Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where Were You?*

In real life and in crime fiction, detectives get information by interviewing suspects and witnesses. Sometimes the interview is more or less a mere formality (verifying, for instance, the time that a train left to see if a suspect could have been on that train). Other times, the interview is crucial to the investigation because the interviewee is a suspect. Interviews are important in crime fiction for a few reasons. First, they’re realistic. In real life, detectives do really talk to people – a lot of people – as they investigate. They’re also important in terms of a story’s plot. They can add suspense to a story and they’re convenient places for the author to leave clues and “red herrings.” Interviews with witnesses and suspects also give the reader important insight into the character of the sleuth and the person she or he is interviewing.

Every sleuth has a different approach to getting information from witnesses. Private investigators and other sleuths who aren’t police officers have to be particularly skilled at getting information because they don’t have the force of law behind them. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, has found that simply conversing with people can get them off their guard and willing to talk freely. In fact, he gets more valuable information by using that oblique approach than he would from direct questioning. For instance, in Cards on the Table, Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out who killed the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. There are only four possible suspects, but each of them had a good motive and a good opportunity to commit the crime. Superintendent Battle questions the suspects about what they saw and didn’t see as you’d expect a police officer to do, but Poirot takes a different approach. He asks each suspect about the bridge game they were playing when Shaitana was killed. He also asks each suspect’s opinion of the other suspects as bridge players. Those questions put the suspects off their guard and give Poirot very important information about the psychology of each suspect. That information points Poirot in the direction of the killer.

Poirot also has the benefit, if you want to call it that, of not being English. Many of the people he interviews feel more comfortable about confiding in him than they would about confiding in someone who’s English. And he takes advantage of that. For instance, in After the Funeral, Poirot investigates the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie and the brutal murder of Abernethie’s sister Cora Lansquenet. The Abernethie fortune is a considerable one and there are several relations eager to get their hands on it. In order to get to know the various suspects and learn what he can, Poirot spends a week-end at the Abernethie family home, Enderby Hall, in the guise of a representative from a non-profit organization interested in purchasing the property. He adopts his most foreign mannerisms and language and is promptly left alone and almost ignored. That gives him lots of opportunities to listen to what people say and engage them in conversation. Even when his cover is “blown” and he’s revealed as a detective, all of the suspects still see him as non-threatening. In fact, one of them confesses having eavesdropped on a private conversation between Richard Abernethie and his sister, and passes on what was said during that conversation. Then, the suspect says,

“I’d rather speak the truth. And it’s not so bad telling you because you’re not English.”

Poirot uses what that suspect says, and other information he’s learned from those casual conversations to find out the truth behind both deaths. What’s interesting about Poirot is that he adjusts his approach to interrogating to the individual he’s interviewing.

Other private investigators have other approaches to interviewing witnesses and suspects. Some of them, such as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, get information using what you might call a two-pronged approach. They use informants and public databases to do things like trace license plates and get addresses. They also use an “I’m on your side in this…” approach when they talk to suspects. For example, in the short story The Singing Pigeon, Archer is traveling north from the Mexican border with California when he decides to stop for the night at the Siesta motel. During the night there’s a shooting, but everyone seems to be lying about it. When Archer actually finds the body, he decides to find out the truth. At one point, he discovers that Donny, the night key-boy at the motel, knows quite a bit more than he’s saying about the murder, so he interviews him claiming he knows all about what happened:

“You couldn’t be wronger, mister. Are you a cop?”

“A private detective. You’re in deep trouble, Donny. You’d better talk yourself out of it if you can, before the cops start on you.”

“I didn’t do anything.”…

“Faking the [motel] register is a serious rap, even if they don’t hang accessory to murder on you.”

Archer’s approach is fairly successful, and when it’s not, he’s not afraid to get a little more – er – insistent. Other private detectives, too, use violence or threats of violence when they’re interviewing people.

The police are restricted in what they can do and threaten to do when they interview suspects and witnesses. They also know that witnesses and suspects lie, hide things and are sometimes downright wrong. So even though the police have the force of law behind them, they have to be skilled, too, at interviewing suspects and witnesses. Sometimes, they use the sympathetic approach. That’s, for instance, what DI Kate Miskin does in P.D. James’ A Taste for Death. She’s a member of an investigation team that focuses on high-profile crimes that are likely to get a lot of media exposure. When Crown Minister Paul Berowne is brutally murdered in a local church, Miskin, DCI John Massingham and Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh go to work on the case. Each of them has different kinds of interviewing skills, so they investigate different angles on the murder and interview different people. At one point, Kate’s interviewing Berowne’s daughter, Theresa, from whom he’d become estranged. Theresa’s been mixed up with some of her father’s bitter political enemies, and could have been the murderer or more likely, an accessory to the murder, so Miskin wants as much information as possible. She expresses sympathy for the stress Theresa is under and goes into Theresa’s kitchen to make her a cup of tea. Actually, though, she’s looking for (and finds!) evidence that Theresa’s alibi for the night of the murder won’t hold water.

Other police are more “in your face.” They don’t mind telling the suspect or witness exactly what they think happened, and they wait for the interviewee to crumble. When they’re right, that’s often what happens. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Inspector Tom Barnaby is interrogating the person he thinks is responsible for the murders of financial adviser Dennis Brinkley and of self-styled medium Ava Garrett. At first, he doesn’t get much response from the suspect. Then, he confronts the suspect with evidence that connects that person with one of the murders:

“It might also interest you to know that Ava Garrett had no clairvoyant insight into Dennis Brinkley’s murder. She was only able to describe the circumstances of his death after being fed this information by a member of the public.”

At this, the suspect gets terribly upset, turns pale and begins to crumble. Barnaby then goes on to explain exactly what he knows about the suspect’s motive for the murders, and hints that he knows how the suspect is connected with Ava Garrett. By the time he’s through, the suspect is ”practically unrecognisable.” Barnaby knows he’s got the right person then.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse isn’t afraid to ride roughshod over witnesses if he thinks that they know something they’re not telling him. For instance, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of Oxford’s Foreign Examination Syndicate. It turns out that Quinn had found out some dark truths about members of the Syndicate, and since just about all of the members are hiding some secrets, there are plenty of suspects. Then fellow Syndicate member Philip Ogleby is bludgeoned with a poker. After a few wrong turns, Morse finally finds out who killed both men. There’s one witness who can corroborate something he’s deduced, so he visits that witness to find out what really happened when Ogleby was killed:

“..Morse was merciless. ‘Did you clean the blood off?’ ….Did you? Or did ____?’…Don’t you understand? – I’ve got to know. Did you clean it off? I’ve got to know.’…

The witness Morse is interviewing then breaks down and confesses what hadn't been told to the police before.

‘___said – there’d been – an accident. And____ said ____tried to help – until – the ambulance came….’”

With that, Morse knows that the person he thinks is guilty has lied, and he gets the information he needs to place the culprit at the scene of both crimes.

Amateur sleuths can’t really interrogate witnesses the way that private investigators and police can. So they need to adopt other approaches to their interviews. Some, such as Elizabeth Spann Craig’s/Riley Adams' Myrtle Clover and Lulu Taylor, use folksiness and their relationships with others in their towns to get information. They gossip with all sorts of people and get important clues that way. Others, such as Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran, use their local reputations. Witnesses trust them and have confidence in them, so they talk to them easily. Other amateur sleuths have other approaches to interviewing witnesses and suspects.

The key to a believable interview seems to be that the approach fits the sleuth and that the witness or suspect reacts in a believable way. How do your favourite sleuths go about interviewing? If you’re a writer, what’s your sleuth’s approach?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Journey song.


  1. I love Poirot's style! He's great at tripping up suspects because he never comes at the questions directly. Lots of fun!

  2. I continue to be amazed at all the examples you can give Margot!

  3. Jemi - Oh, that's one thing I like very much about Poirot, too! He finds ways to lull suspects into a false sense of security. And then.....Wham! :-).

  4. Kerrie - Oh, that is so very kind of you! Thank you :-)

  5. Most detectives have their own way of getting people to confess, don't they? And one of the things I most like about getting into a series is when I can see where conversations are going.

    Each of these is such a unique example, Margot. Thank you.

  6. Fantastic examples in your post! Two recent interrogations that stick in my mind are the long one in Shadow Family by Miyabe Miyuki - a gradual wearing down of a teenager, but done by using "actors" - not sure of the realism or the ethics!; and one in Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce, in which the police interviewed suspects who never asked for a lawyer (nor were offered one)....but who eventually confessed. Again, realism seemed in doubt.
    best wishes

  7. Rayna - You're quite right. One of the joys of getting involved in a series is getting to know the detective very well, and learning how s/he goes about getting witnesses to talk. Each sleuth does, indeed have a unique style and that style comes through as we watch the detective work...

    Maxine - Thank you :-). Thanks for bringing up Shadow Family and Cambridge Blue. You also touch on something that's very important: making an interrogation believable. In most countries, people who are accused of a crime have a right to legal representation, and most people know that that includes the right for an attorney to be present during questioning. I agree that it stretched the limits of credibility in Cambridge Blue when the suspect doesn't ask for an attorney and the police don't offer one.

    I admit I haven't yet read Shadow Family, but your comment brings up the way that police can lie, use actors and in other ways get a suspect to talk. I confess I don't know all of the details about police policy, and I know it varies in different places. But I do know there are limits to what police are allowed to do and I'm not sure the extent to which outright lying and using actors is allowed. Interesting question!

  8. I was interviewed once about a crime I had witnesses and reported. I was amazed at how little I could tell the police about something I had watched moments before. The cop's actually captured the guy in the alley and I was so glad it didn't rely on my poor testimony.

  9. Patti - I think it's not uncommon at all for witnesses to "blank out" about what they've just seen. That's why I think the best cops don't start out by bullying witnesses. Really honest witnesses don't always remember what they've seen, and bullying only rattles them and makes it worse.

    I'm glad those cops caught the guilty person...

  10. Margot, Have you thought about publishing anthologies of your blog posts? I think there might be a way to do that, maybe even through Blogger. Or perhaps publishing an anthology for Kindle, Nook, etc.? I think they might be of interest to serious mystery buffs.

  11. Patricia - Thanks for your idea, and for the compliment :-). I'm planning to do just exactly that when my work-in-progress is done. One step at a time...