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.