I’ve been summoned for jury duty. In the U.S., a jury summons means one has to appear at one’s local courthouse and make oneself available to serve on a jury. If one gets called, then attorneys for each side in a case work with the judge to select the jury from the pool of people whose names have been called. I don’t know if I’ll actually be placed on a jury, but it’ll be interesting to find out. In the meantime, my jury summons has got me to thinking about the important role that juries and jurors play in crime fiction. And just to make things interesting, I’m not going to focus on novels such as Philip Margolin’s or Scott Turow’s, which have the legal system as their main context. That would be too easy. You can find juries in a lot of other crime fiction, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London. On the same flight is Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Madame Giselle uses as “collateral” information she has learned about her clients, and so far, she’s had to write off very few “bad debts.” During the flight, Madame Giselle is poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other people who were on the same flight, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. A very incriminating piece of evidence is found behind the seat Poirot occupied on the plane, so when the inevitable inquest is convened, the jury brings a verdict of willful murder against Poirot. But the coroner won’t accept the verdict and insists that the jury return another verdict. The jury brings back another verdict, this time of willful murder against a person or persons unknown and frees the police and Poirot to find the real killer.
There’s another Christie novel too where the soundness of the jury system and its use in a crime are essential but…no spoilers. If you know this novel, you know which one I mean.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey is attending the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s been charged with the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence against her. She had arsenic in her possession, she and Boyes had been quarreling, and the last thing Boyes had to eat or drink was a cup of coffee that Vane gave him. Wimsey is smitten with Vane and wants her name cleared. One of the jurors is Wimsey’s friend Katherine Climpson. She isn’t convinced that Vane is guilty and her commitment to her position ends up in a hung jury and another trial for Vane. That’s all that Wimsey needs to begin asking questions and looking into the case. With Inspector Parker, Wimsey finds out that Vane is by no means the only one who might have wanted Philip Boyes dead, and in the end Wimsey finds out who the real killer is.
Carol O’Connell’s Dead Famous gives a central role to a jury. In that novel, a Chicago jury delivers a controversial acquittal of an accused murderer, and everyone thinks the verdict was wrong, maybe even somehow rigged. A killer known as The Reaper takes the verdict very seriously and one by one, the members of the jury begin to die. What makes matters worse is that New York “shock jock” Ian Zachary is playing a ghoulish on-air game for its shock value. He’s challenging listeners to find the members of the jury in a game of “spot the juror.” In the meantime, Detective Sergeant Riker is recovering from a series of bullet wounds from a line-of-duty incident. During his “down time” he spends time with the family business, an agency that cleans up scenes of crimes. One of the employees Johanna Apollo turns out to be much more important than it seems at first, especially when it comes out that she was one of the jurors in the original case. As Riker struggles to heal, protect Johanna Apollo, Detective Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory is trying to catch The Reaper before there’s another murder and get Riker back to work for her own reasons. In the end, we find out the truth about what happened in the jury room that led to the acquittal, and how it relates to the current deaths.
What happens on a jury and with jurors plays an important role in Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict. In that novel, attorney Mickey Haller is left with several cases when a colleague Jerry Vincent is murdered. Haller starts to work on Vincent’s cases and his focus turns to one in particular. Film producer Walter Elliot has been charged with murdering his unfaithful wife Mitzi and her lover Johan Rilz, and Vincent had been Elliot’s attorney. L.A.P.D. cop Harry Bosch is working on the Vincent murder case, and he begins to think that Vincent’s murder has something to do with the Elliot case that Haller has “inherited.” Each with a separate kind of expertise, Bosch and Haller slowly begin to unravel what’s really going on and what the truth is behind the murders. No spoilers here, but the behaviour of the jurors is closely related to what happens in this novel.
The behaviour of one juror in particular is the focus of Ian Rankin’s short story Not Provan, which appears in his collection A Good Hanging. As an aside, I really do love the title of this story. In that story, Inspector Rebus is attending the trial of Willie Provan, a thug and gangster whom he’s never liked. Provan is a member of Tiny Alice, or T-Alice, an Edinburgh gang that has staked out its turf and defends it in any way they can. Provan has been charged with murdering a football fan who strayed onto T-Alice’s patch, and the prosecution has an extremely good case against him. In fact, Rebus is certain Provan will be convicted easily. But then Provan’s counsel surprises everyone, including Rebus and the jury, with a strategy that just may get Provan acquitted. Rebus knows very well that Provan committed the crime, so he decides to do some of his own investigation to see if he can poke a proverbial hole in the defence’s strategy. To Rebus’ surprise, he discovers that one of the jurors is just as convinced that Provan is guilty and is doing his own sleuthing. Rebus follows the juror and finds that this man has come to exactly the same conclusion about what to do. The juror actually finds out a key piece of evidence, giving Rebus the clue he needs. The way in which Rebus handles the new evidence, the juror and the possible risk of jury tampering and mistrial may not be what everyone would do, but it is innovative.
It’s fascinating and unsettling to think about how many technicalities there are in a trial, and where juries fit in. The jury system may be imperfect, as any legal system is to at least some extent, but it’s an entrenched part of many societies’ ways of handling criminal justice. So it’s not a surprise that it’s woven into lots of crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years.