He Hears But Cannot Answer to Your Call*

When there’s a crime, one of the important things that police do is talk to the people involved. Whether those people tell the truth or lie, the investigator can usually get some useful information. So, it’s critical to be able to communicate with witnesses, suspects, and others who can provide information.

But what if that’s not possible (or at least, if it’s very difficult)? In today’s world, if someone involved in a case speaks another language, it’s usually possible to get an interpreter to help facilitate communication. And if a witness simply decides not to speak, that person can sometimes be persuaded to do so. Those are straightforward, if not easy, challenges.

But there are cases where a witness or other involved person cannot communicate. When that happens, the police can be at a real disadvantage. And that can add a really interesting plot twist to a crime novel.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, the Boynton family travels from their home in the US to take a tour of the Middle East. Part of the trip involves a visit to the ancient city of Petra. One the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. Given her age and health, it wouldn’t be surprising. But Colonel Carbury isn’t so sure. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to ask questions. He finds that the victim was malicious, tyrannical and manipulative, so every one of her family members has a very good motive for murder. One of those members is her youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ Jinny is mentally fragile, and lately, seems to have been losing touch with reality more and more. So, it’s very difficult to make sense of what she says and get to the truth. In the end, though, Poirot discovers who really killed Mrs. Boynton and why.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’ Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces his sleuth, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, Mørck is named head of ‘Department Q,’ a department created to investigate ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. The first one he and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the 5-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She went missing during a ferry trip with her brother Uffe, and it was always believed that she drowned. But now there’s evidence that she might still be alive. If she is, then she may be in grave danger. Mørck wants to talk to Uffe about the incident; after all, he was on the ferry. But he is a very troubled young man who doesn’t really communicate. So, Mørck and the team have to do the best they can with what little they can learn from him, and with other information they learn. And they discover that the roots of Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance are in the past.

In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Chicago police detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. The most likely suspect is sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White, who lives next door. But she has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly losing her grip on reality. Still, Luton is sure that White knows all about the crime, and may very well be guilty. So, she works to find ways to communicate. The story is told from White’s point of view, which adds to the tension as well as to a deep sense of unease as the dementia takes greater hold of her thinking.

In Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard is called in when a group of murders shocks the village of Highfield. The victims are Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. The Fletcher’s young daughter, Sophy, survived, because she hid under a bed during the murders. But she is very young, and of course, is suffering from the trauma of having her family members killed. So, she can’t really communicate about what happened. At first, Madden wants Sophy to remain locally, so that she can be available to the police as soon as possible. But Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, insists that Sophy is in no condition to be interviewed or answer questions. At her insistence, Sophy goes to Scotland to stay with her aunt and uncle while Madden and the team investigate. But Sophy has her own way of communicating, and she provides an interesting clue.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces Toronto Detective Ari Greene. He and Officer Daniel Kennicott investigate when the body of Katherine Torn is discovered in the bathtub of her home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Thorn’s common-law husband, radio celebrity Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect; he’s even said he killed her. But Brace’s attorney, Nancy Parish, is determined to do the best job she can for her client. And there is the possibility that he is innocent. She’s going to find this case difficult, though, because her client won’t speak with her. He only communicates through written notes, and even those are not overly informative. Little by little, though, and each in a different way, Greene and Parish find out the truth about what happened to Katherine Thorn.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreo’s The Cemetery of Swallows, which features Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID. Mallock travels to the Dominican Republic when a French citizen, Manuel Gemoni, murders a Dominican citizen, Tobias Darbier. There’s no question that Gemoni is guilty. In fact, it comes out that he went to the Dominican Republic specifically for the purpose of murder. What isn’t clear is the motive. And Gemoni can’t be much help in the investigation. For one thing, he’s badly injured. For another, he’s not particularly coherent. So, it’s very difficult for the team to know exactly where to start with this investigation.

And that’s the real challenge when people simply cannot communicate. Even if they have useful information in a case, they may not be able to share it. So, the investigating team sometimes has to be creative in finding ways to reach out.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Go to the Mirror.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Rennie Airth, Robert Rotenberg

25 responses to “He Hears But Cannot Answer to Your Call*

  1. I remember very well both Mercy and Cemetery of Swallows – and indeed how difficult it was to communicate with such witnesses. I seem to remember another example set in an old peoples’ home, where the only witness is someone with Alzheimer’s and so no one believes her when she tells them what she has seen. Does that ring any bells? I simply cannot remember the title or the author.

    • Hmm….it does sort of ring a bell, Marina Sofia. But in the one I first thought of, Lynn Kostoff’s Late Rain, the witness is man, so I don’t think it’s that one. Sorry not to be of more help. If you think of anything else about it, do let me know.

      As to Mercy and Cemetery of Swallows, I thought the authors did a really effective job of conveying what it’s like to try to get information from someone who can’t communicate. In real life, it must be very difficult.

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  3. I cannot think of any examples of this but it is an interesting problem. Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind sounds especially interesting.

    • That one really is well-written, I think, Tracy. I think it’d be especially harrowing for those who have had a loved one with dementia. It’s very realistic in that sense. The story of the murder is interesting, and so is the way Luton goes about trying to find out the truth.

  4. You’ve reminded me of Emma Healey’s brilliant novel, Elizabeth is Missing, told from the point of view of someone slipping deeper and deeper into dementia. She cannot seem to convince anyone – and certainly not the police – that her friend, Elizabeth, is indeed missing and the details of a decades-old crime are more vivid to her than the present. It is a tour-de-force.

    • You know, Christine, I’ve heard of that one, and it’s landed on my radar a few times, but I haven’t read it (yet). It sounds like a great book, and I really must move it from radar to TBR and then read it. Thank you for the nudge.

  5. Tormond Macdonald, in The Lewis Man by Peter May, has a tenuous grasp on reality because of dementia. Detective, Fin McLeod, needs to ask questions of Tormond about his connections to a body found preserved in the peat but the answers are at best fragmentary. It is heart breaking when May takes us in Tormond’s mind. The elderly man hopes the “bad” Mary who has sent him to a nursing home will change to the “good” Mary to whom he has been married for almost 50 years.

    • That’s a great example, Bill. Thanks for filling in the gap. And you’re right; I think May does an excellent job of portraying the way dementia has impacted Macdonald’s mind. It certainly adds to the power of the novel; and it is hard for MacLeod to get the information he needs. I like the layers that that sub-plot adds to the story.

  6. Col

    I’m not familiar with any of the books you’ve given as examples, and I can’t recall any similar incidents in my own reading. The Mallock – Cemetery of Swallows interests me.

    • Cemetery of Swallows is actually an unusual sort of book, Col. It’s interesting, but it’s certainly not your ‘typical’ sort of police procedural. If you do read it, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  7. Interesting post, Margot. It does add another layer to a story when there’s a challenge such as this. I’m always fascinated by the many ways you have the ability to make me look at a story over and over again and see it in a new light each time. Thanks. 🙂

  8. You must have ESP, Margot. I recently wrote a scene where a character’s only means of communication is BCI (Brain Computer Interface) technology. Not sure if you’re familiar with this scientific advancement. The disabled person wears an electrode cap that allows him/her to concentrate on one letter at a time and it appears on the computer screen. Fascinating technology, but very expensive.

    • I’ve heard of BCI, Sue, but I don’t have sophisticated knowledge of it. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that you’re including it in your story. What a twist! And I’m sure you had to do plenty of research on it. It certainly fits in with what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  9. kathy d

    Turn of Mind is harrowing for anyone who has had a parent with dementia. I have, and the book was a tough read. It was also hard to see the main character’s mistreatment at one facility where her own wishes and preferences are ignored. She still has emotions and reactions to the regimentation and neglect of her as a person.
    And then what happens to her later is a travesty altogether and abusive.
    I don’t wan to give a spoiler, so all I can say is that there is so much discrimination and abuse of people with disabilities in general, mental illness and and dementia, in particular, although people with autism, developmental and physical disabilities are also mistreated.
    I raise Resurrection Bay where a detective who is deaf faces some limitations, but can communicate with some people using various means.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that Turn of Mind is a very difficult read for those who’ve had loved ones with dementia. And the care home described in the novel isn’t a very warm, loving place, that’s for sure.

  10. kathy d

    This reminds me that I knew a man who was blind and in his 70s. He participated in an annual anti-war protest which took place at a military base. It is a non-violent event held every year. Several people were arrested and sentenced to three months in jail. He was told he would be exempted because he was blind. He said he wanted to be treated like the others.
    So he was sent to Ohio (lived in New Jersey) to be imprisoned and the prison didn’t know what to do with a blind person so they put him in solitary. So there he was, an elderly, blind person who was totally isolated and also far from his friends. Some people visited him. But to put a gentle, low-key former college professor, a kind and certainly not dangerous person, in isolation from other people, was cruel. And, of course, there was nothing for him to read in Braille, nothing.for him to listen to, was crueler.
    It was shocking to see how he was treated.
    I wish someone would write a book about that.

    • That’s a very stark example, Kathy, of how many challenges people face when they cannot communicate. I’m glad that he had some visits; but, as you say, that doesn’t take away from the treatment he received. It certainly sounds like rich material for a book.

  11. kathy d

    Also, and this is a major complaint of mine, many books in our library system have been taken out of circulation. One copy is at the central library but it’s hard to get there and there are many steps. For many people with disabilities, it is hard to access. The library won’t send books to the Heiskill branch near my house, and it is accessible.
    Post offices here are not all accessible and people with disabilities are not allowed to use the small lift to avoid climbing some stairs, unless they’re in a wheelchair.

  12. Very interesting piece and I must check these writers out. The only example I can think of is the Wallander series the policeman himself is slipping into dementia, following a similar path – his father’s decline and death. Not sure I’d want write it without a great deal of research. Must be distressing to research.

  13. Pingback: Wiing Links 5/8/17 – Where Genres Collide

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