That’s the Night That They Hung an Innocent Man*

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. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Friedrich Glauser, Gordon Ferris, James Lee Burke, Paddy Richardson

32 responses to “That’s the Night That They Hung an Innocent Man*

  1. A great subject Margot. Some excellent examples and more for the TBR list there too. I recently read James Patterson’s Guilt Wives which uses this trope and whilst it was a move from my usual ‘cosy’ read and quite violent in place, it was a very good and well written story.
    There is also of course the suspect that is arrested and thrown in jail only for another murder to be committed, a trope I’ve used myself 🙂

    • Yes, you have, D.S., and effectively, too! I’ll admit I’ve not read the Patterson, but it sounds as though it’s a really good fit with what I had in mind for this post. So thanks for mentioning it. And for the kind words. 🙂

  2. Yes, indeed, a popular plotline and always interesting when it’s done well. Rennie Airth’s The Death of Kings involves the reopening of an old case when evidence turns up that suggests the wrong man was convicted and hanged for a murder. And Sharon Bolton’s wonderful Daisy in Chains involves a true-crime author who gets asked by a convicted murderer to look into his case. And then there’s Douglas Skelton’s brilliant Open Wounds, where the plot begins with a man who claims he was fitted up for a burglary and rape…

    • It really is interesting when it’s done well, isn’t it, FictionFan? And you’ve given some excellent examples, too (I admit I’ve not read that Airth yet, but still….). And I really appreciate your mentioning Open Wounds, because I want to do a spotlight on one of his books soon. I always love the nudge for good ideas for spotlight authors.

  3. I really enjoy this premise Margot, as you say it can be taken in a number of directions by the author, but as with all of the high emotion premises, it has to be done well to be convincing. You’ve also reminded me that The Hanging Shed is on the TBR, I must make sure I read it as part of my Mount TBR Challenge.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy it when you get to it, Cleo. It really is, in my opinion, an excellent book, and the start of a fine trilogy. You’re right, too, I think, that this sort of plot point has to be done really well in order to work. Otherwise it won’t be as credible.

  4. R. T.

    And then there is this crime novel with spurs.
    Every crime fiction reader should read it.

  5. This kind of plot always fills me with tension; I feel so much for the person who was wrongly imprisoned… assuming it was a mistake. I did read The Hanging Shed and enjoyed it.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy. When this sort of plot is done well, it really does invite the reader to get caught up in the situation faced by the person who’s been convicted. And that definitely adds to the suspense. I’m glad you enjoyed The Hanging Shed. I recommend the rest of the books, too, when you get the time.

  6. mudpuddle

    J.D. Carr: The Bride of Newgate… richard darwent has been shanghaied into Newgate prison and Lady Caroline wants to marry him just before his execution so she can inherit his money… will this nefarious plot receive it’s just deserts? will Richard hang? a typical plot of
    Carr’s, twisted and devious manifestations abound…

    • Oh, that’s a good one, Mudpuddle! Care really was devious, wasn’t he? Thanks for the suggestion for this one, and for the reminder of just how good Carr was.

  7. Margot: How about The True Crime Files of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rediscovered by Stephen Hines in which Sir Arthur takes the offensive in seeking to overturn a pair of wrongful convictions in early 20th Century England. I had not known of his passion for fighting for justice in real life.

  8. Margot, the wrongly accused character does add a lot of tension to a story. I also like the stories where the wrongly accused character is freed at last only to show up before the book ends actually killing again.

    • Oh, that is an interesting plot twist, isn’t it, Mason? And it adds a lot to the suspense of the story. And I think, too, that the wrongly-accused character can be really interesting as a human. As we learn why a person’s been arrested and convicted, we can also learn a lot about that person.

  9. Col

    I do like this trope in my reading, though I’m struggling to recall any from recent times. Looking forward to the Ferris one someday. The Burke was read years ago, but my memory is rubbish!

  10. Wrong convictions are scary. I just read about a real one in the papers the other day. The man came out of prison and demanded that his lost years be given back to him. How do you respond to that? It’s nothing less than a human rights violation.

  11. kathy d

    I’ve come across this often, including in books by John Grisham. But what saddens me is when this travesty happens in real life. I think of labor leader, Joe Hill, executed in 1915, about whom a legendary song is sung.
    Then there are lynchings with the cooperation of law enforcement.
    I’m just editing a piece which centers on the arrest and lynching of three African-American storeowners in Memphis, taken out of jail and killed by a lynch mob 125 years ago this month. No one was ever arrested for this crime.
    And then there are James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, civil rights workers, arrested for no reason in Mississippi in 1964, then killed by Klansmen who were in league with the sheriff who locked them up, then released them at night.
    And then the Innocence Project has obtained release of innocent people on death row.
    So, there’s much to be written about in crime fiction to tell these and other stories. It does raise consciousness, I think, of the reality of these fatal acts.

    • You’re right, Kathy. There are plenty of instances where a murder is committed, and the wrong person is convicted, and then executed, for it. It certainly happens in real life, unfortunately, and, as you say, it happens in fiction, too. And John Grisham is a terrific example of an author who addresses that. Thanks for bringing it up.

  12. I can’t resist a mention for Harriet Vane: she’s the love of Lord Peter Wimsey’s life, and they meet when she is accused of murdering her lover. She comes THIS close to being convicted and hanged – not a spoiler to say Lord Peter gets her off. It’s Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, but I don’t need to tell you that!

  13. Hi Margot – this is great, important topic and a great wale up call to learn more about our justice and law system. This is another powerful and essential subject, thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mihrank. I agree with you that it’s important to pay attention to our justice system. Even one wrongly-convicted person is one too many. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  14. kathy d

    Well, we’ve got to get rid of the death penalty over here. The EU, Canada, and I think Australia have done so.

  15. Pingback: MISS SILVER AND THE GREAT CONFLUENCE OF 1937 | ahsweetmysteryblog

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