Sometimes, the wrong person gets arrested because the evidence leads naturally to that person. In those mysteries, the police make an honest mistake and follow the clues in the wrong direction. That’s what happens in several Agatha Christie novels; I’ll just mention examples from two of them. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot is visited by Carla Lamerchant, who’s recently found out that her mother, Caroline Crale, was convicted of poisoning her father, Amyas Crale, a famous painter, sixteen years earlier. Carla believes that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. When Poirot begins to investigate, he finds that the police acted in good faith in the Crale case. Caroline Crale was jealous of her husband’s relationship with Elsa Greer, the model for his latest painting. She was known to have taken a quantity of coniine (hemlock) from the home of Meredith Blake, a neighbor and friend who dabbled in chemicals. She’d been overheard threatening her husband, too. In fact, all of the evidence pointed directly to her. So at first, everyone thinks that Caroline Crale was guilty. As Poirot continues to probe the case, though, he finds out that it’s not nearly as “open and shut” a case as everyone thought.
We see a similar case of the police being led in the wrong direction by the evidence in Christie’s Sad Cypress, the story of Elinor Carlisle, who’s arrested for poisoning her wealthy Aunt Laura’s protégée, Mary Gerrard. All of the evidence seems to weigh against her; she was seen buying the makings for the sandwiches that the police think were used in the poisoning. Her fiancé, Roddy, is infatuated with Mary. She even talks to Mary in front of a witness about making a will. And, while she says that she’s not guilty, there doesn’t seem to be any other really viable suspect. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case when Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, asks him to do whatever is necessary to prove Elinor innocent. Poirot soon finds out that Elinor isn’t the only one with a motive for murdering Mary.
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, the police are similarly convinced that they’ve “got the right man.” In that novel, Queen is visiting the small town of Wrightsville to get some rest and focus on his writing. While there, he stays with the very wealthy and influential Wright family and soon gets caught up in their family drama, which centers around Nora Wright, the youngest daughter. Nora was on the point of marrying Jim Haight when he disappeared for three years. When Haight reappears, he and Nora resume their relationship and soon get married over nearly everyone’s objections. Shortly thereafter, Jim’s sister, Rosemary Haight, who’s been staying with the newlyweds, is murdered by a poisoned cocktail at a New Year’s Eve party. Before long, Jim is the chief suspect and is soon arrested. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For instance, his sister is obnoxious and seems determined to break up his new marriage. Also, when later, it’s discovered that Rosemary could have gotten the poisoned cocktail by mistake, suspicion of Jim gets even deeper because his wife, Nora, was supposed to get the cocktail and Jim stands to inherit a large fortune at Nora’s death. The police are satisfied with their case; the evidence seems clear and besides, they’re under intense public pressure to get a conviction. Only Ellery Queen and Nora’s sister, Lola, believe that Jim may be innocent.
In my own Dying to See You, Joel Williams gets involved in a case of murder while he and his wife are attending a criminology conference. At the conference, his friend, Jered Carr, finds out that his wife's been having an affair. When her lover (and Carr's former friend) turns up dead, Carr faces arrest and turns to Williams to help prove that he's innocent.
In many mystery novels, those clues that lead so “naturally” in the wrong direction are deliberately planted by the real killer. For example, James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom centers around the murder of roundly-hated Stuart Bellamy, an English professor at Mesa Grande College in Mesa Grande, Colorado. The police believe that the murderer is Mike Russo, a colleague of Bellamy’s who was passed over for tenure in favor of Bellamy. They’ve got solid evidence, too; Russo’s car was seen at Bellamy’s at the time of the murder. Also, Russo showed up late to a party on the night of the murder with no solid explanation; he claims he fell asleep and didn’t wake up in time to get to the party. Finally, and most damning, he threatened to kill Bellamy the day before the murder. When Russo is arrested, he claims that he’s innocent, and his public defender, Anne Swenson, asks Dave, chief investigator for the public defender’s office, to look into Bellamy’s murder. Dave finds that the evidence against Russo isn’t necessarily as clear-cut as everyone thinks, and that Russo’s been framed.
There’s also a frame-up in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, in which Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she may be guilty of murder, visits Poirot to ask him to investigate. Poirot gets especially interested in the case when it turns out that his friend Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery author, has met Norma. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a murder, but as Poirot and Oliver look into the case, they find that there has, indeed, been a suspicious death and that Norma was involved. Then, another death occurs – an obvious murder this time – and Norma’s clearly indicated. The murder weapon is found in her possession, and she herself believes that she’s guilty. What Poirot finds, though, is that the real killer has used Norma as a pawn, and that her own confusion about whether she’s guilty is part of the murderer’s plot.
What happens when the police let personal motives and feelings get in the way of their judgment about a suspect? Sometimes that, too, can lead to the arrest of the wrong suspect. That’s what happens in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits. In that story, Jim Chee’s friend and fellow officer Delbert Nez is murdered, and old Ashie Pinto, an alcoholic shaman, is found nearby with the weapon. Chee assumes that Pinto is guilty and lets his feelings about Nez’s death get in the way of his judgment. Matters aren’t helped much by the fact that Nez says nothing in the way of defense, nor does he admit to the murder. Chee’s inclined to allow Pinto to be railroaded until he’s stopped by Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney who’s sent from Washington, D.C. to defend Pinto. It’s not until she insists that Pinto be given a fair trial that Chee begins to accept the fact that there may be more to Nez’s murder than it seems on the surface.
Sometimes, the police know they’ve got the wrong person, but they make the arrest anyway, because they’ve got motives of their own for wanting that person in jail or worse. That unsavory view of the police as corrupted comes through clearly in Lawrence Block’s In the Midst of Death, which features former police officer and unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder. Scudder’s hired by Jerry Broadfield, a New York City police officer, to help prove him innocent of extorting money from prostitute Portia Carr. Carr claims that Broadfield charges her money and sex in order to let her stay in business, but Broadfield claims that he’s innocent. When Carr is killed and her body found at Broadfield’s apartment, he’s arrested for the murder. Now Scudder’s investigation gets more intense as he finds out that Broadfield was planning on cooperating with the local District Attorney to tell the truth about some of his corrupt colleagues on the force. He was also writing a book about corruption among the New York City police, and planning a book on the life of a prostitute. As Scudder gets more and more deeply involved in the case, he realizes that Broadfield’s been framed, and that the police are deliberately getting in the way of his investigation.
Do you think that the “They got the wrong guy” plot is plausible? Do you think it’s too contrived?