to a criminal’s actions that had culminated in a high number of arrests. While his superiors may not have understood his methods, they recognized his results and was the reason he’d been tagged to head the new unit.”—Sentinels of the Night
Analyzing criminal behavior is certainly one way of “connecting the dots.” Another biggie is the crime scene. In Sentinels of the Night, a body is tossed into a commercial dumpster. FBI Tracker Cat Morgan, an agent who is a mystery herself, has found the body and is less than forthcoming in her answers. The local police chief, Kevin Hunter, isn’t buying her explanation.
“A frown of disbelief appeared on Kevin’s face as she continued. “I was trying to figure out how the killer tossed a body in the dumpster. My take is he parked next to it, and I had reached the point of how he maneuvered the body into the bin when you arrived.”
“Huh! You want me to believe you stood there talking to yourself about how he parked his car?”
“Yep. What I call connecting the dots. You never know where they will lead. Consider this. The hotel was full the night the killer tossed Lewis’s body. Lots of people partying, milling around. Cars probably coming and going. So, how did he get her in that bin without someone noticing him?”—Sentinels of the Night
Another mystery. How did the body get into the dumpster? Where did the dots lead Cat?
Sometimes, the dots are overlooked, never connected, crimes that fall under law enforcement’s radar.
In this excerpt from Sentinels of the Night, Tracker Cat Morgan explains the reason for her new unit. “A PTC is a peripatetic serial killer, a migrant. Stays for a short period, then picks up and moves to new hunting grounds. They’re hard to identify because local agencies usually view the homicide as an isolated case. The dots never get connected. They are one of the reasons the Tracker Unit was formed.”—Sentinels of the Night
In an investigation, nothing can be overlooked, even seemingly unrelated details. It is why the forensic examination of a crime scene is so vital. In Not Dead, I used a gate. One simple detail turned the case from a missing child into an abduction.
In my third Tracker crime thriller, Au79, a suspect is murdered. Laredo Homicide Detective Tracy Harlowe has confiscated all the documents found at the crime scene
“Tracy leaned back in the chair. She twisted and rolled her head to ease the tension in her neck and shoulder muscles. It seemed she had sat for hours in one position as she sifted through bills, invoices, sales receipts, and other miscellaneous scraps of paper. Nothing and only two boxes remained. She sighed, straightened and ripped the tape from the nearest one. Her hand reached inside to pick up a stack of papers. Thumbing through them, she quickly scanned each one before she laid it aside. When she grabbed another stack, a small sticky note fell onto the table. Scribbled on it was ‘27.43 lbs how many,’ followed by several question marks.” A small sticky note about a weight turned this case upside down.
From fact to fiction, connecting the dots is my pattern. It’s the essence of my books, taking a crime, twisting it, adding details, which might be a clue or so much useless trivia to turn it into a mystery. One that I certainly enjoy creating, to pull you into the plot, and make you part of the investigation. In a review for Au79, a reader gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received. “It kept me guessing back and forth who the leak was, and dang-it-all, I picked the wrong guy!”
If you have a question or comment, please let me know. I’m always “On The Hunt” for new ideas.
Until next time, take care and stay safe.
Anita Dickason is a retired police officer with a total of twenty-seven years of law enforcement experience, twenty-two with Dallas PD. She served as a patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer, advanced accident investigator, tactical officer and first female sniper on the Dallas SWAT team.