When real or fictional sleuths investigate a murder, they often run up against what you might call a ‘wall of silence.’ In those cases, witnesses will answer questions as far as they go, but they often don’t add other important information they may have. For instance, a witness may tell the police the truth about where he was and what he was doing at the time of a murder, but not add in that he saw a person he knows at the murder scene. Sometimes the ‘wall of silence’ is put up because witnesses don’t want to believe that a particular person is guilty (‘I’ve known her for years! She couldn’t have done something like that.). Other times it’s self-protection (‘If I tell what I know, he’ll come after me. And if I’m wrong, everyone’ll hate me for spreading lies.’) Still other times it’s because the witness has something to hide and doesn’t want to be accused of the murder. Even when a group of people don’t explicitly agree to all keep quiet, that ‘wall of silence’ can be nearly impenetrable. A good sleuth can find out the truth anyway, but the way people have of covering up what they know is realistic, and it can add a layer of suspense to a novel.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is traveling to London on the Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, is also on the train and asks his friend to investigate the murder. Poirot agrees and gathers evidence from all of the passengers. He listens to what everyone says and compares their statements with each other and with what’s known about Ratchett and about the murder itself. In the end, he gets to the truth, but along the way, he has to contend with a ‘wall of silence.’ Everyone gives a statement, but Poirot learns that these people are not telling everything they know.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse faces a similar ‘wall of silence’ in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Nicholas Quinn is named to Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, the first Deaf person to be a part of that group. The Syndicate is responsible for overseeing exams taken in non-UK countries with a British education tradition, and membership is considered ‘a feather in the cap.’ Quinn was not a unanimous choice for the Syndicate, but he settles in and starts his work. Then one day he is murdered with a poisoned glass of sherry. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder and soon find that more than one person could have wanted to kill Quinn. The various members of the Syndicate give statements and so on, but it’s soon clear that there are secrets among the Syndicate members that everyone’s covering up. So Morse has to get beneath the surface so to speak to find out the truth about Quinn’s death. What’s interesting in this case is that some of those secrets have little to do with the murder; they’re just embarrassing to Syndicate members.
Sometimes the ‘wall of silence’ isn’t planned or even co-ordinated. It’s just that the people involved decide not to share what they know. That’s what happens in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a budding detective who’s just opened her own agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she believes she’s sure to find all sorts of criminal doings. Kate’s grandmother Ivy thinks the girl would be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her, even promising to go with her to the school on test day. Kate and Adrian take the bus to Redspoon but Kate never returns. Not even a body is discovered. Everyone thinks that Palmer is responsible for Kate’s disappearance but he claims he is innocent. Still, he leaves town because he’s become an outcast. Twenty years later, his younger sister Lisa is working at a store in the mall when she befriends Kurt, a security guard who also works there. Kurt tells her of an odd thing he’s seen on the security cameras: a young girl with a backpack. Kurt’s description reminds Lisa of Kate, and each in a different way, the two slowly start to look into the past to find out what really happened when Kate disappeared. In this story, several people know at least parts of the truth about Kate, but for various reasons they don’t tell what they know. That ‘wall of silence’ is a big part of the reason for which it takes twenty years to learn what happened to Kate.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, Saskatchewan political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation when a colleague Reed Gallagher is found murdered in a seedy rented room. Kilbourn’s acquainted with Gallagher’s wife Julia, so she comes along to help break the bad news. As the investigation slowly develops, Kilbourn learns that there could be several motives for Gallagher’s murder. One person who may know more than she’s saying is one of Gallagher’s students Kellee Savage. Kellee has her own mental/emotional issues, but some of what she says is quite lucid. Then Kellee disappears. She doesn’t come to class, doesn’t turn in assignments and doesn’t contact her professors. At first Kilbourn thinks that, like many students, Kellee is very stressed with upcoming exams and other work, and just took off for a bit. But gradually it becomes clear that something more is going on. As Kilbourn tries to find out the truth though, she meets with what seems like a ‘wall of silence’ from Kellee’s classmates. They all tell Kilbourn what they remember about the last time anyone saw Kellee, but they don’t tell everything they know. Kellee is later found dead and in the end, Kilbourn finds out who’s responsible for that death and for Reed Gallagher’s death, and how the two are connected. The ‘wall of silence’ doesn’t make it any easier though…
There’s a very tragic ‘wall of silence’ in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). Gunder Jormann makes the surprising decision to travel to Mumbai and find a wife there. He may not be the quickest thinker in the world, but he’s honest, a steady worker, and although he’s no longer a young man, he hasn’t fallen physically to pieces. So he is hopeful of finding a bride willing to marry him. He arrives in Mumbai and before long, he meets Poona Bai. The two take to each other and Poona agrees to marry him. Poona needs to do some things to finish up her life in India, so Gunder returns alone to his Norway village of Elvestad. He and Poona keep in close contact though, and he is very excited for her arrival. On the very day he’s supposed to meet Poona at the airport, Gunder’s sister Marie is involved in a car accident that leaves her in a coma. Gunder needs to stay with his sister, so he asks an acquaintance to meet Poona for him. The two miss each other though and Poona never arrives at Gunder’s home. The next morning, her murdered body is found in a nearby field and Inspector Konrad Sajer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. As they slowly put together what, exactly, happened on the night of Poona’s arrival in Elvestad, it becomes clear that several people in the village have pieces of the puzzle. But they aren’t willing at first to say what they know. In fact when one witness Linda Carling does talk to the police, everyone else freezes her out, so to speak. In one case of course, the reason for the silence is that the person has committed murder. In another it’s because of not wanting to be implicated in the murder. But in other cases it’s because everyone has tacitly agreed not to point the finger at people they know. After all, these people have known each other for years, sometimes decades. It takes a long time for Sejer and Skarre to penetrate this ‘wall,’ but eventually they find out what people haven’t been telling them.
Detective Ella Marconi and her police partner Murray Shakespeare have to get past a ‘wall of silence’ in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around one hot day when Fowler suddenly falls over dead. At first it looks as though he died of heat exhaustion, but in a very short time it’s discovered that he was shot, execution style. Marconi and Shakespeare interview Fowler’s friends and his ex-wife Trina to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. Everyone gives the detectives information, but as the two learn, they also keep some important things to themselves. In fact, in this case there’s an agreement among some of the witnesses to keep their mouths shut. And as it turns out, there’s a good reason for that. It turns out that Fowler took a very dangerous decision that cost him his life.
A lot of witnesses don’t keep things from the police just to be difficult. There’s often a self-protective kind of reason for conspiring, tacitly or overtly, in a ‘wall of silence.’ But for the sleuth, it just makes the case harder to investigate. Of course, a novel in which everyone told everything they knew would end fairly quickly wouldn’t it???
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from October Project’s Wall of Silence.