Interview, Who’s Interviewing Who?*

eyewitness-interviewsBeing mixed up in a major crime, especially murder, can be harrowing enough. For many people, it’s only made worse when members of the press want interviews and access. Lots of people have no desire to make their lives public, so they avoid contact with the press if they can.

But there are people who actually do enjoy talking to the press. They like their time in the limelight, and seem to gravitate to wherever the cameras and microphone are. I’m sure you know the kind; you’ve seen them on news shows (e.g. ‘I still can’t believe this happened. He lived across the street for ___ years, and I never suspected a thing….’).

They’re in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the death of Poirot’s dentist, Henry Morley. There seems no reason for him to have committed suicide; at the same time, though, there seems no real motive for murder. Japp and Poirot talk to the people who visited on the day he was killed. One of those witnesses is Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, a rather eccentric woman who’s involved in amateur theatrics as well as missionary work. At first, she’s not overly enthusiastic about Japp interviewing her. But then she begins to enjoy it, even saying:

‘and if, by chance, my name should be in the papers – as a witness at the inquest, I mean – you will be sure that it is spelled right?…And of course, if they did care to mention that that I appeared in As You Like it at the Oxford Repertory Theatre…’

The mystery only deepens when Miss Sainsbury-Seale herself goes missing…

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill shows another reason people might be happy to talk to the press: it can be career-enhancing. In that novel, Carl Lee Hailey and his family are devastated when his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, is brutally raped and left for dead. The police quickly catch the two men responsible: Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. Hailey is concerned that these men will get away with their crime, and that’s not out of the question. The Haileys are black; Cobb and Willard are white. And this is small-town Clanton, Mississippi. Added to that is his rage over what happened to his daughter, and his sense of helplessness. So, he arranges to get a gun, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and shoots them. There is no choice but to arrest Hailey, although there is a great deal of sympathy for him. He asks local attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, a black man has shot two white men. For another, there’s the very real issue of taking the law into one’s own hands. As you can imagine, the media soon get hold of the story, and both Brigance and his counterpart for the prosecution get plenty of requests for interviews. Interestingly, each accuses the other of using the media (and the case) to get the kind of national attention that can catapult a lawyer to the top.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry novels offer a very interesting perspective on interviews. Henry is a sports reporter for the Toronto Planet. So, she spends quite a lot of time with baseball players, their coaches and managers, and other sports figures. In The Dead Pull Hitter, she’s drawn into a case of two murders of members of the Toronto Titans. Not only does she feel their loss personally, but she also senses an exclusive story. So, she starts asking questions. And in the end, she and Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro find out the truth behind the murders. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between the baseball players and the press. Here’s what Henry says about one of them:

‘The television guys love him, because he’s always glad to see them. It might have something to do with the money they slip him for interviews, but I think it’s also a matter of control. They only want thirty second clips and feed him soft questions.’

Professional athletes know that giving interviews is an important part of what they do; And the more willing they are to talk to the press, the better their public perception. But even these veterans of the interview have a harder time talking to the press when it’s about murder. And Henry has her work cut out for her, as the saying goes, to get the story.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. She seems to have the perfect life: she’s well-off, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she has a successful husband. Everything changes when the past catches up with her. It comes out that, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this birth, not even her husband. Soon, people start to ask questions, first privately, and then very publicly. Where is the child? If she’s alive, what’s become of her? If she’s not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The media make much of the story, and plenty of people have their say and give interviews. One of them is Jodie’s mother, who’s only too happy to heap criticism on her daughter. She writes a public letter that’s harshly judgmental of Jodie, and then goes on television, too, to be interviewed. She’s doing it as much for the money as she is for anything else. But that doesn’t make her very public rejection of her daughter any easier to take.

Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers features Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. In one plot thread of the novel, it’s the 30th anniversary of the (South Africa) Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand (it’s often called The Tour). This happened in 1981, while apartheid was still very much in force in South Africa. Many people thought that the tour shouldn’t take place because of that policy, and there were plenty of protests. The police wanted to keep order. Rugby fans simply wanted to see some good rugby matches. It all ended up in some very ugly scenes, and those who were there still remember it clearly. Thorne knows it was important, but she also knows that it’s already been covered. Then she finds a story hidden in the larger story. Two dancers dressed as lambs came to some of the games, entertained the crowd, danced, and so on. Then they stopped coming. Later, it was discovered that one was killed. As Thorne looks into what happened that day, she uncovers a lot about the protests, the police and the onlookers. She conducts interviews with several people on both sides, and those interviews are woven into the narrative.

Not everyone’s reluctant to talk to the press. Sometimes people are looking for what Andy Warhol is said to have called their 15 minutes of fame. Others want money or something else. And it’s interesting to see how they behave when the cameras are on.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon and Don Was’ Interview.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, John Grisham, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

17 responses to “Interview, Who’s Interviewing Who?*

  1. The media aka press can be difficult, still from real life I know that once one learns to handle it the press can be a formidable tool in alerting our society or even in solving social problems (beyond pressuring hesitant politicians).

    And I finally had some time to write:

  2. That 15 minutes is very tempting isn’t it? Often though it is a double edged sword which makes for even more interest!

  3. This is so true, Margot. I’m sometimes appalled at those who come flocking to the cameras to say nothing of importance but merely to get a little attention. Of course, I’m also appalled when I see a news reporter jam his microphone into the face of a shocked victim or grieving relative and start asking rude questions..

    • I’m not crazy about that, either, Pat. I think both types of people are appalling. I do understand that reporters need to get the story. That’s their job. Still… And, yes, those people who go diving for the cameras and microphones bother me at least as much. It does make one wonder…

  4. What a great post, so many crime fiction books use the media, obviously mimicking real-life. Belinda Bauer’s latest actually has a reporter at the key protagonist and it makes for an interesting twist to the tale. I’m glad you’ve got The Mistake here and The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald also has the role of the media at its heart too.

    • You’re so right about The Cry, Cleo! All sorts of people have their say in that novel, and a lot of it is through social media. To me, that adds a whole new dimension to the issue, actually. With so many people on Twitter and Facebook and so on, there are that many more opportunities for people to go for their proverbial 15 minutes. And thanks for mentioning the Bauer; I really must – must! – spotlight one of her books.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Nothing is more irksome then when an attorney tries his case in the media, IMO. It’s a double-edged sword, too. As a viewer, we want the details, but the justice system takes a hit every time an overeager attorney releases pertinent details. The Avery case comes to mind. Whether you believe in their guilt or not, they didn’t stand a chance once the judge disallowed a change in venue. The media had already convicted both defendants on the word of the crooked DA who was later caught sexting with rape victims. No charges were brought against him, though! Despicable. Hopefully, Brendan Dassey will be freed. The supreme court demanded his release twice and so far, the DA has managed to block/stall the order so they don’t look incompetent and risk another lawsuit. Shame on them.

    Rambled on, sorry. The case infuriates me and your post reminded me of the media shenanigans.

    • No need for apologies, Sue. That case shows so clearly how courting the media can cause real problems for a case. There are other examples, too, of course, and they all show just how much of an effect it has when people go looking for the cameras, so to speak.

  6. When I worked as a reporter, people would often say ‘oh you just go round forcing people to talk to you in their grief’, and this was so far from the truth. Of course there were journalists who behave badly, but the truth was that most of the time there was no NEED to harass the truly bereaved, because there were plenty of people willing and ready and keen to talk. So you are absolutely right, and I’m glad you found book examples to reflect that.

    • Thanks, Moira, for sharing your own experiences. Your insights help a lot. I would guess that most journalists have no desire to harass the grief-stricken. They want the story, yes, that’s natural. But as you say, there are plenty of ways to do that without upsetting those who are already devastated. And plenty of people happy to step up to the mic, so to speak.

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