Thursday, March 18, 2010

It Isn't Very Pretty What a Town Without Pity Can Do*

In most murder investigations, especially murders that take place in small towns, there’s a “court of public opinion” that weighs in on who the killer is. Sometimes, what “everyone thinks” can be very useful as the police investigate. The locals may know the victim and/or the suspect and have valuable information; they may even have witnessed something that can help the police. At other times, though, everyone’s wrong. Then, local prejudice can hamper an investigation, “hide” the real killer, and do real (and permanent) damage. In crime fiction, local opinion can figure quite prominently in whom the police arrest and what the course of an investigation is, so it can be an important factor in the plot.

We see the power of public opinion in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. Superintendent Spence, who, ironically, gathered the evidence against Bentley, has come to believe that he may be innocent, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot visits the village of Broadhinney, where the murder took place. Almost immediately, he runs into the prejudice that everyone in town has against Bentley. Everyone assumes that the police got the right man, and no-one is willing to consider that Bentley might be innocent. It’s not until Poirot is able to find out who the real killer was that most people will believe that Bentley didn’t commit the crime. In fact, Bentley himself seems resigned to the fact that no-one will believe he’s innocent; his unpleasant personality doesn’t help matters, either. In the end, Poirot finds that the real killer has been “hiding” behind “what everyone thinks.”

We also see that local prejudice in Christie’s Sad Cypress. Elinor Carlisle has been arrested and charged in the murder of Mary Gerrard, who is the protégée of Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. It’s common knowledge in the village of Maidensford that Elinor’s fiancé, Roderick “Roddy” Welman, was infatuated with Mary. Besides, Elinor had every reason to think that her aunt might leave quite a lot (if not all) of her vast fortune to Mary, since Aunt Laura had become quite taken with her. So, the popular opinion in the village is that, hard as it is to believe, Elinor murdered Mary Gerrard. The police think so, too, and Elinor stands trial for the crime. Peter Lord, Laura Welman’s doctor, has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared whether or not she’s guilty. He asks Poirot to investigate the case, and Poirot agrees. In the end, we find that “the court of public opinion” has been a very good “cover” for the murderer and, in fact, the murderer has played a role in swaying that opinion.

“What everyone thinks” also plays a role in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which Harriet Vane is accused and charged with murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her, and the locals are only too willing to believe that evidence; in fact, she gains a certain amount of notoriety. Miss Amanda Climpson, who is on the jury that hears the evidence, isn’t convinced of Harriet’s guilt, and it’s she who’s largely responsible for the fact that the jury doesn’t reach a verdict. Harriet is granted a second trial, and Lord Peter Wimsey, who attended the first trial, is committed to using the extra time to clear Harriet’s name. He’s fallen in love with her, and is determined to marry her. In the end, Wimsey is able to find out who the real killer is, and Harriet is then freed.

There’s a glaring and all-too-real example of local prejudice in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town. That’s the story of the wealthy and locally-powerful Wright family, who are the town leaders of the small New England town of Wrightsville. Queen is looking for a quiet, restful place to write, so the Wrights agree to let him stay in their guesthouse, which was originally intended as a wedding gift for their second daughter, Nora. Just before the wedding, though, her fiancé, Jim Haight, disappeared, and the house has never been used. Queen moves in and begins to work. Soon enough, though, he’s drawn into the Wrights’ family drama when Jim suddenly returns after an absence of three years. Against everyone’s advice, he and Nora resume their relationship and are soon married. When they return from their honeymoon, Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat, discover some letters that hint that Jim may be intending to kill Nora. There’s motive, too, since Nora is from a wealthy family. Then, Nora is poisoned. Everyone suspects Jim, but no-one can prove it. She recovers, but on New Year’s Eve, Jim’s sister, Rosemary, who’s come to stay with the Haights, is killed by a poisoned cocktail. Jim is quickly arrested and put on trial for the murder. The entire town is arrayed against him and on the side of the wealthy Wrights. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s older ne’er-do-well sister Lola believe that Jim may be innocent. In this novel, “the court of public opinion” plays a powerful role in the events, and in fact, Queen has a hard time proving that someone else killed Rosemary because no-one but Lola is willing to believe Queen might be right.

In Sue Grafton’s N is for Noose, we see an example of a whole town turning against the sleuth. Kinsey Millhone is doing a favor for her former bodyguard-turned-lover Robert Dietz, who’s just had knee surgery. She returns Dietz’ car to Carson City, where he lives, and then takes on her newest case in Nota Lake. Selma Newquist has asked Millhone to uncover the mystery of her husband, Tom’s, death. Tom Newquist was a well-respected sheriff’s investigator who had the reputation of being an honest cop. He didn’t live a healthy lifestyle, so no-one was surprised when, at sixty-five, he died of a heart attack. Selma thinks there may be something more to it, though. In the weeks before Tom died, he’d been obsessed with something that he wouldn’t share with his wife. Now, Selma Newquist wants Millhone to find out what that something was. Millhone starts to look into the case, but she soon finds that no-one in Nota Lake wants her to ask any questions. She has only one clue: it seems that Tom suspected one of his law-enforcement colleagues of being involved in two murders that took place in Santa Teresa. As she investigates those murders, Millhone finds even more resistance from the town of Nota Lake; everyone seems allied with the police department or the highway patrol, and decidedly against her. In the end, Millhone finds out what was behind Tom Newquist’s obsession, but not before she risks her own life.

We see a powerful effect of local opinion in Chatherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old aspiring detective Kate Meaney has dreams of owning her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She observes everything and makes notes about what she sees, and spends as much time as she can at the local Green Oaks Mall, looking for suspicious characters or activities. One day, Kate is seen boarding a bus with her friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer. Palmer returns, but Kate has disappeared. No body is found, and there’s no obvious evidence that she’s been killed, but everyone thinks that Adrian is responsible for abducting Kate and probably, for killing her. In fact, local prejudice against Adrian runs so high that he feels forced to leave town. Because of the town’s prejudice against him, Adrian has no desire to return, but he has kept in touch with his sister, Lisa. Years later, Lisa has a mediocre, go-nowhere job at a music store in the mall, where she’s befriended Kurt, a security guard. One day, Kurt is watching a surveillance video when he sees a young girl who looks just like Kate Meaney, even to the stuffed monkey peeping out of her backpack. Kate is haunted by this, since she never believed that Adrian was guilty of abducting or killing Kate. So she and Kurt decide to find out what really happened to Kate.

There are, of course, lots of other novels in which the “court of public opinion” plays an important role. That local prejudice adds color and interest, and can add a strong layer of suspense to a novel. Which are your favorite “court of public opinion” novels?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cecil Hill’s Town Without Pity.


  1. Lovely post, Margot. I do like reading your "articles". You are so right about "What was lost" - you describe it very well. That was an excellent, but sad book.

    Sworn to Silence by Linda Costello (Castello?) is a good example of small town secrets - there are two communities, the Amish and the non-Amish, and the main character, the policewoman, is Amish but has left the community and fallen out with them. There is also a black event in her past which she does not know who knows about and who does not. It was a good book, despite being a bit too gruesome for my taste on a couple of occasions.

    I think some of the Swedish novels I've read in the past couple of years do "small town" well, especially the island novels of Mari Jungstedt and Johan Theorin, where there is an increased sense of isolation.

  2. Well, thanks so much for putting Gene Pitney's voice in my head! I do love that song. How I would love to have you as a professor! Is Strong Poison the first book in which Harriet appears? I've only read Busman's Honeymoon, and I'd like to meet her from the beginning.

  3. I greatly enjoyed rereading "Mrs. McGinty's Dead" - it's such a wonderful study of how appearances can affect people's perceptions and opinions. I enjoyed how Bentley causes Poirot some frustration as well, as it becomes perfectly clear how this man has arrived where he has.

    It's a fact that some people simply aren't likeable because of their lack of social skills. The belief is certainly 'out there' that anyone who doesn't care about being liked must be nasty in some way. It's a small step to pointing the finger of blame at them when something goes wrong.

    I so admire Christie's skill in bringing in a character like Bentley. As a reader, part of me felt sorry for him, but another part of me wanted to give him a sharp smack to try and get him to care.

  4. Maxine - You are far, far too kind : ). And yes, What Was Lost is so sad, but such a compelling read. Folks, if you haven't read it, please do. Here is a fine review of the novel by Karen at Euro Crime.

    Ever since I read your excellent review of Sworn to Silence, I've been wanting to read that book. I grew up in Amish country, although I am not Amish, myself, and I just know I will find that book fascinating. It's on my TBR list, as are the Theorin books. Lots and lots to read this year!!

    Nan - LOL! Yes, Pitney's voice is distinctive, isn't it? Thanks for the compliment, but you might want to talk to my students before you take any class I teach, so you know what you will be in for ; ).

    You're exactly right; Strong Poison is Harriet Vane's debut in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. It's an important book, too, in my opinion, in that the events of the book have a lot to do with how Harriet acts, what she thinks, and how her relationship with Wimsey develops over time.

    Elspeth - I couldn't have described Bentley better than you just did if I tried! I felt exactly the same way about his character, and about Christie's ability to create such a character.

    You're right, too, that some people just don't have the social skills to get on with other people. So others are (quite often unfairly) prejudiced against them. I think it's fascinating when an author can make a character like that sympathetic, since after all, if a character isn't a friendly person, why should the reader find her or him sympathetic?

  5. Wow! Just last night, I was watching Roy Orbison's BLACK AND WHITE CONCERT for the umpteenth time. I was trying to come-up with an artist comparable to Orbison in vocal range and style and settled on Gene Pitney as the best comparison. I haven't thought of Gene Pitney in decades and here I have two occurrences in less than 12 hours! I'm not sure what it is, but it can't be coincidence since none of the great detectives of fiction believe in coincidence. Just ask Harry Bosch.

    I also recently learned of Robert B. Parker's passing earlier this year. His novels about small-town police chief Jesse Stone are a perfect example of today's topic. Public opinion and the rumor mills of Paradise, MA are always elements of Parker's Jesse Stone novels. In contrast, the "court of public opinion" seldom, if ever, plays a role in Parker's Spenser novels, which take place in Boston.

  6. I am reading a very promising novel right now where the poor parents of a missing child are treated horribly by their neighbours (I think - I haven´t read the ending yet so of course they may have killed their son). People gossip about them and harass them when they are going shopping.

    It is Jane Casey´s The Missing (reviewed by Maxine recently).

  7. Bob - Isn't it fascinating how it happens that you don't hear (or think) of something or someone for years, and then all of a sudden, you see that person, hear that song, etc.. several times. How interesting that it happened to you. Orbison and Pitney really can be compared, too.
    And thank you for mentioning Jesse Stone. You're absolutely right that the Stone mysteries almost always involve a certain amount of small-town prejudice and gossip. That's what I really like about everyone's comments. I always get reminded of good series and great examples!

    Dorte - I'm glad you are enjoying The Missing so far. I haven't read that one yet, but from what you are saying, it certainly does sound like exactly the kind of thing I mean. It strikes me as a very haunting novel. Folks, Maxine's fine review of The Missing is here. And Dorte, I look forward to your review, too : ).

  8. LOL Dorte - we crime fiction readers are a suspicious lot, aren't we? Sometimes I wonder how the poor authors keep up ;-)