Friday, November 27, 2009

Order!!

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?

17 comments:

  1. I'm not a fan of the trial as I find the proceedings tedious even as they reveal. This could be that I'm not a major mystery fan to begin with and read it as a diversion from fantasy but it just doesn't interest me very much. Thanks for sharing some of these examples though and I can see how it could help to raise the tension and suspense in a book.

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  2. The trial scenes at the end of the Stieg Larsson trilogy had me shouting yes , yes , yes as one of the expert witnesses [villains] was exposed. It was the culmination of about 2,000 pages of trauma for Salander so needed to be something special and they were.

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  3. Cassandra - You're absolutely right. Sometimes, when trial proceedings go on too long, or when they're overly detailed, this can bog a story down. When a trial includes well-written dialogue, twists and surprises and is cathartic, it can heighten the suspense. As with many other elements in novels, it's about balance.


    Norman - There's little more satisfying then that sense of catharsis when we think that justice is done. As you say, Salander goes through so much in the Millenium trilogy that it gives the reader an even greater sense of satisfaction when the so-called "untouchable" villain is brought down. I'm glad you brought up that example.

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  4. I enjoy reading them, but not writing them! I won't have any in my books, but I enjoyed the ones you mentioned.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  5. I've read some John Grishom stuff. Its okay, but my preference is to have more action, more murders, and not so much "down time" as I like to call large sections of a story that go on and on about character buildup.

    Stephen Tremp

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  6. Elizabeth - I'm exactly the same way! I like reading about trials when they're tense and there are surprises in store. Writing about them is different, and I don't include trials, either. I do mention court appearances and so on, but not in any really great detail.


    Stephen - You make a well-taken point. In a good murder mystery, the suspense stays strong when there's the right amount of action to keep the reader turning pages. Sometimes, lengthy descriptions of preparations for trials (and the trials themselves) can drag a story down because they're wordy.

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  7. Margot-the research you do for these entries is impressive! I hope they will eventually be ms. for a book. I am not a big fan of trial scenes. They always seems stagy, scripted-in books, movies, tv. Maybe watching Perry Mason as a kid made me feel like this.

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  8. Apologies, Margot. I reposted my commment to this post, but put it under the wrong post! (the previous one). Here it is, in its proper place:

    Second attempt! I so often remember to copy, but I forgot last time and this- Blogger crashed again! Anyway, I love legal thrillers, if it is done well I think you can't beat a good trial. I think my favourite author in this regard is Philip Margolian, whom I love. When I was a teenager I devoured Earle Stanley Garnder of course, where the climax of each book was always a good trial with a twist. Latterly, Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson started out writing darn good "trial" novels - unfortunately both authors have drifted into doorstop mode since then, but they used to be excellent. John Grisham writes an excellent trial though is weak on plot (eg Pelican Brief, ouch!). I think trials are great to read because they provide the author with the opportunity to show the same event from lots of different viewpoints, to provide a twist, and (sometimes!) show justice being done.

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  9. Like you, I loved Strong Poison, and like Norman, I enjoyed Stieg Larsson´s great court scene. Like Elizabeth, I feel unable to write a proper one myself (even though I have been a witness for five minutes, and if Maxine says Philip Margolian writes the best court cases, he goes on my list.

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  10. Patti - Thanks for the kind words : ). I've actually had other people suggest something similar to me, and I would love to do it. I'll have to think seriously about it, actually. It's funny you'd mention Perry Mason. I watched those episodes, too (dates me somewhat, I know), and you're right; they were often "stagy." Certainly they weren't realistic. I have to admit that I like trials better than you do. However, I only really like them if they are an integral part of the plot, if they're well-written and if they're done with the right balance of realism and surprise twists. Not easy to achieve!!

    Maxine - No worries. I'm just flattered that you take the time to post to my blog. I'm glad you mentioned Gardner, as his books were so much better than the TV series (see my response to Patti, above). One can get really caught up in a legal thriller if it's written well and there's enough suspense and twists to keep the reader engaged. Gardner did that well and so does Margolian. I haven't read Patterson, but I agree with you about Turrow. Too bad, too, because he was good. I had to laugh at your mention of The Pelican Brief. I couldn't have phrased my view of it any better than you did yours. Yet there have been one or two Grisham novels that weren't as "light" on plot. The Chamber at least had a bit more "meat" to it. You're right, too, that trials allow lots of viewpoints and twists. When they're done well, they can be absolutely compelling.

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  11. Dorte - I've never been a witness in a trial. I've wondered what it's like, but it's never happened to me. It's funny how we can enjoy a style of writing, a genre, or a kind of scene, but find it hard to write one. I always feel that I don't really know the inner workings of a trial well enough to be realistic about one. Maybe I'll do some "homework" and try to stretch myself... And yes, please put Margolian on your list - well worth the read.

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  12. Being a witness? - very undramatic (nothing to write about really)

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  13. Oh, Dorte, you're destroying my illusions of the glamor of appearing at a trial ; ).

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  14. Although I'm a lawyer as well as a writer, I'm not a trial lawyer and I don't write trial scenes. I worry sometimes about novels which depict the legal process inaccurately. The reality is often very tedious - most trials involve more waiting around than action. But the best trial scenes in crime fiction are first class. I rather like the House of Lords trial in Clouds of Witness by Sayers.

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  15. Martin - I was wondering what you might think of trial scenes, given your background. You have a well-taken point; portraying trials as full of glamor and action isn't accurate. The best crime novels have the ring of truth to them, so I understand your concern about scenes where trials are unrealistic. People who are experts in forensics tell me the same thing about many crime investigation shows on television. As you say, though, when a trial scene is well-written, it can be gripping, and Clouds of Witness is certainly a fine example.

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  16. Trials tend to be even more inaccurate and glamorous in films, TV and so on, I think. I remember years ago seeing a Nic Roeg film in which a wife is allowed to give evidence in a trial involving her husband. I am afraid I have blanked on whether she was defending or accusing him!

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  17. Maxine - You're right; very often in movies and TV, trials are either glamorized or at least, made more lurid than they very often are. Are you thinking of the Nic Roeg film Eureka, by the way? If you are, I think in that trial, the wife's testimony saves her husband, but it's been a long time...

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