Not long ago, I was on a bus where I saw a sign encouraging riders to report suspicious activity. ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ was the tag. And most police do want to know about suspicious activity; they want citizens to feel comfortable reporting crime.
But the police have limited resources and finite amounts of time to investigate. This means they have to establish priorities. So, for instance, more resources would be devoted to a report of a murder than to a report of a purse-snatching. The police want both crimes solved, but they can’t do it all at once. Besides, there are people who report suspicious activity or even crimes when there isn’t really a crime involved, and the police don’t want to waste time and resources on so-called wild goose chases. What’s more, if the police really are satisfied that everything possible is being or has been done, they’re not likely to keep going over a case.
That’s part of the reason for which the police sometimes don’t follow up carefully, at least at first, on everything that gets reported to them. That happens in real life, and it also happens in crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddingtion (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Jane Marple. At one point, another train going in the same direction passes by and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look in the window of the other train. To her shock, she sees a woman being strangled. Of course she summons the conductor and the railway authorities, but there is no sign of a murder. There’s no body, and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the victim’s description. When Mrs. McGillicuddy arrives at Miss Marple’s home, she tells her friend what happened and Miss Marple insists on going to the police. They duly take down the information, but they don’t do much about it since there is no evidence that anything happened. In fact, the suggestion is made that perhaps Mrs. McGillicuddy imagined or dreamt something. Neither woman is happy at all about this dismissal, so Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She takes a ride on the same train and deduces where the body would be if it was thrown from the train. And that’s how she settles on Rutherford Hall as the likely place. With help from professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple shows that there was indeed a body and therefore, a murder. She also finds out who the murderer is.
In Carolyn Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, the body of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is discovered in his home. The police respond quickly and an investigation is made. The evidence suggests that Brinkley was killed accidentally by one of the antique war machines he collected. Nothing suggests anything else. But Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t believe Brinkley’s death was an accident. So she goes to the Causton police station to ask for a further investigation. DCI Tom Barnaby agrees to at least look into the matter, mostly because Benny seems so distraught. And he does re-read the original reports. But nothing seems out of order and it’s clear that investigating officer DS Gresham was scrupulous. Besides, Benny is eccentric and was a good friend of the deceased: her views are not likely to be objective. There seems to be nothing further to investigate and Barnaby sends Benny Frayle a note to that effect. Then there’s another murder that could be connected to the first death. Now Barnaby and DS Gavin Troy re-open the Brinkley case, and in the end, they find that Benny was right: Dennis Brinkley was murdered.
In Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle, Runi Winther pays a visit to the police. She’s concerned because her son Andreas hasn’t been home for the last few days. It’s not that Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer is unfeeling or not willing to listen to citizens. Neither of those things is true. But as he tells Runi, there are many reasons that a young man might take off for a few days without telling anyone where he’s going – especially not his mother. Sejer encourages his visitor to patient for a bit, and he reassures her that her son will most likely be in touch very soon. More time goes by though, and Andreas Winther is still missing. Now Sejer too begins to wonder what’s happened, so he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to ask questions. One person who is of immediate interest is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. So Sejer has several conversations with Zipp. As it turns out, Zipp knows more than he says at first. No, he didn’t kill his friend. But he does have some important information about the mystery.
In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeiro goes to the local police station one afternoon and asks to see the chief. As it happens, Inspector Espinosa is in a long meeting, so the receptionist invites her to either wait or speak to Espinosa’s assistant Detective Welber. Dona Laureta doesn’t stress that the matter is urgent, and she won’t speak to anyone else but Espinosa. So the receptionist doesn’t interrupt the chief. On the one hand, nobody pays an awful lot of attention to Dona Laureta or to the matter that brought her to the station. On the other, it isn’t a case of laziness or refusal to listen to a citizen. Dona Laureta herself even says that she’ll come back later and leaves. Before she can return though, she falls, or is pushed, under a bus. The death is put down to a tragic accident at first. But when Espinosa finds out that this victim actually came to see him, he takes an interest in the case. Then there’s another death. This time the victim is Dona Adélia Marques, a friend of Dona Laureta’s. Now Espinosa and his team take an urgent interest in both cases and as it turns out, the deaths are related.
And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, the second of his Delhi-based Vish Puri series. In one plot thread of that novel, Puri’s wife Rumpi and his mother Mummy-ji attend a kitty party. Each guest adds money to the kitty at the beginning of the party. Later, one guest’s name is drawn and that person wins the money in the kitty. On this day though, robbers break in and steal the money. Mummy-ji is not one to ‘go quietly,’ and she finds a creative way to get hard evidence against the thief. When she tries to tell the police about it, though, they are dismissive and even joke to each other about her:
‘Seems Miss Mar-pel is here.’
Mummy-ji doesn’t give up though, and in the end, she and Rumpi find out who the thief is.
In most cases, it’s not that the police don’t want to solve crimes or hear what citizens have to say. But they are often overworked and understaffed. And sometimes, people who come to the police station aren’t (or at least don’t seem) credible. But as crime fiction shows, sometimes it pays to pay attention.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Tarney’s Hold On, recorded by Barbara Dickson.