Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tampering With Evidence

In real life and in crime fiction, most murderers don’t want to be caught. So they make every effort to avoid detection. Sometimes, that means faking an alibi or trying to throw suspicion on someone else. It can also mean tampering with evidence, either to make the evidence confusing or to use it to incriminate another person. Today’s improved security and sophisticated technology may make it harder for a murderer to tamper with evidence. However, that doesn’t mean that the evidence can’t be “rigged.” An interesting exchange of comments with Dorte at DJ’s Krimilog and some of her readers reminded me that even forensic evidence may be misread or tampered with, and could therefore be misleading.

Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body?, the first of her books to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, has a very creative use of faked evidence. In that novel, architect Alfred Thipps finds a dead body in his bathtub. The local inspector believes Thipps was nvolved in the crime, so Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, asks her son to help Thipps. Lord Peter begins to investigate, and he soon finds believes that the dead man’s appearance in the bathtub may be related to the mysterious disappearance of a well-known financier, Sir Reuben Levy. The body in the bathtub isn’t Levy’s but Wimsey is right that the two events are connected. As it turns out, Levy’s been murdered, and the killer tampered with evidence to hide what really happened.

Agatha Christie used the device of faked evidence frequently in her writing. I’ll just give a few examples. In Murder on the Orient Express, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is traveling through Central Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, he’s stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is traveling on the same train, and he’s asked to investigate the crime. There are several interesting pieces of evidence, including a lace handkerchief, a pipe cleaner, a smashed watch, some anonymous letters and some articles of clothing. As Poirot considers the evidence and what the other passengers on the train tell him, he has to sift through that evidence and decide which of the pieces of evidence are genuine and which have been faked.

In Christie’s short story, Murder in the Mews, Poirot and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp investigate the shooting death of Barbara Allen, a young widow. At first, the death looks like a suicide: the victim was found alone, in her locked bed/sitting room, dead of a single gunshot wound. However, some inconsistencies in the evidence lead both Poirot and Japp to wonder whether her death really was a suicide. Poirot looks through all of the evidence and talks to the people involved in Barbara Allen’s life. Soon enough, it becomes clear that some of the evidence in this case was deliberately faked. Once Poirot figures out which evidence is faked, he’s able to find out what really happened to Barbara Allen.

There’s a brilliant use of faked evidence in Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which Poirot investigates the shooting death of successful Harley Street doctor John Christow. Christow is shot one afternoon while he and his wife, Gerda, are visiting friends of theirs in the country. When Poirot first comes upon the scene, he thinks that the murder scene has been staged for his benefit, and that causes him no end of annoyance. Then, he realizes that John Christow has, indeed, been shot; that much, at least, is not staged. When he and Inspector Grange and Grange’s team look at the evidence, it all seems to point in one direction. Very soon, though, some glaring inconsistencies in the evidence become very clear. Now, the evidence seems to point in several directions, and it’s only after Poirot figures out which pieces of evidence are genuine and which have been “planted” and faked that he gets to the truth of Christow’s death.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is also an interesting study in faked evidence. Sheila Grey is a successful fashion designer with a somewhat notorious reputation, although her affairs are always discreet. As the novel opens, she’s having an affair with wealthy and successful Ashton McKell, who lives in the same apartment building. She’s also involved with McKell’s son, Dane. One night, Sheila Grey is murdered. Almost immediately, Ashton McKell becomes a suspect in the case. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to investigate, and he and his son, Ellery, begin to look at the evidence. As they sift through the clues, the evidence seems to point first at Ashton McKell, then at his traditional, almost Victorian wife, Lutetia. Later, the evidence seems to incriminate Dane McKell. It’s not until Ellery Queen realizes that some of the evidence has been faked that he’s able to figure out who really killed Sheila Grey.

Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway also features faked evidence. That’s the story of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s hiding out on the Navajo Reservation. When Gorman shoots another man in the parking lot of a local laundromat and then disappears, Jim Chee is assigned to work with the FBI to track him down. Chee helps to track Gorman to the home of one of his kinsmen, but when they get there, they find Gorman dead. What’s odd, though, is that his body has been prepared for death in the traditional Navajo way. That evidence is meant to point to another Navajo as the killer, possibly even Gorman’s kinsman, who has also disappeared. But Chee soon notices enough inconsistencies in that evidence to guess that it’s been faked. That realization is his first clue that this murder doesn’t have its roots on the Navajo Reservation.

There’s an ingenious use of faked evidence in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, which features forensic anthropologist Dr. David Hunter. Hunter is visiting Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as The Body Farm. While he’s there for what’s supposed to be a professional visit, a decomposed corpse is found in a remote cabin near the facility. Then another body is discovered. It’s soon clear that these deaths are the work of a dangerous serial killer. One thing that makes this killer so dangerous is that the killer seems to know enough about forensics to fake some of the evidence that Hunter and the team he works with try to use. The murderer is able to make the evidence confusing enough so that the investigators (and the reader) are led astray more than once.

Even when the crime isn’t as severe as murder, evidence can be faked to throw off any investigation. That’s what happens in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Factory owner Hector Lepodise is being sued by a former employee, Solomon Moretsi, because Moretsi claimed that he lost a finger in a machine while he was at work. Lepodise never trusted Moretsi, and he thinks Moretsie’s claim is bogus, but he can’t prove it. So he asks Mma. Precious Ramotswe to investigate. When she looks into the matter, Mma. Ramotswe finds out that some evidence about Moretsi’s past has been cleverly faked so that he appears to be innocent. Once confronted with the faked evidence, both Moretsi and his lawyer back down, so to speak, and Hector Lepodise’s reputation is cleared.

In Blue Shoes and Happiness, Mma. Ramotswe meets Bonitelo Mampodi, a nurse who works for a local doctor, Dr. Lubega. Bonitelo consults Mma. Ramotswe because she believes the doctor is committing medical fraud. She’s noticed that the doctor refuses to let her take and record patients’ blood pressure. One day, when the doctor’s out, a patient needs a blood pressure reading, and the nurse takes it. It’s then that she discovers evidence that the doctor has been recording fraudulent readings. What’s worse, the purpose for this is to sell expensive medicine, so as to make a bigger profit for the clinic. Mma. Ramotswe also finds out something else: the doctor has substituted inexpensive, generic pills for the expensive blue pills he’s sold to patients, so he’s compounded his fraud. He’s been cleverly faking his records so that it appears that he’s recording legitimate blood pressure numbers and selling brand-name blood pressure medication. In the end, Mma. Ramotswe’s friend, Dr. Moffatt, helps her uncover the fraud and agrees to report it to the ministry, so as to keep Mma. Ramotswe’s name (and that of the nurse) confidential.

Faking and tampering with evidence is a popular strategy for murderers in crime novels. It’s sometimes successful (at least for a time), and it allows for lots of interesting “red herrings.” It can also be believable; we can understand that a criminal would do as much as possible to “cover his or her tracks.” What do you think of the faked-evidence motif? Do you think it’s plausible? Which are your favorite novels that use that strategy?


  1. I think fake tampering is very plausible. I think it should be used among other things. Most crimes are not committed in cold blood or careful planned in advance so false clues are seldom left but we, the writers can plan...and should.


  2. Ann - That's an interesting point. In real life, a crime may not be carefully planned, but when one's writing a novel about that kind of crime, it is best to plan what the evidence will be, and how it might be misinterpreted. That kind of careful planning for writing, I think, makes a smoother, more credible story.

  3. I agree that a crime, especially in real life, is usually not carefully planned. However, a killer can race to fake the evidence before the body is discovered or he is caught by the police. That sudden realization that he must do something to cover his tracks can lead to very interesting and sometimes amusing twists and turns.

  4. I've done it, sure. But I always worry about the time element in the novel--won't the killer be looking behind him the whole time? He'll want to leave the crime scene fairly quickly. One book I had the murderer to swipe something of another suspects to leave it at the crime scene and divert suspicion. It was a pretty quick effort at misdirection.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Mason - I agree; even someone who would never have considered killing (i.e. a person who hasn't planned a crime) knows that s/he will be a suspect and will have to do something - fast - in order to avoid being caught. That really can lead to interesting plot twists if the killer decides to tamper with the evidence to get out of a situation quickly.

    Elizabeth - Oh, yes! I think I remember the incident you mean (about the swiped property). That's a good example of what I mean about tampering with evidence, too. You're right, though; there's always the time element. Almost any killer is bound to realize that s/he doesn't have a lot of time before the police start searching for the killer, so whatever evidence-tampering is done has to be done very quickly in those cases where the crime is committed in the heat of passion.

  6. It's interesting that these days you often read detectives and policemen in novels bemoaning the sophistication of criminals these days, in respect of the criminal knowing not to leave evidence such as fingerprints and so on at the scene of the crime, owing to the popularity of TV series (eg CSI, which I have never seen but clearly must!) and crime fiction. Your post makes me realise that the criminals also have to evolve, because tampering with the evidence has to be equally sophisticated in order to avoid detection.

    I am sure I've read more than one novel in which documents and writing have been tampered with yet subsequently shown to be dated to later.

    In the novel I have just finished, in which I am sure Norman will be very interested ;-), there is some evidence tampering in the records of someone who has a certain profession......

  7. PS should have mentioned the book, sorry! It is The Rising by Brian McGilloway, UK publication April.

  8. Maxine - You're absolutely right. In well-written crime fiction, criminals do have to be more and more knowledgeable, because the police have more resources at their disposal. Today's readers don't want want bumbling detectives who overlook basic mistakes, nor criminals who are so stupid that they don't know enough to be careful. That doesn't make for a taut plot or engaging chracters. So that means that the writer, too, has to be on her or his game, so to speak, and be aware of some of the ways that people have of finding evidence and successfully tampering with it. Otherwise, the work isn't realistic.

    Thanks for mentioning The Rising. I really look forward to your review of it, and now you've given me an intriguing clue about it I'm even more interested : ).

    About CSI? It's entertaining enough - or can be - but the science is not accurate and I'm told it's not at all realistic in terms of time needed to analyze evidence, resources devoted to one case, etc.. Still, I've seen worse shows...

  9. I'm still on the Wire, which I've enjoyed very much so far. Saving up the last two series for a special treat one of these days.

  10. Maxine - I do that too, sometimes. Glad you're enjoying The Wire.

  11. tampering with evidence is really a big crime.