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As the detective (had) said, the man (had) left no explanation for his death--but he (had) left something more important.

This is past-tense narration. The detective talked in a previous time (e.g. a previous chapter).

My common sense tells me I need had, but at the same time, adding so many makes the sentence sound cluttered, so I'm not sure. Where do I need "had" and where I don't? (Or maybe I can omit all the had's and still make the sentence valid?)

  • Previous time? Previous chapter? Well, then you need had. This means you are talking about what detective said then. – Maulik V Oct 17 '15 at 6:09
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As the detective is speaking, the man has already died without leaving an explanation.

If you wish to place the detective's speaking in the past (relative to your narrator's present) then the dead man's death is in a more distant past, the past relative to the detective's present.

As the detective said [simple past], the man had left [past perfect] no explanation...

PRESENT....PAST.................PRIOR PAST
Narrator....Detective speaks.....man's death

If the narrator is expressing the idea that the detective's words have some bearing upon the present (e.g. explaining to narrator's wife why narrator holds a particular opinion):

As the detective has said...

If the narrator is recalling the scene, e.g. he was present when the detective spoke, so that there are two pasts, how he felt after the detective's words and the time of the detective speaking:

As the detective had said...

So it is not a matter of what is "needed" in the abstract, but a matter of what is needed by the reference time of the story. Where is the center-of-consciousness located temporally relative to actions narrated?

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