“ . . . It is the brain . . .on which one must rely. . .”
Last month I discussed how we as genealogists can learn lessons from the great detectives of fiction. I used the great Nero Wolfe as an example. Today we shall discuss one of the investigators from the canon of the incomparable Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot.
Christie first wrote about the diminutive Belgian detective in 1916, but the story was not published until 1920. At first he was a detective in the Holmesian tradition. He spent a great deal of time running around looking for clues and evidence. Over time, his focus turned to his “little gray cells” and analysis. His approach can be summarized in this quote: “It is the brain, the little gray cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within — not without.”
Poirot came to realize that clues and evidence are significant and important. However, what is even more vital is that one does with that information. Evidence is critical, but one must review and evaluate it. The same is obviously true of genealogy, and never has it been more crucial than now.
The age of technology has brought with it an explosion of information for genealogists. Before this period, the majority of our time was spent poring through records, many of them originals with no index (be they on microfilm and fiche or original manuscript form). We were looking for clues to build our case, keeping meticulous notes on index cards for future reference.
Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet and search engines like Mocavo, we can easily and quickly become buried in clues. Data is everywhere. Many genealogical libraries saw significant drops in attendance as people no longer felt the need to sift through books microfilm.
But a change has happened in the last few years. Even new genealogists are discovering that they are quickly buried in information, and they don’t know what to do with it. They now realize that they need to review the information and evaluate it. Poirot’s methodology is now stepping in.
It is not enough to have clues and evidence. Genealogists must put their “little grey cells” to use. Clues must be analyzed and evaluated. They must be assembled into theories, testing the logic and reevaluating in the light of constant new evidence becoming available.
Poirot himself is a perfect example of jumping to the wrong conclusions, like this interchange from Death on the Nile:
Mrs. Van Schuyler
“You perfectly foul French upstart!”
“Belgian upstart, please, madame.”
Poirot was a Francophone Belgian. Because of his accent, many jumped to the conclusion that he was French. They did not ask the proper questions and evaluate all of the evidence. Using a single piece of evidence (the accent), they formed a theory that completely fell apart when additional evidence is discovered
An interchange between Col. Johnny Race and Poirot in the same work illustrates another example:
“Mon Dieu, j’ai faim.”
Poirot! You have a woman?
“Not femme, faim! I am . . . peckish.”
Race confused one word for another, but that one word completely changed the meaning of what Poirot was saying. This happens all the time in genealogy. And not only do people have trouble translating foreign words (as in the example above). Problems also occur when researchers attribute modern meanings to words from ancient documents. A perfect example of this is father-in-law. Today, the meaning is the father of one’s spouse. In times past, however, it could also signify a stepfather relationship.
The best genealogical theories are proven by conducting a reasonably exhaustive search for information. One then takes the results of the search and conducts extensive analysis, testing the logic for breakdowns. Only then can a conclusion be reached. As illustrated in Poirot’s debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, “ one can be taken completely by surprise if evidence has not been analyzed in excruciating detail. Geneaogists must constantly review the conclusions, however, as new evidence becomes available.