“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Sometimes the absence of a thing is a vital clue. For example, the absence of fingerprints on an often-used item makes it clear that the item was cleaned. A tool missing from a set could well be the murder weapon.
This is, in fact, one of the harder aspects of real police investigations. The lack of something is easy to miss. However you have to be careful. The lack of gunshot residue on a person's clothes for example does not
mean that there was not a gun fired, it means that there is no gunpowder residue to find ("The absence of evidence is evidence of absence, not proof
of absence"). Lack of such residue on the glove that an eyewitness saw the shooter use and then dump that is immediately picked up by the police might show that the event was staged, however (as the gloves would have residue and there is no way it might have been removed).
Can lead to a Conviction by Contradiction
situation if poorly handled.
Compare I Never Said It Was Poison
, where someone incriminates themselves by mentioning details which were withheld from the public.
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Anime and Manga
- In an episode of Case Closed, the daughter of a wealthy businessman has been kidnapped and Conan figures out who the kidnapper is when he remembers that no one reported hearing the sounds of dogs barking the previous night. (For clarification, the butler who claimed to have witnessed the kidnapping said that the kidnapper climbed down a tree, but the businessman's dogs routinely barked at anyone who got near the tree.)
- In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Rena is able to deduce from a mix of an empty bottle of soy sauce and a plastic wrapped dinner for two that Rena and Satoko disappeared respectively with time passed and with a conversation taking place in between, including where they headed.
- In Monster, Johan's crime scenes are devoid of feeling. In one arc, this enables Runge to determine that a certain murder was committed by a copy-cat and not Johan.
- In the first Judge Dredd comic in Hondo-City, the Hondo-City Judge works out that the assassin he is chasing is a robot because there is no rollmat, no food, no toothpaste, etc., in his apartment.
- This was, oddly enough, used to discover Superman's secret identity back in the Silver Age of comics. Superman has since started filling his bathroom with all the things needed for daily life, and putting medicines in his locker.
- In the DC one-off "World Without Grownups" (a prelude to Young Justice), it appears as though all the children in the world have disappeared. However, Batman deduces that the ADULTS were the ones who were transplanted to a parallel earth when he notices that none of his bat-gear has any dust on it (and then proceeds to carbon date everything he can find to back up his hypothesis).
- One of the final reveals in Rashomon is that the woodcutter, who at that point was the only person the viewer would be inclined to believe entirely, stole a valuable dagger mentioned by all the other witnesses, but the object was never mentioned by him.
- In The Usual Suspects, the absence of any cocaine in the cargo ship is the first sign that the attack isn't what it first seems.
- In Memento, Leonard shows Natalie a binder of documents he has pertaining to the attack on and murder of his wife; she comments that it seems awfully incomplete for how long his investigation is going. Then you find out that Leonard destroyed several pages before the beginning of the film's events, intentionally creating holes that he could exploit to continue seeking his aimless revenge.
- In The Bourne Ultimatum when the CIA is looking for whoever leaked Blackbriar to the media, their initial response is to check for whoever's cell phone was in the same location as the meeting place. Pamela Landy notes that what they should be doing is checking who has their cell phones turned off, as no employee of the CIA would be stupid enough to meet a journalist with their phone on but that it would be odd for a ranking officer to be out of contact for that long.
- Sherlock Holmes has supplied us with several examples:
- In the story "Silver Blaze" that gives us the page quote, Holmes points out the vital non-clue of a dog failing to react to a mysterious visitor... when a guard dog doesn't bark at an intruder it generally means it's someone he doesn't think is an intruder at all.
- The absence of certain valuable deeds is a vital clue in "The Norwood Builder."
- In one of the Union Club Mysteries by Isaac Asimov, Griswold points out that the female suspect they are looking for (who has been shown to be fanatical about stockpiling supplies she will need) must be post-menopausal as there were no products for dealing with menstruation in her apartment.
- Another, perhaps less convincing, story has Griswold show that a suspect is only pretending to be a writer because there is no wastepaper basket in his apartment, which would have fairly standard for a writer at the time.
- In the Death Note novel Another Note, this was the basis for all of Beyond Birthday's clues: "Something that should be there, but isn't."
- The Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The Five Red Herrings turns on the absence of a tube of white paint from the crime scene.
- In the Sword of Truth novel Chainfire, after the eponymous spell has made everyone forget that Kahlan ever existed, Richard tries to use this to convince everyone else that she has. He points to where he says he, Kahlan, and Cara had been walking, and notes that there were no footprints between his and Cara's, which were several feet apart. He tells his companions that this means someone erased Kahlan's footprints. Nobody believes him since, as mentioned, everyone is sure that she never existed in the first place.
- This trope is referenced in the first novel of the Bernard Samson series. While Bernard is in custody of an East German intelligence officer, they discuss the story of Silver Blaze. Bernard then points out the equally curious omission of any attempt at a proper interrogation. The reason for it is that the officer's boss is Bernard's wife.
- In the Echos of Honor, a State Sec general figures out that the prisoners have taken over the prison because the warden failed to send his next chess-by-mail move in the mail delivered by a courier ship.
- In the The Dresden Files novel Small Favor, Michael suspects that Harry is under some form of magical influence because throughout the whole novel up to that point Harry has not once used the fire magic that is normally his go-to spell, and the blasting rod he uses to focus his fire magic is nowhere to be found. When Harry confronts Michael about his suspicions, Michael is able to prove to Harry that something is wrong by quietly asking where his blasting rod is - in fact Harry is under a spell by the Queen of the Unseelie Court to prevent him from using fire magic, and only when Michael brings it to his attention does he realize (along with most readers) that his blasting rod is missing and that he hasn't so much as thought about it or fire magic throughout the novel up to that point.
- In Fool Moon, Johnny Marcone knows that Harry has sneaked onto his estate even though (or because) he didn't see him do it: one of his security cameras went on the fritz and he says, "Such malfunctions and Mr. Dresden tend to go together."
- Parodied in the Discworld City Watch books, where Vimes notes how hard it is to find something missing because said thing is, by definition, not there.
Live Action TV
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Nagus", one of the things that tips Odo off that Zek is not dead is the absence of Mairhar'du at his funeral.
- Played for laughs in Friends. Joey gives Chandler his show reel in order to be considered for an advert being produced by Chandler's company. When Chandler claims to have watched it, Joey says that he obviously hasn't, because part of the audition tape was a Japandering advert Joey did for "Ichiban Lipstick for Men", which Chandler would have definitely made fun of.
- On CSI, when a serial killer strikes Las Vegas, killing women with towels, causing white cotton fibers to get all over the crime scene, the CSIs spot a copycat due to the lack of said cotton fibers.
- Columbo: The episode called "The Most Crucial Game" has the culprit caught when Columbo found that the phone call the killer claimed to have made at 2:29 pm in his stadium box (and recorded by a bug on the line) lacked the sound of the half-hour chime of the anniversary clock in the box.
- Raines uses this in the episode "Reconstructing Alice", with a dog that didn't bark, as in the Sherlock Holmes story. Raines even quotes Sherlock Holmes when realizing this.
- Law & Order had a case where they realized the killer was following the instructions in a book about how to kill someone and get away with it ("for educational and entertainment purposes only," of course). When they caught the killer and confronted him with all the things he did to (successfully) avoid leaving any clues as to his identity, he responded, "So I'm guilty because you don't have any evidence?"
- Doctor Who, "The Sontaran Stratagem" - UNIT and the Doctor are investigating ATMOS, a factory they believe is a front for alien activity. While Martha examines the workers and the Doctor sonics the ATMOS, Donna finds something suspicious: an empty file folder for sick days.As Martha manages to determine while doing medical checkups on the ATMOS factory workers, this is because all of them have been hypnotized by the Sontarans (as evidenced by one who says in a never-changing pitch that he works 24 hours a day, and has an abnormally high pulse rate).
- Psych: Gentleman Thief Pierre Despereaux was never caught and couldn't have been convicted even if he had been because he never left any evidence behind. It turns out the reason he was able to do this was because he never actually stole anything; he just made deals with museum owners so they could collect the insurance money.
- In an episode of City Homcide, the body of Matt's mother is found on a construction site, fourteen years after she disappeared while buying balsamic vinegar from a local shop. When the team realise she was found without said balsamic vinegar, they conclude that the shopkeepers lied about her leaving the shop.
- Ace Attorney:
- For example, Turnabout Succession Case 4:
Phoenix: So... were any fingerprints found on the gun?
Klavier: ...Unfortunately, no. Of course, the defendant is known for wearing gloves. We might say that a lack of fingerprints is, in fact, a "fingerprint" of its own.
- Later in the same case, the victim's insulin syringe was completely empty, adding weight to Phoenix's claim that the killer put something else in it.
- In the extra case from the Nintendo DS remake of the first game, Ace Attorney (MAJOR spoiler): Damon Gant has just "proven" Ema Skye pushed the victim to his death using a fingerprint-laden piece of cloth he personally cut from the victim's vest. However, Phoenix notes that while the victim died of a pierced lung and was coughing up blood on himself for a while before death, the piece of cloth has NO blood on it. Since this proves the cloth was cut BEFORE the victim was killed, Gant is a bit unnerved.
- In the first case of Ace Attorney Investigations, the killer claimed to have lost his keys and asked a security guard to open the door to "his" office for him. The absence of the security guard's prints on his door suggests that he tricked her into opening a different door that she thought was his.
- In a later case from Investigations, the absence of blood on the hilt of a knife that was found inside a victim suggests that the hilt was switched, as there were several knives with hilts and blades that fit each other.
- In the third games second case, the emergency buzzer at the crime scene, which was pressed at the time of the murder, had no traces of prints on it. The is used by Phoenix to prove the victim didn't press it, but the real killer did, resulting in the trope name almost being mentioned.
Judge: The emergency buzzer? Is there some kind of clue on it?
Phoenix: Absolutely not.
Godot: Ha! You could at least put some effort into what you say, Trite.
Phoenix: In this case, the absence of a clue is, iself, the clue!
- In connection to above, later on, the absence of prints is used by Luke Atmey , who incidentally is the real killer, to show that it was Ron who pressed the buzzer, seeing as how Ron was in his Mask*DeMasque outfit, which meant he was wearing gloves. This statement by Luke would come back to royally bite him in the butt, as there's no way Luke should have known Ron was wearing the outfit; that bit of evidence had only been revealed in the earlier part of that day's trial (and not mentioned since), and Luke had been in a completely different courtroom at the time.
- Comes up occasionally when using the Mood Matrix in Dual Destinies, most prominently when Athena and Blackquill team up to trick Fulbright into an "emotional" confession that was anything but.
- In Higurashi: When They Cry, Rena noticed that the bottle of soy sauce in Rika and Satoko's house was missing, and deduced the possibility that they had visited the Sonozaki estate that night with the empty bottle and been kidnapped.
- In Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, the Ninth Man's missing bracelet.
- In Virtue's Last Reward, Sigma and Phi use a variation of this involving Dio's behaviour, or lack thereof, to show that the likelihood that he killed Luna is pretty low. With it being in Dio's nature to make a point to draw blame away from himself, the fact that he didn't ask where Luna would be unusual if he killed her. On the other hand, when they where going to go through the chromatic doors, only for Sigma and Phi to refuse, Dio got agitated, saying they were gonna get them all killed. In that situation, if he didn't know anything about Luna's killing, the natural thing for him to have said was Luna isn't present and so they can't go through even if they wanted to [since Luna was in Sigma and Phi's trio for that round]. These two lack of behaviours lead Sigma and Phi to conclude that Dio was a witness but didn't do the killing.
- In the Justice League episode Hereafter, Superman is apparently killed by Toyman's latest machine, but Bruce refuses to believe it, and presents his theory to Alfred by saying the lack of evidence is what tipped him off—Toyman's weapon left no trace evidence. It left no debris, so it didn't blow him up. It left no scorch marks, so it didn't incinerate him. It didn't even leave radiation, hence it didn't disintegrate him. Bats decides that since Toyman is merely an obnoxious Mad Scientist, not a god, the Law of Conservation is still in effect, and therefore Superman couldn't have just been destroyed. His conclusion; it teleported him somewhere. He's right - Supes was shunted forward in time, but the show doesn't make it clear whether or not Batman is simply in denial.
- One U.S. Acres cartoon (from Garfield and Friends) has Roy steal the cow Orson was supposed to milk, but was too busy reading mystery novels. Orson and Bo launch an investigation. Their only lead is three sets of footprints. Closer to the end, Orson points out the three sets of footprints which to him indicate three suspects. Bo points out that if Orson's theory is correct, someone's footprints are missing: the cow's.