Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Suspects and Witnesses

I've been having an interesting comment exchange with Elizabeth from Mystery Writing is Murder (a very interesting blog aobut the mystery writing process) and Tim from Reader with Attitude (a blog I've just discovered) about suspects and witnesses. There are, of course, some very good, suspenseful novels in which we know who the murderer is, and the plot centers around the cat-and-mouse game between the murderer and the sleuth. In most mysteries, though, the sleuth has to sift through evidence, including what witnesses and suspects say, to get to the truth.

Yesterday I mentioned concrete evidence such as footprints and DNA; today, I'm focusing more on what people say. Witnesses and suspects add spice to a good mystery. They can be fascinating characters, and their interactions and inter-relationships can form a gripping undercurrent to a novel. In Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer stories and some of the other hardboiled detective stories, the sleuth often gets the truth from suspects and witnesses either through intimidation or threats. Ellery Queen has more finesse; he observes, asks questions and makes deductions based on what people say. When witnesses are wrong or lie, he figures that out because what he's told doesn't fit in with the rest of the pattern. A classic example of Ellery Queen's combination of logic, finesse and the testimony of witnesses is in The Last Woman in His Life. In the novel, Queen investigates the death of John Levering Benedict III, who's apparently been murdered by one of his three ex-wives. Each of the three suspects asserts her innocence and blames another, and Queen has to sift through what they say and the scant physical evidence. I won't spoil the novel if you haven't read it; suffice it to say that the physical evidence is deceptive, and Queen has to make use of what he's told as much as anything else to solve the murder.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple rely heavily on what suspects and witnesses say. In fact, Poirot often says that it is in conversation that we find out the truth. Of course, the obvious point to bring up is that witnesses and suspects lie, either to save themselves or to "frame" someone else for a crime. However, as Poirot points out in novels such as Evil Under the Sun and The Clocks, among other novels, it's a lot of work to keep on lying. Sooner or later, in the course of conversation, people let the truth slip. Poirot often manages to find out the truth by talking about other subjects. For instance, in Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot discusses such disparate things as cooking, the appeal of French and Belgian girls, and long-distance calls to get the witnesses to reveal the information he needs. Casual conversation also plays a major role in Tommy and Tuppence Beresford's sleuthing. In N or M, Tuppence's friendly chats with other guests at a hotel she's staying at lead her and Tommy to the identity of a spy. In Postern of Fate, Tuppence makes friends with several villagers in the Beresford's new neighborhood. Through the gossip she hears, Tuppence learns the truth about a long-ago murder that took place in the house the Beresfords have just bought.

One of the most interesting studies of witnesses and suspects is in Nicolas Freeling's Double Barrel. In the novel, Inspector van der Valk of the Amsterdam police is sent to the small Dutch town of Drente to discover who's behind a number of anonymous letters that have apparently caused several residents to kill themselves. As van der Valk and his wife get to know the neighbors, and uncover their secrets, we find that all of them have something to hide. It's in their conversations and relationships that we find the solution to the mystery.

Many mystery novels combine conversation with witnesses and suspects with more physical evidence. You can see that in James Patterson's Alex Cross novels. In those novels, Cross uses his skill at working with witnesses and evaluating what they say; he also makes sense of the kind of physical evidence that police departments and the FBI find and analyze. I don't write in the Patterson style, but I, too, try to combine evidence from what witnesses and suspects say with physical evidence. For instance, in B-Very Flat, several of the suspects in the murder of a young violin student accuse each other of the crime. As Joel Williams, former police-officer-turned-professor looks into the murder, he and the Tilton police have to use the evidence they find to sort through what everyone has said and separate truth from lies.

What sort of mystery do you prefer? Do you find yourself engaged in novels where the evidence comes mostly from talking to suspects and witnesses? Do you think it's more important to have physical evidence? What should the balance be?


  1. My favorite Agatha Christie technique was her 'unreliable witness.' She'd have a garrulous character that spewed all kinds of nonsense the entire course of the book...and then have that person drop a clue. But no one listens to her and the reader discounts the clue since it came from that particular character. Fun!

    Physical evidence is important, too...but I really minimize it. In my current WIP, I think I only have one piece of physical evidence.

    Great post! I'm tweeting this one on Twitter.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth,
    I agree that some of Christie's characters are memorable for having many clues that nobody notices. In Dead Man's Folly,, for instance, two of the characters practically give the whole mystery away. However, because they're not taken seriously, nobody pays attention at first. Even Poirot doesn't realize the significance of what they say at first. Interesting point - thanks!!

  3. I love Nicolas Freeling's work and i recently re-read "Double Barrel." It is, indeed, superb.

    His writing transcends the genre, really. In, for example, his novel "Criminal Conversation," the perpetrator of the crime is revealed almost immediately; the story is a look at his motives.

  4. Freg - thanks for mentioning Criminal Conversation . It really is a good example of the way that Freeling explores psychology as much as he does mystery and murder in his work.