They Tried to Give Me Advice*

helping-the-policeHave you ever noticed that when people say that they don’t want to tell you how to do your job – they do? And it can be awfully annoying when someone tries to be ‘helpful.’ Even if that person has the best of intentions, it can still be grating. The police have to deal with that whenever there’s a very public case. ‘Armchair detectives’ and members of the media are quick to have their say. And, with the advent of today’s social media, it’s easy for members of the public to second-guess an investigation, too. It’s little wonder that the police can get fed up with all of that ‘help.’ But it’s a part of the job. And besides, the police don’t want to miss an important lead. So, it’s worth the annoyance (well, most of the time) to get a sense of what people think.

There are different ways, too, in which people let the police know what they ‘should be doing.’ And many of them show up in crime fiction. That sort of plot point can add a layer of suspense to a story. It can also be an effective tool for providing clues, if the author wants to do that.

We see one example of telling the police what to do in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings to discover who poisoned Emily Inglethorp. There are several suspects, as she was a wealthy woman. The killer has been clever, too, so it’s not an easy case to solve. But the victim’s friend and companion, Evelyn Howard, is sure she knows who’s guilty. She tells several people, including Hastings and Poirot, that the criminal is Alfred Inglethorp, Emily’s husband. That’s certainly a possibility, but there are other suspects, too, and other leads to follow. Evelyn sticks to her guns, though, as the saying goes, and insists that the police are wasting their time looking at anyone else as the guilty party. And it’s interesting to see how strident she is about what the police should and shouldn’t be doing.

Domingo Villar’s Vigo-based Inspector Leo Caldas has an interesting way to listen to what members of the public have to say. Along with his police duties, he hosts a radio show called Patrolling the Waves. It’s a call-in show that invites listeners to share their concerns, comments and so on – a chance to ‘talk with a cop.’ And Caldas gets all sorts of ‘helpful suggestions’ for improving police work. On the one hand, it’s sometimes tiresome, even frustrating. On the other, Caldas knows that it’s best to have the reputation of being open to public comment. And a call-in show is an ordered way (well, usually) to hear what people have to say without spending too many hours doing so.

Sometimes, the police use press briefings and the like to update the public on their investigations. And, since the media’s job is to inform people, journalists sometimes ask challenging questions. If they’re not handled well, it can seem as though the press is trying to tell the police how to do their jobs. We see that sort of tension in ’s Dregs. Police detective William Wisting and his team are trying to solve a bizarre case. A left food, clad in a trainer, was found near the Norwegian town of Stavern. Shortly afterwards, another was found. And another. The story has made all of the news outlets, and everyone has an opinion on what’s going on. One of the most popular is that there’s some sort of serial killer at work. There’s so much gossip about the investigation that the police believe it’s best to hold a press briefing, so that they have a say in the information that becomes public. Wisting isn’t a big fan of such events, but he knows they have value. During the briefing, he’s grilled on several aspects of the case. One journalist in particular challenges him on several matters, even suggesting that the police have made mistakes. It’s a tense scene, and certainly doesn’t make Wisting’s job any easier.

The police also have their share of input from individuals who call or visit. Sometimes those visits are fruitful; sometimes not. That’s part of what can make the police’s job challenging. In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, for instance, Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne. Orla’s brother Callum went missing years ago, and no trace of him has been found. Now, Orla wants his case re-opened. When she calls in, though, she’s both emotionally fragile and drunk. So, she’s not very coherent and doesn’t make a very good impression on Scarlett. In fact, she’s all but brushed off. Then, Orla herself dies by suicide (or is it really suicide?). Now, Scarlett wishes she’d accepted Orla’s suggestion to look into Callum’s disappearance. Her guilt is part of what spurs her on to open the case again. And what she finds is a dark story that goes back decades.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to Victoria, they’re hoping to make a new start. The trip doesn’t go well, though, as their nine-week-old son, Noah, is not an easy baby. In fact, the flight is dreadful. But, they land safely and start to make their way from Melbourne to their destination, Alistair’s home town. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police spearhead a massive search, and they get all sorts of advice from the media and the public. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other social media are full of people’s opinions about what the police ought to be doing, and where they should be looking. People are even more ‘helpful’ when they begin to suspect that one or both of Noah’s parents may have had a hand in whatever happened to him. In the end, we find out the truth. We also see how difficult it can be for the police when everyone wants to make suggestions.

But the fact is, you never know when someone’s ‘help’ may actually include vital information. So, the police know that they can’t shut people out entirely. It makes for an interesting dilemma, and (in crime fiction) a solid source of tension.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Black’s Freedom Rock.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Helen Fitzgerald, Jørn Lier Horst, Martin Edwards

16 responses to “They Tried to Give Me Advice*

  1. As I was reading this post I was thinking of The Cry and then it was there. An amazing read and perfectly shows your point.

  2. The extra help the police get does add a layer of intrigue to a story. In real life, I sometimes wonder if the police let social media and such run with their own theories so they (the police) can work in the background so to speak on their own clues. With all the police dramas on TV, I image police get way more help than they need. 🙂 Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason 🙂 – And you’re probably quite right about the impact of police dramas in film and television. I’d suppose a lot of people now have the idea that they know everything they need to know to ‘help’ the police. You make an interesting point, too, about the police working in the background on their own theories, and just letting the public believe what they want. I’m sure it’s frustrating, but sometimes, I’d guess it’s for the best.

  3. Margot, I’m not sure where but I vaguely remember reading about a news reporter who is out to gather a scoop and ends up helping the cops, instead. I probably saw it in the movies for it is a familiar subplot. I’m curious about “Dregs”.

    • I’ve seen a few TV shows like that, Prashant. It can, I think, be a successful context for a film or program when it’s done well. As to Dregs, it’s a well-written novel, I think. And, in my opinion, the tension caused when people want to ‘help’ the police adds to it. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Totally agree, Margot. The media makes a great source of tension in crime fiction. I’m reading a book now, (two, actually; long story, don’t ask) where a sergeant has paranormal abilities and he’s deathly afraid of anyone finding out, especially the media. This sort of conflict has plagued me in real life too. In just this past week alone, after People Magazine aired a show about the Cabin 28 murders in Keddie, CA, I’ve been bombarded with armchair detectives. And just today, another armchair detective wrote in to tell me how after watching Death Row Inmates another post I wrote was, in fact, wrong in his opinion; the defendant couldn’t be guilty even though DNA convicted him with a 12,000 million to one accuracy. Crazy! Which goes to show how much media influences the public. I just wish they’d do it on cases I haven’t featured. LOL

    • Oh, my, Sue! I didn’t know you’d had that happen to you! It must be frustrating. And you’re right; when the public gets involved in ‘helping the police solve crimes,’ it can lead to all sorts of annoyance – and worse. But then, there are those times when a tip from a member of the public is key to solving a case. So the police can’t really cut off that potential source of information. It’s a tough challenge for them.

      Hey, folks, in case you were wondering about Sue’s reference to the Cabin 28 murders, you’ll want to read her excellent post on those killings, starting right here.

  5. In a number of crime books the police refuse to listen to some rambling witness, and miss a vital bit of information – I would say Rendell’s Wexford does this several times. It annoys me as a plot device, because I think it’s unrealistic: surely a good detective has infinite patience and listening skills?

    • You know, I hadn’t thought about that specifically when I was doing this post, Moira, but you have a well-taken point. Of course the police must find it tiresome when dozens of people ‘confess’ to a crime, or swear they’ve seen something suspicious. But, as you say, there could very well be important information in something someone says, however offbeat or rambling. So the police mostly likely generally do try to listen patiently. You never know what you may hear…

  6. Well you’ve used my favourite example of armchair detectives in The Cry but I’m also pleased to see one of the later books in Martin Edwards’ The Lake District Mysteries as it’s another one to look forward to.

    • The Cry is a fantastic book, isn’t it, Cleo? And you’re right; Fitgerald does a fantastic job of portraying ‘armchair’ detectives. As to The Hanging Wood, I think you’ll like it very much – I hope you do. Edwards’ characters have really evolved over the course of the series, and he creates really absorbing plots.

  7. I always admire the composure of the police and other officials who give press conferences about horrible events. I don’t know how they keep their cool when bombarded by the often obnoxious and repetitive questions from the press.

    • I know what you mean, Pat. They really do tend to keep cool and calm, and try very hard not to ‘fan the flames.’ And I’m sure they have to do a lot of that off-camera, too, when people write in, tweet, post on Facebook, or in some other way tell them what they ‘should’ do.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s