Monday, April 19, 2010

What Witnesses Remember (and Don't)...

Whenever there’s a crime, whether in real life or in crime fiction, one part of the investigation is to find out what witnesses remember about the crime. Of course, witnesses’ testimony is often not considered as reliable as more direct evidence, such as DNA. That’s arguably as it should be, because memory can be very unreliable. Witnesses forget things. They also sometimes remember things that didn’t really happen, not because they’re lying, but because they honestly believe something happened. Then, too, witnesses can be misled by their own senses. If a witness thinks that she or he sees or hears something, that’s what the witness remembers, whether or not it actually happened. So the skilled sleuth has to sift through what witnesses remember and figure out how much of what they say is reliable and important for the case, and how much is mistaken.

Agatha Christie frequently makes use of what witnesses remember, both to give the reader clues, and to distract the reader with “red herrings.” I’ll just give two examples. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), Simeon Lee, an unpleasant but very wealthy tyrant, invites all of his family to spend Christmas at the family home. No-one wants to accept the invitation, but no-one dares refuse, so all of the members of the family gather. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying with a friend nearby, is asked to investigate. As part of the investigation, Poirot and the police ask all of the members of the family, as well as the members of the staff, what they remember from the night of the murder. All of them remember a scream (although they describe it differently) and a lot of noise and bumping around coming from Lee’s room. This is taken as evidence of a terrible struggle, and of the time of death, and at first, the physical evidence seems to dovetail with the witnesses’ memories. It turns out, though, that the witnesses are all wrong in what they think they remember, so those memories only produce false clues. Interestingly enough, a few witnesses’ memories are accurate, and, in true Christie fashion, it’s not clear which memories are accurate and which are not, at least at first. In the end, Poirot finds out who Lee’s killer is, and how the witnesses’ memories played them false.

One of the most interesting examples of the way Christie makes use of what witnesses remember is Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant asks Poirot to solve the mystery of her father’s murder. Carla’s father was Amyas Crale, a famous painter who was also notorious for his infidelities. One afternoon, sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned to death while he was painting a portrait of his latest mistress, Elsa Greer. Crale’s wife, Caroline Crale, was immediately suspected and almost immediately arrested. She had motive, too; she knew of her husband’s tendency to stray and she had what one character calls “an ungovernable temper.” Also, she had threatened her husband more than once. The dregs of the poison used to kill Crale were found in her possession, too. Everyone thinks that Caroline Crale killed her husband, and she was duly convicted of the crime and died in prison. Carla, though, believes that her mother was innocent, and persuades Poirot to investigate. To do so, Poirot visits all of the people who were “on the scene” at the time of the murder. They include Elsa Greer; Philip and Meredith Blake, friends of Crale’s; Angela Warren, Caroline Crale’s half-sister; and Cecilia Williams, Angela’s governess. From each witness, Poirot gets a written account of the murder, and then compares them. Needless to say, the five accounts differ greatly. It’s through what the witnesses remember (or say they remember) that Poirot is able to figure out who really killed Crale and why.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes also deals with witnesses’ accounts, and how unreliable they can be. For instance, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Holmes finds out who murdered Charles McCarthy, an émigré from Australia. McCarthy lived on the property of John Turner, another transplant from Australia. On the day of the murder, the lodge-keeper’s daughter sees McCarthy and his son, James McCarthy, having a violent argument, and sees the younger McCarthy raise his hand as if to strike his father. Minutes later, McCarthy runs to the lodge, begging for help because he’s just found his father’s body. McCarthy is soon arrested and put on trial for murder. James McCarthy’s own account of the murder is unreliable, too. He says that he did argue with his father, but left his father alive. He then heard a terrible cry, turned back and found his father nearly dead. He then heard his father say something about, “a rat.” At first, everyone thinks that James McCarthy is guilty. Holmes, though, is able to make sense of the case and get beyond what the witnesses think they remember. He then puts the pieces of the puzzle together and finds out who really killed Charles McCarthy and why.

Witnesses’ accounts and memories play an interesting role in Luis Alfredo García-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laureta has made it a habit, every month, to visit Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal, to cash her pension check at the teller window of Hugo Breno. One day, after taking care of her business at the bank, Dona Laureta goes to the 12th Precinct, asking particularly to see the captain of the precinct. Inspector Espinosa is in a meeting and can’t see her. When she’s asked if she’d like to speak to someone else, Dona Laureta says that she’ll come back later, and leaves the precinct. Two hours later, she’s dead – run over by a bus. The police are sent to investigate, but witnesses’ memories of what happened aren’t clear. Some say that Dona Laureta was pushed under the bus; others say she stumbled and fell. When the police begin to investigate, they find no real evidence of foul play; yet, there are suspicions, and they begin to fall on Hugo Breno. For instance, it turns out that Dona Laureta knew Breno’s mother, with whom he lives. Also, she’d been at the bank, and interacting with Breno, just before she first went to the police station. As the police begin to focus on Breno, Espinosa realizes that he already knows Breno; they were boys together, although they’d taken different paths in life. In fact, although Espinosa isn’t aware of this, Breno’s been following him for years. Now Espinosa and his team have to depend on uncertain witnesses and Espinosa’s own childhood memories to find out what the connection is between Espinosa, Dona Laureta, Hugo Breno, and Breno’s mother.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse faces an uphill battle, as it were, against memory in The Secret of Annexe 3 when he and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death of a guest at the Haworth Hotel’s New Year’s Eve gala. The owner of the Haworth Hotel decides to offer a New Year’s Eve package, complete with dinner and a fancy-dress ball. Sarah Johnstone, the hotel’s manager, thinks she’ll be able to skip the extra work of the hotel’s events, because she’s got the week off. Then, unexpectedly, she’s called into work. So, going on little sleep, she does her best to get the guests settled and the scheduled events underway. All seems well until the morning of New Year’s Day, when one of the guests is found murdered in his room. Inspector Morse, who’d also planned on taking some time off from work, is called in to investigate because he lives close to the hotel. When he tries to find out who the dead man was, and who the other couples were who were staying in nearby rooms, Morse finds that Sarah’s memory isn’t much help. She’s so exhausted that all of the names, dates and room numbers are a blur. Matters are complicated when it turns out that the dead man and his wife had registered under faked names and fake addresses. So had the other two couples staying in the same part of the hotel. To make matters worse, the dead man’s wife has disappeared. Now, Morse and Lewis have to first find out who everyone was before they can begin to find out who might have wanted to kill the victim.

Memories and the things witnesses recall are critical factors in Karen Osborn’s The River Road. In that novel, we meet brothers David and Michael Sanderson, inseparable since boyhood. We also meet their next-door-neighbor, Kay Richards, with whom they’ve always been close friends. One night, while the three young people are home in Connecticut on a break from college, they decide to go out for a night of adventure. Late that night, they’re under the influence of drugs, crossing the French King Bridge not far from their homes, when David stops the car and insists on jumping from the bridge. He’s sure that he can swim to shore. He and Michael argue about it, but David is obdurate and gets out of the car. Kay, who’s passionately in love with David, joins him, and he promises her they can both get across the river. Tragically, David doesn’t make it across the river, and before anyone really knows what’s happened, he’s disappeared into the water. At first, it’s seen as a terrible accident. Then, David’s father Kevin begins to suspect that Kay might have pushed David off the bridge. Michael, who’s angry at himself for not saving his brother, and angry at Kay for having survived, does little to defend Kay, and she’s tried for killing David. Throughout the novel, the question of what really happened is difficult to answer. All three young people were on drugs that night, and Michael and Kay’s memories are hazy. Besides, both families are dealing with grief. It’s actually a very interesting study on how important a role memory plays in this kind of tragedy.

What witnesses say, and how they remember events, plays an important part in criminal investigations, whether they’re real-life or fictional. Which are your favorite novels that hinge on witnesses’ recollections?

On Another Note.....

My deep thanks to Maxine at Petrona, Dorte at Dj's Krimiblog and Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for very kind reviews of B-Very Flat. I truly appreciate your support : ).

At the risk of blatant self promotion, here are the links for the reviews. You can read Maxine's review here, Dorte's review here, and Bernadette's review here.


  1. I was shocked on being interviewed after a breaking and entering that we once observed how unobservant I was. You tend to focus on one or two things and the others elude you.

  2. I first encountered FIVE LITTLE PIGS when I read the play - GO BACK FOR MURDER, and since, of course, I've read the book many times. It's a wonderful study of what one person will notice and what another person won't and how everyone's own prejudices affect their memories of an incident.

    I've tried to remember this important lesson while doing my own writing. What's important to one person is dismissed by another. Different people see different things. I'm always amazed if I get together with old school friends how we all remember different events. Some have memories of certain things I don't remember at all.

  3. Patti - You saw a B & E once? That must have been scary! You've got a good point, too. Witnesses focus on, say, the color of a car, but couldn't tell you if it was a van, a sedan, or an SUV. I think part of that is the shock of seeing something like that, too. What's even scarier if when a witness doesn't realize this, and is sure - but 100% sure - s/he's got all of the details right.

    Elspeth - You are so right! Perspective is so important, isn't it? As you say, what one person will barely notice, another will obsess over. I hadn't thought about that in my writing, but you are correct; it's something I ought to think about, and you're wise to do so. People really do have different ways of looking at the same thing. Maybe I need to re-read Five Little Piges, too : ).

  4. I have often been annoyed when crime writers seem to imply that all witnesses tell gross lies all the time. They often take it too far. But this theme is different: most of us do get muddled when we have to tell about something that took place a few days ago, or when we have been shocked. A good example of my own memory (or lack of ..) was recently when we watched a crime series. I was SO sure one of the writers of the writing club sold her stuff in the end, but the scene I remembered so vividly wasn´t there at all.

  5. Dorte - There really is a difference, isn't there, bectween witnesses who get flustered, even muddled, when asked to remember something, and thos who are outright lying. I think it can add some rearlism to a story when a witness doesn't remember clearly, or remembers something that didn't really happen. Your example shows how easily that can happen, even when one's not dealing with shock. When a person has witnessed a crime, there's the terrible shock to deal with, too.

  6. Margot, thank you for linking to my and others' reviews of your book. I do very highly recommend B-very Flat, I think it is a lovely novel, sparkly and sad, and I hope that it gets the readership, and attention, it truly deserves. I think you are a very talented author.

    I am currently reading The Last Fix by K O Dahl, which seems at the moment to be heading into the "witnesses remembering or not" territory!

  7. Maxine - *Blush* Thanks so much : ). Your support means so very much to me. I'll be very eager to see what you think of The Last Fix. I've not read it yet, but it sounds really intriguing.