When a crime is committed, especially murder, one of the logical outcomes of that crime is a trial. In real life, murder trials often have a drama all their own; that’s also true in crime fiction. Of course, there’s a whole genre of crime fiction – the legal thriller (e.g. the works of John Grisham and Randy Singer) – that explores murder trials. But even in other kinds of mystery novels, the trial has an important role to play. First, trials add a realistic (and, in a way, cathartic) dimension to a crime story. We want to see what happens after the criminal is caught. Having at least some focus on a trial also can add some fascinating levels of suspense, interest and realism to a mystery novel. It’s also a very effective way to add plot twists.
Some mystery novels use a trial to draw the sleuth into the mystery. That’s what happens in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. That’s the novel in which Lord Peter Wimsey meets mystery novelist Harriet Vane. Harriet’s been charged with poisoning her lover, Phillip Boyes, with arsenic, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. She and Phillip have had a serious falling-out. Besides, she’s been collecting arsenic as she researches a new novel she’s writing. As if that weren’t enough, the last thing Boyes ingested was a cup of coffee that Harriet gave him. Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with Harriet. Besides that, his friend Miss Climpson is on Harriet’s jury, and she’s not convinced of Harriet’s guilt.The jury can’t reach a verdict, so Harriet is given a new trial. Wimsey commits himself to finding out who really killed Boyes before Harriet’s new trial – and to marrying Harriet.
Robin Cook’s Crisis also centers around a trial that draws the sleuth into a mystery. In that novel, Boston physician Dr. Craig Bowman has been charged with malpractice in the death of one of his patients, Patience Stanhope. His wife, Alexis, believes that Bowman’s innocent, and she asks her brother, New York medical examiner Dr. Jack Stapleton, to come to Boston and review the evidence. Stapleton agrees only reluctantly, and it’s not until he arrives in Boston and gets caught up in the case that his interest in what really happened is sparked. Although this novel is arguably not one of Cook’s best, Bowman’s trial introduces some interesting subplots. One is the question of social class. Bowman’s patient was a wealthy “concierge” patient who hired Bowman “on retainer.” Her wealth entitled her to a number of medical services (including home visits) not available to most people. Several of the jurors are prejudiced against Bowman because they see him as a “rich person’s doctor.” Bowman doesn’t help matters with his arrogance and disdain for the jurors. The trial also raises the question of the ethics of “concierge medicine,” given that most of us can’t afford it. Finally, the trial adds a “ticking clock” level of suspense.
Cook’s not the only author who uses a trial as a way to heighten the suspense. Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town also makes effective use of a trial. In that novel, Queen is visiting Wrightsville, a small New England town, to get some rest and do some writing. He’s staying with the wealthy and socially powerful Wright family, so he’s present on New Year’s Eve when the Wright family has a cocktail party. At that party, they’re also celebrating the reunion of their daughter Nora with her fiancé, Jim Haight, who’d left town mysteriously three years earlier. When Jim returned, he and Nora resumed their relationship and shortly afterwards, married. Also present at the party is Jim’s obnoxious sister Rosemary. When Rosemary is poisoned, Jim is suspected of her death. It’s believed by many that he poisoned Rosemary by accident, and that his real intended victim was his wife, Nora, from whom he hoped to inherit a fortune. Jim is soon on trial for his life, and much of the second part of the novel is devoted to the details of the trial. In this novel the trial serves not only as a “ticking clock,” but also as an opportunity for social commentary on the town, which is quick to curry favor with the wealthy Wrights and turn against Jim.
Agatha Christie also makes very effective use of a trial in Sad Cypress. That novel actually begins with a scene from the trial of Elinor Carlisle, who’s been charged with the poisoning murder of her wealthy Aunt Laura’s protégée, Mary Gerrard. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate by Dr. Peter Lord, who attended Aunt Laura and who’s infatuated with Elinor, and wants her proved innocent. Christie returns to Elinor’s trial later in the novel, and it’s used very effectively to share clues with the reader and to show that there’s at least as much evidence against another person as there is against Elinor Carlisle. In fact, that’s an interesting point about this novel, because throughout the trial, the reader isn’t really convinced that Elinor is innocent. Rather, a growing body of evidence suggests another person, and the concept of reasonable doubt is explored.
Christie also integrates a trial into The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Hercule Poirot makes his debut. That’s the story of the murder of Emily Inglethorp, wealthy stepmother of John and Lawrence Cavendish. Captain Arthur Hastings is staying with John Cavendish, an old school friend, one summer. During his visit, Emily Inglethorp is poisoned one night, and suspicion falls immediately on her husband, Alfred. None of the family likes him, and all of them believe he only married Emily for her money. Hastings finds out that his old acquaintance, Hercule Poirot, is living nearby and enlists his help to find the murderer. Poirot uncovers evidence that clears Inglethorp just in time to avoid trial, but then, John Cavendish is arrested and tried for his stepmother’s murder. In this novel, the trial of John Cavendish not only adds to the suspense (there are several twists, actually, in the trial), but also serves another purpose which is revealed at the end of the novel.
Perhaps Christie’s most powerful use of the trial scenario is in Witness for the Prosecution, a short story that was later adapted as a play (Christie later said it was her favorite of her plays). That story centers on the trial of Leonard Vole, who is arrested for murdering Emily French, a wealthy widow who’s befriended him, not knowing Vole is married. The case against Vole seems clear; there’s evidence connecting him to French’s murder, and it turns out that she left her considerable fortune to him. Vole’s defense attorney wants to enlist Vole’s wife, Romaine, as a defense witness. In one of the story’s twists, though, it turns out that she intends to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Her reasons for doing that, and the outcome of the trial, are really effective examples of the trial as a suspenseful context.
We see the same sense of suspense in Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge, which focuses on the wealthy Barnabas family, who run a successful publishing house. In 1911, Tom Barnabas leaves his home as usual, but never shows up at the company’s publishing office. At first, the mystery sparks a lot of interest, but it soon dies down. The publishing house passes to Barnabas cousins. Twenty years later, Tom’s cousin Paul Barnabas, who’s now director of the company, is found dead in his company’s office safe one morning. Another cousin, Mike Wedgwood, is the chief suspect of the crime. He was known to be in the safe the night before, and it’s also known that he was in love with Barnabas’ wife, Gina. Mike is friends with Albert Campion, Allingham’s sleuth, who’s a “gentleman detective.” Campion finds that Barnabas’ death has much more to do with past secrets and the disappearance of his cousin than with Mike Wedgwood.
I’ve only given a few examples of crime fiction where a trial is an integral part of the plot. There are many more. What do you think? Do you enjoy mystery novels that integrate a trial? Do you find those details tiresome? Do you think they add to the suspense?