Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

Difficult InterviewsInterviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.

In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.

Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.

Martin EdwardsThe Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.

In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke

17 responses to “Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

  1. As always, your ability to remember these examples amazes me, Margot! I feel I should be able to think of some to add, but no – I fear the mind is a blank! But it is always an interesting plot point, I agree, especially when it’s a child or someone who may not really have been able to interpret what they saw. The child in Belinda Bauer’s ‘The Facts of Life and Death’ isn’t being interrogated by the police, but the reader sees the story from her point of view and part of the interest comes from how the reader interprets what’s going on around her differently than she herself does.

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. And thanks too for reminding of the Bauer. I really want to read that one (I’ve become a fan of her work). It is interesting to think about how the police (or PIs for the matter of that) go about getting information from someone who, as you say, can’t interpret what s/he’s seen or experienced. Or, as sometimes happens, may be able to interpret something, but can’t communicate that very well. Either way it can make for an interesting story.

  2. I’ve not come across Defending Elton before and you’ve tempted me (again) because this is looking at the crime from a different perspective than the sleuth…

    • I recommend Defending Elton, Cleo. It really is an interesting take on a crime. And for those who aren’t familiar with the UK court system, it’s an informative introduction to it as well, without being burdened with ‘information overload.’

  3. Margot: So often in reading crime fiction I want to cry out to the author your sleuth is not interviewing the witness. He/She is asking such leading questions you cannot know if the answers are from the witness or the person conducting the interview. It is so prevalent in broadcasting I have come to doubt journalists know how to ask neutral questions. I leave aside that fictional courtroom lawyers who routinely ask leading questions of their own witnesses which would never happen in real life.

    • Bill – I was hoping you would comment. Neutral questions are such an important part of interviewing anyone, and sleuths have to learn to ask them. As you say, if you ask leading questions, you don’t know whether the answer comes from the sleuth or the person being interviewed. And authors who create attorney sleuths need to be especially careful of this, since real-life attorneys would know the importance of neutral questions.

  4. Col

    I haven’t picked up a Kellerman books for years, time for a re-visit!

  5. Such an interesting topic. I don’t have any books to add, but when I was a reporter I was involved in a court case where a vulnerable witness had been interviewed without a responsible person there. Things became very complicated from there on, and I had a strange involvement in what happened next, concerning whether or not he could have known some information that the police said he had mentioned in the i/view. Eventually this case led to a change in the rules for questioning special needs witnesses in the whole of the UK – very much a change for the good.

    • Oh, that’s a fascinating story, Moira! I’m glad the UK has rules and policies for interviewing special-needs and other very vulnerable witnesses. They often do have important information; but, as you remind us, it’s not appropriate to interview them in the same way that one interviews other kinds of witnesses.

  6. Your post brings to mind the frailty of memory. Defense lawyers are very skilled at instilling doubt in the mind of juries by discrediting the witnesses’s memory.
    In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Jonas keeps insisting he doesn’t remember anything about the accident that left his girlfriend in a coma. The psychiatrist replies. “…but the truth is that you’ve chosen not to remember. The brain functions to protect us from traumatic experiences, it chooses to repress things that are too painful to remember.”
    Witnesses rely on their memory which can be very unreliable and complex.
    This is another wonderful suspense writer whom I discovered through your blog, 🙂
    Very interesting post, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol. And I love that quote from Betrayal. It really does show that it can be very difficult to interview witnesses and suspects. As you say, memory can be frail, and sometimes, people choose not to remember something because it’s too painful.

  7. Depending on interrogations of witnesses always seems too uncertain to me; memories are iffy, as mentioned above, or misunderstandings or emotions can get in the way.

    • That’s exactly the thing about interviewing, Tracy. And I’d say that’s probably true even of witnesses who are not limited or particularly vulnerable. It’s even more so when they are.

  8. Margot – you have got me thinking…but my memory isn’t as good as yours, maybe you can help me out? I am thinking Scandinavian writer – possibly female – a story where a young boy with some sort of health issue has draw a picture that helps solve the case.

    • Oh, that’s intriguing, Carol. I can’t think of it straight off, but I’ll put my mind to it. Folks, if you know the book Carol’s referring to, do put your hands up!

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