Why should engineers read more fiction?

6 – Lateral Thinking

All good engineers are skilful problem solvers. The most intractable problems, those that involve people as well as machines, require more than step by step logic.

Lateral thinking involves a different way of thinking, an indirect approach and a splash of creativity.

Crime fiction is a great way to hone lateral thinking skills.  From Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie to the current crop of thoughtful police procedurals, some of the most exciting fiction today is badged as crime.

I love it when the investigator throws out the rule book, when they challenge authority, when they go rogue to follow a hunch.


Because it feels true.

Human beings are not machines. Our senses gather far more information than we can fully process, so we become expert at observing patterns. We only react to the unexpected. We sort by difference.

When a great investigator interviews someone, they are just as interested in body language, emotional signals, the pauses between the words, what is left unsaid, not just the written statement. They understand the importance of visiting the scene of the crime, interviewing the witnesses in their own environment, wearing out the shoe leather.

Getting away from the computer, talking to people about what they actually did and heard and saw and smelt and touched, challenging lazy assumptions and prejudice, teasing out the unexpected is the best way to get to the truth.

I’m a very recent convert to crime fiction so I’d like to make a special mention of three groups I have particularly enjoyed.

The Northerners – Chris McGeorge, Judith O’Reilly, Rob Parker, Adam Peacock, Robert Scragg, Trevor Wood.

The Scots (even further north) – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Lin Anderson, William McIntyre, James Oswald, Abir Mukherjee, Helen Sedgwick, Lesley Kelly, Doug Johnstone.

The Scandinavians (the furthest north of all) – everything published by Orenda – including Kjell Ola Dahl, Eva Bjorg AEgisdottir, Jørn Horst Lier and Thomas Enger.

But my recommendation today comes from the very south of England with feathers that point west – The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

Migrating birds are arriving on the English coast when a man is murdered. A local policeman, and fellow birder, is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. Can he find justice for his neighbour while keeping his own past a secret?

Continue to number seven – Escape

The full list of 10 recommended books (and a few extras) is available here

Fiona Erskine is a professional engineer and the author of Jaq Silver thrillers The Chemical DetectiveThe Chemical ReactionThe Chemical Cocktail and genre defying Phosphate Rocks: A death in Ten Objects.