As this is posted, it’s 384 years since Galileo was forced to recant his assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun. It’s said that he never actually changed his beliefs; and, of course, time has proven him and Copernicus right about the way our solar system works. And yet, Galileo said the exact opposite when he recanted.
Galileo, of course, had good reason to recant; he was in fear for his life. But he’s by no means the only one who’s lied, even under oath, to avoid terrible consequence, or to gain something important. We see it all the time in crime fiction. Whether it’s on the witness stand, in an interview with the police, or something else, fictional characters will, at times, swear to things they know aren’t true. Or, they’ll deny things that they know are true.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family of the village of Warmsley Vale is faced with a crisis. Wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade had always promised his siblings and their families that he’d see to their needs, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. Then, he unexpectedly married, and died in a wartime bomb blast before he could change his will. Now, his widow, Rosaleen, is set to inherit everything, leaving his family with nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints strongly that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, is still alive. If so, then Rosaleen can’t inherit. When Arden is killed, the possibility arises that he may, in fact, be Underhay. So, Major George Porter, who knew Underhay, is asked to state in court whether the body is Underhay’s. Rosaleen Cloade is also asked the same question. Each swears to tell the truth, but their answers directly contradict each other. And both of them had important reasons to swear to something that wasn’t true.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird introduces readers to Atticus Finch. He’s a highly-regarded attorney who lives and works in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. He gets a wrenching case when Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson of raping her. The rape charge is serious enough, but Robinson is black, and Ewell is white. In small-town Alabama, that makes everything all the more highly-charged. Robinson claims that he’s innocent, but no-one believes him. In fact, he very nearly becomes the victim of a lynch mob. Finch takes the case and begins looking into the matter. And, part of the suspense in the novel comes from the discovery of who’s been swearing to something that wasn’t true, and why.
During the McCarthy Era of the early 1950s, many people were pressured to denounce colleagues, friends, and even loved ones as communists. Sometimes so much pressure was brought to bear that people would give names even if they knew the people they accused weren’t communists at all. Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is set against that backdrop. In it, Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins receives a letter from IRS agent Reginald Lawrence. According to the letter, Rawlins owes thousands of dollars of back taxes, which he’ll have to pay immediately or be imprisoned. Rawlins is preparing himself for a prison term when he gets help in the form of FBI Agent Daryll Craxton, who offers Rawlins a deal. If Rawlins helps bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, then Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. Rawlins has no desire to denounce anyone, but he feels he has no choice. So, he agrees to Craxton’s plan, and starts to get to know Wenzler. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Rawlins comes to like Wenzler, which makes denouncing him all the more difficult. Then, he is framed for two murders that occur at the church where both he and Wenzler volunteer. Now, he’ll have to clear his name, as well as find a way to deal with Craxton without denouncing Wenzler, if he can.
Sometimes, people aren’t forced to swear to something that isn’t true, but they do so for reasons of their own. For instance, in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we are introduced to brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive home, but they’ve responded in very different ways. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity that comes his way, and ends up going to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability, and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits, and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. One day, Gates has a quarrel with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. Thompson eventually leaves, but the Hunt brothers encounter him later that night. The quarrel starts up again, and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason is the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Gates, meanwhile, has been arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a long sentence, and begs his brother to get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Gates says that if Mason won’t help him, he’ll implicate his brother in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason still refuses, and Gates makes good on his threat. He tells police that his brother committed the Thompson murder, and Mason soon finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation. In this case, Gates swears to what’s not true so that he can get out of prison.
And then there’s Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. In that novella, Amsterdam police detective Henrik van der Pol is present at Amsterdam Harbour one morning when the body of a young woman is found floating on the surface of the water. Van der Pol and his police partner, Liesbeth, investigate, and follow the trail to Little Hungary in the Red Light District (RLD). A sex worker who lives there, a woman named Irena, is one of van der Pol’s contacts, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to give him some information. What he finds, though, at least at first, is that she doesn’t want to say anything. She claims not to know anything about anything. Then, she lets van der Pol and Liesbeth know that she’s afraid of being seen with them, let alone saying anything. Eventually, she tells them the truth, but it’s at a very high price.
People have all sorts of reasons for recanting, or for otherwise denying what they know is true. It may be coercion, fear, or something else. But it’s always interesting to see how characters react under those circumstances.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray LaMontagne’s Please.