One of the more popular, and often very effective, tropes in crime fiction is the character who’s been wrongly convicted of murder. It’s no wonder that it’s popular, too. For one thing, convictions are not always the end of the proverbial story. There are appeals, and there are opportunities for detectives to go back over a case. As you’ll know, there are instances, too, where people who’ve been imprisoned are exonerated. And sometimes, it’s less clear that someone was wrongly convicted. So, there’s a big question of whether that person is, in fact, guilty. All of this means the crime writer has a lot of flexibility with respect to how a plot will develop.
There’s also the suspense involved. Will the wrongly convicted character be set free? If that person’s innocent, who committed the crime? Is the character actually innocent? All of these questions can add interest and tension to a plot.
In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of Bern Cantonal Police. As the novel begins, he recently compiled the evidence that landed Erwin Schlumpf in jail, convicted of murdering Wendelin Witschi. On impulse, Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to stop him committing suicide. Studer has a liking for this prisoner, and decides to look at the facts of the case again. The trail leads to the small town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives. And, as Studer gets to know the town and its residents, he learns that this murder may be more complicated than he thought. Certainly, there are more suspects than it seemed at the beginning.
Agatha Christie used the ‘wrongly convicted person’ in several of her stories. In fact, as a personal aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a special interest in/concern for the innocent person who’s been convicted. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to revisit one of his (Spence’s) cases. James Bentley has been convicted of the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and will soon be executed. Spence has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent; if so, he wants the man’s name cleared. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It doesn’t take long before he discovers that Mrs. McGinty was a charwoman who worked in several homes in and near the village. She was naturally curious, and had found out some things that it wasn’t safe for her to know. So, there are several people who are just as well pleased that she’s dead. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs and of Ordeal by Innocence.
As James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos begins, New Iberia Police detective Dave Robicheaux is assigned to transport two convicted prisoners to Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. One of these prisoners is Tee Beau Latiolais; the other is Jimmie Lee Boggs. During the trip, Boggs manages to escape, killing Robicheaux’s partner Lester Benoit, and badly wounding Robicheaux. Separately, he and Latiolais go on the run, and one plot thread of this story concerns Robicheaux’s search for them. Latiolais’ grandmother, Tante Lemon, begs Robicheaux to help her son. She says that he’s not guilty of murder (he was with her at the time of the killing), and that he was wrongly convicted. She also says, though, that the police won’t listen to her, and certainly won’t listen to her grandson. So, another plot thread in this novel follows Robicheaux’s search for the real killer.
In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, we are introduced to former Glasgow copper Douglas Brodie. He’s recently returned from service in World War II (the novel takes place just after the end of that war), and is dealing with what we now call PTSD. He’s living in London, trying to start a career in journalism, when he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been convicted and jailed for the abduction and murder of a young boy named Rory Hutchinson, and is slated for execution in four weeks’ time. There’s credible evidence against him, too. In fact, the evidence is strong enough that Brodie isn’t entirely sure his friend is innocent. But Donovan says that he isn’t guilty, and Brodie finally allows himself to be persuaded to at least ask a few questions. So, he travels to Glasgow, where he meets with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She is firmly convinced her client is not guilty, and after a short time, Brodie begins to believe here. For one thing, there are a few too many obstacles to their finding out the truth, so it’s clear that someone wants the case left alone. For another, there are other possibilities. It’s not going to be an easy investigation, though; there are plenty of people who do not want the truth discovered.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in Rimutaka State Prison for several years, convicted of murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Now, little pieces of evidence suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. And that possibility gets the attention of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. If Bligh is innocent, this could be the story of Thorne’s career – the one that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So, she wastes no time starting to ask questions. The more she discovers, the closer she gets to the story – too close for comfort, as the saying goes. In this story, part of the tension comes from the question of whether Thorne is really onto something, or whether Bligh is a multiple murderer.
Of course, many convicted prisoners claim that they’re innocent. But there are cases where some of them really are, or could be. And even the possibility that an innocent person has been convicted can add much to the tension and suspense in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobby Russell’s The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.