It’s very difficult to commit a crime without leaving any evidence behind. So police look carefully for anything that can link a crime to its perpetrator. Most criminals know this, too. And sometimes, they fake evidence, either to confuse the police or to implicate someone else.
Admittedly, in a ‘heat of the moment’ kind of crime, the criminal may be more interested in covering her or his own tracks, so to speak, than in taking the time to fake any of the evidence. But it can still happen. And it happens in pre-planned crimes too. Faked evidence figures into a lot of crime fiction, too – much more than I can mention in just this one post. But here are a few examples.
Arthur Conan Doyle used this plot point in more than one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Adventure of the Priory School, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Thornycroft Huxtable, head of the exclusive Priory School. He wants Holmes’ help in finding one of his pupils, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire has disappeared, and Huxtable is afraid he’s been abducted. Holmes takes the case and immediately begins to trace the boy. The case turns out to be more complicated than kidnapping for ransom, but Holmes discovers the truth. At one point, they see a great number of cow tracks out on the moor as they investigate. But they never see any cows. As if that’s not strange enough, the tracks indicate that the cows are behaving in ways that are very unusual: galloping and cantering. Holmes follows up on this clue and learns, not much to his surprise, that the evidence of the cow tracks was faked.
Agatha Christie also uses faked evidence in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so Poirot investigates each one to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. In this novel, there are lots of pieces of evidence, including a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief and smashed watch. Part of Poirot’s task as he searches for the truth is to sift out which clues are genuine, and which have been faked. I can say without spoiling the story that there are some of each.
Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water introduces his sleuth, Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In this novel, Montalbano and his team are called to the scene when the body of Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car in The Pasture, a notorious area just outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. At first, it looks very much as though Luparello died of a massive heart attack during a sexual encounter. But little pieces of evidence just don’t add up for Montalbano. He requests, and is given, two days to see if he can find out what really happened. As it turns out, some of the evidence is deliberately faked, and Montalbano has decide which evidence that is in order to get to the truth.
There’s a very interesting case of faked evidence in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney who gets drawn into a very complex case when fellow attorney Carolyn Polhemus is murdered. This case will have to be handled carefully and transparently, but Sabich’s boss believes he’s up to the task. What Sabich hasn’t mentioned to anyone is that he has a personal stake in this case: he was involved with the victim until just a few months before she was killed. When that fact comes out, Sabich is replaced by a rival. Then, evidence begins to build up that Sabich himself may have committed the crime. Now he finds himself on the other side of the law as he faces a murder trial. With help from his own counsel Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, Sabich works to clear his name. And part of doing so will involve looking through the evidence and determining which is genuine and which has been faked.
Sometimes, evidence is faked when a killer wants to disguise a murder as the work of another killer who’s already known to the police. Such ‘copycat’ murders can be very difficult to difficult to distinguish from the ‘real thing.’ That’s what happens, for instance, in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DS Maeve Kerrigan and her Met team are on the trail of a multiple murderer whom the press has dubbed The Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate his victims’ bodies. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks as though she, too, was killed by The Burning Man. But little clues suggest otherwise to Kerrigan. Although she wants to keep working the case, her boss directs her to focus on the Haworth murder. It may be the work of The Burning Man, who’s simply changed his methods a bit. Or, it may be a ‘copycat killer.’ In either case, if the Met gives the appearance of not paying attention to this murder, there will be serious consequences. As Kerrigan and her team look at the Haworth murder, we see how evidence can be manipulated.
Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a very clear example of the way evidence can be faked. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri discovers that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. According to reports, he was attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The story goes that the murder was punishment for Jha’s denouncement of ‘godmen,’ people who prey on others’ need to believe in religion. There are a great number of people, too, who are convinced that that’s exactly what happened. However, Puri thinks that the murder has a more prosaic solution. So he begins to investigate. And as he does, we learn quite a lot about how evidence can be used to create whatever impression someone might want.
Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, who was killed during a holiday stay with her aunt and uncle. At first, as you’d expect, the police concentrate on the victim’s family and friends. But they can’t get enough clear evidence to prosecute. Then, a few months later, another body is discovered. This time the victim is sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. Like Angela, her body is found with a scarf wrapped round her head and neck. Now the police and press begin to suspect a serial killer, whom they dub the Sydney Strangler. The killer is never caught, though. Years later, documentary journalist Erin Fury is preparing a piece on the impact of murder on the families of the victim. When she takes an interest in the Buchanan case, we learn just what evidence means, and doesn’t mean.
And that’s the thing about evidence. It is important, and crime scene and forensics specialists are critical to criminal investigation. But wise police detectives and attorneys know that evidence doesn’t always tell the whole story, or even the truth.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s I Can See For Miles.