I’m sure you’ve seen them on television or online, or heard them on the radio. Perhaps you’ve seen them in newspapers or even on notices posted in public places. I’m talking about appeals for help with a criminal investigation. You know the kind: Anyone with any information is asked to contact… Sometimes they come from police departments, and sometimes they come from private citizens, but either way, public appeals are sometimes a big part of trying to get leads and other information about crimes.
The advantage of a public appeal is that usually someone, somewhere has seen or heard something valuable to an investigation. So making an appeal can yield helpful information. On the other hand, it can also draw out all sorts of people who have their own reasons for either claiming to be guilty or claiming to know something about the crime. Trying to separate important leads from ‘background noise’ takes a lot of time and effort, and most police departments don’t have a lot of extra staff to handle the inevitable ‘phone calls and visits. Still, public appeals can be very useful. Here’s a quick look at the way they work in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning about a major crime that’s to take place in Andover. Then shopkeeper Alice Ascher is murdered. At first there’s not a huge amount of public interest in the crime, other than in the street where she had her home and shop. But then Poirot gets another warning note, and there’s another death. This time the victim is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard. Other than the notes and the sex of the victims, the only thing the deaths have in common is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. But those are enough for the police and Poirot to believe that they’re dealing with a multiple murderer. They don’t get very far in their investigation though, and the decision is taken to ask for the public’s help. There’s an interesting discussion about whether to do so. On the one hand, it will put people on the alert so that they can help catch the killer. On the other, it will also bring out all sorts of people that the police don’t have time to deal with, and it may be exactly what the murderer wants. It turns out that asking for the public’s help leads towards something very important about the case. I know, I know, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead…
In one plot thread of Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are faced with a perplexing case. The body of an unknown man has been discovered in an old chicken shed. The body’s head, hands and legs have been removed, so identification is extremely difficult. Even matching what the police have to missing person reports doesn’t prove to be successful. The police do get a few leads, but they don’t yield very much. It’s finally decided that Grace’s colleagues Glenn Branson and Bella Moy will go on Crimewatch, a monthly TV show that features unsolved crimes. They duly appear on the show, and although their participation doesn’t solve the case, it does point the police towards an important lead.
Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Constable Maeve Kerrigan of the Met. She and her team are up against a very difficult case: a killer who tries to destroy the bodies of his victims by fire. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and so far, the police haven’t made much headway in finding him. Then, there’s another killing. This time the victim is Rebecca Haworth, a successful PR professional. Her death might or might not be the work of the Burning Man, and Kerrigan’s boss doesn’t want to risk losing a very important lead. Kerrigan isn’t so sure, and she would really like to be a part of the continuing hunt for the Burning Man. But it wouldn’t look good for the police to appear not to be following up on a murder. So Kerrigan starts digging into Haworth’s background to find out who might have wanted to kill her. In this case, public appeals are made not just to get information about the Burning Man, but also to warn potential victims.
Perhaps no public appeals are more poignant than appeals for information and help when a child disappears. We see that for instance in Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready disappears one night, the police are notified and soon there’s an all-out search for the child. The case generates quite a lot of media and public interest because Amanda is so young. And of course there’s lots of public discussion as to how and why she disappeared. Despite all the effort, no trace of her turns up – not even a body. Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and his wife Beatrice ask PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to take the case. They’re reluctant at first; after all, it’s hard to see what they can do if the efforts of dozens of police and hundreds of area residents haven’t been successful. But they’re finally persuaded. And what they discover turns out to be quite different to what they had imagined this case would be. At one point in the novel, Amanda’s mother Helene goes on television to make an appeal for her daughter’s safe return. And of course there are all kinds of notices and posters displayed all over the area. They don’t solve the case, but they add a sense of authenticity and urgency to the plot.
Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also makes use of appeals to the public for information when a child is lost. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson are the proud parents of nine-week-old Noah. They’ve just landed in Melbourne after a very long and difficult trip from Joanna’s home in Scotland, and they’re preparing to take the drive from the airport to their destination. Along the road, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of Noah. Alistair calls the police, who immediately do a search of the surrounding area. No leads turn up, and of course every moment counts. So a public appeal is made for any information that may lead to the baby’s safe return. The couple even go on television themselves to make a direct appeal. There are websites and Facebook pages set up too to raise money and contribute to the search. And then questions begin to be raised about what really happened to baby Noah…
And then there’s Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. One hot summer night, June Giatto and Valerie ‘Val’ Marino decide impulsively to take a raft ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The next morning, Val is discovered washed up on the beach; she’s hurt but alive, and is rushed to the nearest hospital. June has disappeared though. The police do a search for her and a public appeal is made on the news and in local newsletters for any information that may lead to her whereabouts. Nothing turns up though, and months go by. There are still notices up, and the case is still discussed, but the appeal for help doesn’t yield much. In part that’s because of the relationship between the police and the community. In part it’s also because of what certain people know but aren’t willing to disclose. The public appeals for help don’t solve the case, but they do add to the sense of loss as the fact of June’s disappearance settles in.
It’s true that going on television, radio or online to appeal for information has its risks. Dozens and dozens of ‘leads’ may come in, and each must be followed up, but most of them don’t go anywhere. And sometimes, a public appeal for help gives the criminal an important source of information about police suspicions. But those disadvantages can be completely forgotten if just the right person sees or hears the appeal and comes forward with just the right information…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Catch Me Now I’m Falling.