Thursday, November 5, 2009

(In)justice: When the Police Get the Wrong Suspect...

In many crime and mystery novels, there’s a police investigation into the crime, and often, there’s an arrest. In many very well-written crime/mystery novels, that arrest happens after the sleuth has found out who the murderer is. The beauty of that approach is that it’s very satisfying for the reader when the killer is caught and brought to justice. When it’s done well, it can also be very suspenseful as the sleuth finds out the killer – sometimes “in the nick of time” – and the police move in to make the arrest. But sometimes, the police arrest the wrong person. That kind of plot twist can make for a very compelling story in several ways. It adds to the suspense of the mystery, it adds a layer of interest and it allows for a fascinating subplot (i.e. Why did the police arrest the wrong person? Was the suspect framed?).

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?


  1. I think it *can* be contrived, if it's not done well.

    I like it when the sleuth and the police and the reader all think the police have got their man. And then a murder happens while the suspect is in jail because the real murderer hasn't realized that the suspect is incarcerated--and has an excellent alibi! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. That scenario Elizabeth outlines happens all too often in crime novels! It comes usually about 2/3 of the way through. The one that comes 1/3 of the way through is the "second murder" because the police or detective have run out of clues and the story isn't going anywhere without another killing.

    But yes, I do think novels in which the wrong person is suspected and arrested can be very good. And we've all seen it happen in real life on more than one occasion, of course. The book I've just read, Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo uses this plot device, in quite an original way (not very original, actually, but quite). I think it happens in Martin Edwards's Arsenic Labyrinth and many others that (usual reason) I can't call to mind without looking it up. I quite like it as a plot device - I think it is better than the "story stuck let's have another murder to move things along" plot device!

  3. Elizabeth - I agree; it adds an interesting and challenging plot twist when everyone thinks the real murderer's been caught, only to be faced with another body. It adds to the suspense, it makes the sleuth and police more "human" and it gives an interesting intellectual challenge.

    Maxine - You are so right! To just toss another murder in because things are getting dull can be tiresome. Any time there's a multiple murder, there has to be a compelling reason for which there'd be one. You also make a good point that the wrong person is suspected/arrested quite frequently in real life; that's what makes it such an attractive device for crime fiction. In fact, as I was thinking about stories to use for this post, I ended having to stop myself because there were just so many good ones that I'd have gone on and on. So thanks for mentioning the Martin Edwards novel. Whan it's done well, as he does, it can make for a really engrossing story and add a solid layer of suspense.

  4. I despise when there's a quick arrest because you know it's the wrong person; how can the plot be resolved when you're only half way through the book? However, people make mistakes. If it's an honest mistake, or one made by a character blinded by their own agendas, then it can make fascinating reading. It takes a very skilled writer to be able to pull it off.


  5. Elspeth - You're right that it can be annoying - it can even defeat the purpose of the novel - if we guess right away that the person who's arrested is the wrong one. Doing that successfully takes a lot of skill. You also raise an interesting point about honest mistakes and characters whose agendae get in the way of good judgment. That kind of humanity can make characters (including the sleuth) more believable, and when it's done well, can make a story compelling.

  6. The example that springs to my mind is a rather old one, but quite well done, I think. Ruth Rendell, A New Lease of Death (or Sins of the Father). You probably know it, but for the benefit of other readers, here are the first lines of my commentary:

    A man called Painter was hung for murder 15 years ago. Now his daughter´s father-in-law-to-be, a village vicar playing the amateur sluth, tries to prove that Painter did not do it. Throughout the novel Reg Wexford is angry that anyone thinks he didn´t get his first murder case right!

  7. Dorte - Thank you so much for reminding everyone of that one! There are so many good books in which the wrong person is arrested, etc., that it's impossible to remember all of them, let alone describe each one. And you're right, of course; A New Lease of Death is a great example of this kind of plot. I'm so glad you mentioned it : ).