Investigate versus Detect

What is the difference between the words investigate and detect? In mysteries there is a tendency to use these two words interchangeably, but according to the dictionary there is a difference.

If we go to Mr. Webster we find the following:

  • INVESTIGATE–Carry out an official inquiry–to carry out a detailed examination or inquiry, especially officially, in order to
    find out about something or somebody—to do the necessary research to determine results.
  • DETECT–Perceive the existence of–discover the existence of
    something by gathering information.

Based on these definitions, “investigate” describes what the police do. They take the fingerprints, do the autopsy, interview suspects, run lab tests and manage the research and analysis of what is discovered at the crime scene. The person who investigates is processing results and linking the findings to the solution. They use their scientific knowledge or police procedures to lead them to the person who committed the crime. Patricia Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta is a great example of this approach to crime solving. She uses her scientific knowledge as a medical examiner to develop a profile of the murderer and then narrow her list of suspects.

On the other hand, the person detecting is gathering information. Each detail they discover is a piece of the puzzle. They may also talk to suspects and read the results of police reports but they tend to look at the pieces from a personal viewpoint as opposed to ascientific method.

The person detecting is a thinker who has the ability to logically connect the dots and form a picture from insignificant or unrelated pieces of information.  There are occasions when this person disregards what appears to be a major piece of information or the theories of others because it does not logically fit the puzzle they are building.

Here is the part that is confusing but interesting. The person detecting can be a professional policeman. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse comes to mind. Morse is a policeman but he is not representative of the scientific side of police procedures. At crime scenes he sends his Sergeant in for a closer look at the dead body. In the morgue he prefers that the doctor provides the basic details and winces at the gory descriptions.  He solves the crime by thinking through the information often while listening to opera or solving a cryptic crossword puzzle.

The person detecting can also be an amateur. What the amateur detective lacks in police procedures they make up with their knowledge of people and their local surroundings.  And sometimes this knowledge is not always
appreciated by the people conducting the formal investigation. For instance, Christie’s Miss Marple is often viewed as a busy body old lady.  But no matter what others might think, the amateur is able to assemble the clues until the solution is revealed.

So whether you’re a fan of the professional investigator or those who detect, grab a mystery and do some investigating and detecting of your own.

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