Wednesday, March 23, 2011

You Didn't See It, You Didn't Hear It*

What would you do if you discovered a murder? Would it frighten you? Would you be curious? Would you try to pretend you hadn’t seen anything? It’s not really a trivial question when it comes to detection, whether it’s a real-life or fictional crime. We all know that the right thing to do is to contact the police right away, without touching anything. But that’s not always what people do. There are dozens of different reactions to coming upon a murder scene depending on one’s personality, age and experience and relationship to the victim. Those reactions can affect a murder investigation. For example, the longer someone holds off reporting a crime, the harder the trail is to follow. The more details the person hides about the crime, the more difficult the investigation. In crime fiction, too, the discovery of the murder is often a very suspenseful, important scene that’s crucial to the plot. So it’s essential that it include realistic characters who behave in ways that make sense given their personalities and their history with the victim, if there is a history.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, Sheila Webb comes upon the body of an unidentified dead man when she arrives at the home of Millicent Pebmarsh to do what she thinks is a secretarial job. Sheila’s been sent there by the typewriting and secretarial service where she works, but when she arrives at Miss Pebmarsh’s home, instead of a job, she finds a dead body. She screams and runs out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a Secret Service operative who’s in the neighbourhood on a case of his own. Lamb does his best to help Sheila, and then he calls the police. Since the crime is not a straightforward one, Lamb also takes it to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve it. On the surface of it, Sheila reacts as you might expect, especially for a young woman of the time during which this novel was written. But what Lamb and the police don’t know is that Sheila hasn’t really rushed blindly out of the room. She’s recognised something in the room and taken it, because she doesn’t want to be mixed up in this crime. Of course, she doesn’t tell Lamb or the police about what she’s taken, either, and although that doesn’t prevent the crime from being solved, it does complicate matters.

James Bentley’s crime scene behaviour gets him into trouble in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Bentley lodges with Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman in the small village of Broadhinny. He’s an unprepossessing young man who’s lost his job at a real estate firm and can’t seem to find another. He’s not particularly popular and doesn’t have many friends. One evening, he comes home from a walk to find the body of his landlady in her parlour. He’s sickened and frightened by the sight, but is even more afraid of being mixed up in the crime. So he tells no-one about it. This gives Mrs. McGinty’s murderer the time needed to frame Bentley neatly for the crime. In fact, Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted. He’s scheduled to be executed for the murder, but Superintendent Spence, who conducted the investigation, doesn’t think Bentley’s guilty. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to Broadhinny. He begins to learn about the people who live there, including James Bentley, and it’s not long before he establishes that more than one person had a reason to want Mrs. McGinty dead. One of the interesting things about this novel is that Bentley’s decision to pretend he didn’t discover the body is really believable – it’s quite consistent with his character. It’s also one of the reasons that Hercule Poirot believes that Bentley’s been set up.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel, Agatha Troy has been commissioned to do a painting of Hilary Bill-Tasman over the Christmas holidays, so she travels to Halbards, the family home, to do the work. While she’s there, several other houseguests arrive for the holiday. Among them are Bill-Tasman’s uncle Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester, his wife Bedelia “Aunt Bed” and their servant Alfred Moult. Uncle Flea has agreed to dress up as a Druid for Christmas and distribute gifts to the local children. But when he suddenly falls ill, Moult agrees to take his place. After the party, though, Moult disappears and is later found dead. Moult’s body is actually discovered by some members of Bill-Tasman’s staff of servants. However, they’re all afraid of being connected with the murder since they all have criminal pasts and since none of them really got along with Moult. So at first, none of them admits to knowing anything about Moult’s disappearance or his death. It’s not until Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Troy’s husband, points out the consequences to them if they don’t tell the truth that any of them admits to having found the body. Their unwillingness to “come clean” makes the case harder all around.

Fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson finds himself in real danger when he comes upon a murder in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. Jackson is staying at Montana’s Pine Woods dude ranch when one day, he sees the murder of David St. John. Terrified that the killer will come after him, too, Jackson runs off instead of alerting the police. The problem is that the dude ranch is surrounded by rough and dangerous terrain. In fact, Sean’s at just as much risk from the country and the elements as he is from the killer. It doesn’t help matters that he’s an asthmatic. When it’s clear that the boy is missing from Pine Woods, detective Lisbeth McCarthy asks Mike Brody to help find him. Brody is a former Special Forces operative who now co-owns S&B Outfitters, an extreme adventure tour company. Brody has his own reasons for being willing to track Sean, so he gets involved in the case. Now it’s a race against time and the elements as Brody tries to find Sean Jackson before the killer does.

Paul and Daniel Spender don’t want to tell the police about the body they discover in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. The two brothers are out one morning exploring near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset Coast. They’ve taken their father’s expensive Zeiss binoculars with them without getting permission, and Paul’s looking through them when he sees the nude body of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner on the beach. By accident, the binoculars are dropped from the cliff the boys are on, and break. The Spender boys are terrified that they’ll get into big trouble about the binoculars, so they don’t want to tell the police that they’ve seen a dead body. Paul in particular also doesn’t want to admit that he was fascinated by the victim's nudity. They do tell their story, though, to Stephen Harding, an actor who’s staying in the area and who is the first adult the boys see after they’ve dropped the binoculars. Harding persuades them to tell the local constable what’s happened, and when PC Nick Ingram comes on the scene, the Spender brothers tell him their story. It’s interesting to see how Ingram is able to get past the boys’ fear of getting in trouble so he can get the story from them. In the end, their story gives Ingram a small piece of the puzzle needed to find out who killed Kate Sumner.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, Bergur Ketilsson is taking a walk one evening; he prefers evening walks outside to sitting at home with his wife Rósa, with whom he’s no longer really in love. During his walk, Bergur comes upon the raped and murdered body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, an architect who’s staying at a local spa resort. The police are alerted and begin an investigation. Staying at the same resort is Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, who’s been hired by the resort’s owner Jónas Júlíusson to help him press a lawsuit against the land’s former owners. Jónas believes the land is haunted and wants to sue the former owners for not telling him about the haunting before they sold him the property. When it turns out that Jónas was having an affair with Birna, the police become interested in him as a suspect, and Thóra looks into the case to try to clear her client of suspicion. In the course of her investigation, Thóra finds out that Bergur Ketilsson didn’t tell the police everything he knew when he discovered Birna’s body. He was having an affair with her, too, and didn’t want it to be discovered. It turns out, too, that Bergur’s reluctance to immediately tell the police and admit everything he knows seriously hampers the investigation. In the end, though Thóra is able to get to the truth about Birna’s death and two other deaths.

Discovering a murder is stressful, even traumatic, whether or not one knows the victim. It’s even more so when one knows the victim or has something to hide. So even if someone’s not the killer, it’s not always one’s first instinct to tell the police. That decision can add a layer of complication to an investigation – and a layer of interest to a novel. Which novels have you enjoyed where this happens?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s 1921.

15 comments:

  1. Hmm... I can remember one story like that, but it would be a bad spoiler if I told, so I'll rather keep mum.

    :-)

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  2. Misha - I know what you mean :-). I had a few moments of trouble with this post to make sure that the examples I gave would not spoil the story and to make sure not to include examples that would be spoilers.

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  3. I had to laugh when I saw the photo. I can just imagine you taking the photo and someone coming along and asking why you're throwing a kitchen knife in the bushes. I wonder if they would accept that you're a writer? I'm expecting any day to stumble upon a murder or dead body down here in Mexico. Hopefully I won't stumble upon it while it's in progress or I might be the dead body in the bushes.

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  4. Clarissa - I have to admit, I took that 'photo as quickly as I could so that I wouldn't risk too many odd looks and questions. "I'm a writer" just might not wash.... And I can well imagine why you wouldn't want to stumble on a body or a murder. Some killers have absolutely no compunction at all about taking as many lives as they have to...

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  5. It's kind of like the question, what would you do if a mouse ran across the room. I didn't know until it happened. But like any old mystery female, I jumped on a chair.

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  6. Patti - I hadn't thought about the "mouse" question, but you're right; it is sort of a similar question. You never do know until it happens to you. When it happened to me, I covered it with a trash can and took it outside. That was almost as weird as the time we had bats in our home when we lived in the Midwest. Oh, now you've got me thinking about all of those strange things that happen...

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  7. I wrote a play one time. It was an audience participation sort of mystery. There was an important bit of business before the play outside the venue. We set it up, watched who witnessed it, brought it up later. Guess what? Later, the people who we saw witness the event, never admitted it, pointedly claimed that nothing of the sort happened. This was repeated for each of six performances.

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  8. William - That is really interesting! So you actually had people whom you knew had seen something claim they didn't. Such a fascinating phenomenon, especially since you saw it happen again and again with disparate people. It makes me wonder why they didn't say anything...

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  9. As usual my mind draws a blank when I try to think of a book title. :) This is an interesting post. You make a very good point about the character has to be believable doing what they do. That helps put the reader in their shoes to understand their reasoning for not reporting the murder.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  10. We had a bat. I looked up from the dining room table one day and a bat was hanging from the chandelier. That time I ducked down. How is that baby doing?

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  11. Mason - You put that quite well. If a character is going to hide something, not report a murder, etc., there needs to be a believable reason why. Otherwise, the reader gets pulled right out of the story. When we can really understand why a character does what s/he does, it's easier to identify with that person.


    Patti - Oh, I have a great mental picture of you and that bat just showing up out of no-where! That's the thing about bats - they are very quiet. So you don't know they're there until you see them. I've been startled more than once...

    ...and thanks for asking :-). The baby is doing very, very well. She's alert, lively and of course, absolutely adorable.

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  12. Unfortunately, I leap to Inspector Morse's teachings - the first suspect is the one who finds the body. Of course, there was one story where Morse was the one who found the body...

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  13. Elspeth - Ah, yes, The Dead of Jericho! Such an interesting blend, isn't it, of the sleuth's personal life and the investigation. You make, actually, a very good point; very often the person who finds the body is often the most likely suspect. I think that's one important reason why it can be appealing not to report a murder. Even an innocent person can fall under suspicion.

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  14. "Dead of Jericho"--the one where Morse ends up as a suspect? Definitely a reason for someone not to want to point out a dead body! Of course, there were other reasons why he was a suspect, but that's spoiling the story, so I'll stop here. :)

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  15. Elizabeth - Yup, that's the one. And yes, I can't think of a better reason not to want to report a body. Interestingly, Morse is also a suspect in The Remorseful Day. Interesting how in both cases his life is intertwined with that of the victim...

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