No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

One of the major challenges that police and private investigators face is people’s reluctance to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because those people have their own secrets, and they’d rather the police didn’t find them out. Many times, though, it’s because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do co-operate.  If there’s a lot of what I’ll call peer pressure not to be involved in an investigation, people find that hard to resist.

For instance, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw is faced with a very troubling case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body discovered in Kelvingrove Park. In that part of the city, there is a lot of pressure not to talk to ‘the polis.’ Everyone knows who co-operates with the authorities, and those people are not made to feel welcome. Laidlaw knows this, so he takes a different approach to finding information. He and his second-in-command, Detective Constable (DC) Brian Harkness, pay a visit to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the victim was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it will happen. Laidlaw also knows that Rhodes has a certain ethic. He’s not going to be pleased about the rape and murder of a young woman on ‘his patch.’ So, Laidlaw and Harkness appeal to that ethic, and Rhodes agrees to put the word out for anyone who knows anything to come forward. Sure enough, that strategy turns out to be successful, and Laidlaw gets some useful information.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. He is responsible for the arrest of Erwin Schlumpf on the charge of murdering his sweetheart Sonja’s father, travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi. Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to prevent the man’s suicide. He’s developing a liking for Schlumpf, so he decides to investigate Witschi’s murder again. There was certainly enough evidence against Schlumpf to arrest him, but Studer finds that there are other possibilities when it comes to the murderer. He faces a major challenge, though: very few people are willing to talk to him. It’s not so much that they dislike Schlumpf. Rather, they have to live in the small town where the murder occurred, and don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart, especially considering that some suspects have quite a lot of local power.

There’s a similar sort of concern in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam police detective Piet van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. There’s been a spate of anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters, and the matter has gone far beyond annoying. The letters have been responsible for two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out much information, chiefly because Zwinderen’s residents are close-mouthed. They have to live in this town, where everyone knows everyone’s business. If anyone is seen as helping the police, there’s immediately talk as to why. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, travel to the town, and settle in. Because of the natural suspicion, van der Valk pretends to be a bureaucrat conducting a study for the Ministry of the Interior. In that guise, he slowly gets to know the residents; and, in the end, he finds out who wrote the letters and why.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces readers to Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas has been found by a local school caretaker, and the police begin their investigation. One of their first tasks is, of course, to find out as much as possible about the victim. When they learn that she was a sex worker, a natural next step is to talk to other local sex workers and find out about any enemies she’d made. That proves more difficult than it might seem. These women have to live in town and do their jobs. If they’re seen as helping the police, they’ll alienate some of the very people who are their support system. That’s not to mention that several of them work for Charlie Hawes, a dangerous pimp who’s not afraid to use violence to keep ‘his girls’ under control. He’s happy to use the same tactics against anyone else who crosses him, too, so people are inclined to keep quiet. Morriss knows how difficult it’s going to be to get Michelle’s friends and co-workers to talk, so she slowly develops a rapport with some of them, outside of the police station. Little by little, they learn to trust her, and she learns quite a lot of useful information.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Griffiths faces the same challenge in Talking to the Dead. When part-time sex worker Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, are killed, Griffiths joins the team that investigates the murders. She tries to make contact with some of the other sex workers in the area, but few of them are willing to talk. They still have to earn their livings. Besides, there are some very dangerous people who might be involved in the killings. It makes no sense to put their own lives in peril if anyone suspects they’ve been co-operating with the police. Still, Griffiths slowly finds out some of Mancini’s background. And she gets some important information about the killings.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in late-1970s Perth. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from the area for a few years, but returns when he learns of the death of a friend, Ruby Devine. He soon finds that almost no-one is willing to talk to him about her death, though. For one thing, Swann has convened a Royal Commission hearing to look into possible corruption among a group of police known as the ‘purple circle.’ That’s already made him a marked man. And the people who might know something sill have to live in and around Perth. They have to deal with the consequences if it gets around that they helped Swann. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but Swann eventually finds out the truth.

And that’s the thing about getting people to talk. The police need to get answers, but the people who could help them still have to go on with their lives, perhaps next door to someone they’ve accused. Or perhaps the next target of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘known to the police.’ Either way, this can make it very challenging to get information.


*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.


Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Friedrich Glauser, Harry Bingham, Maureen Carter, Nicolas Freeling, William McIlvanney

20 responses to “No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

  1. Interesting post. I suppose no one wants to be a “rat,” especially if ratting might put them in jeopardy of having their neck the next in line for the trap. 🙂

  2. You’ve reminded me that in spite of spending 5 years on the border of Switzerland, I haven’t read Glauser. Although getting neighbours to report things to the police doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Switzerland I know! Perhaps it used to be different in the olden days…

    • It might have been, Marina Sofia. I have to admit I don’t know the country well enough to speak. As to Glauser, he’s done some interesting work, and I think you will find the setting familiar (although he works mostly on/near the border with Germany). If you do try his work, I really hope you’ll like it.

  3. I suppose a lot of reactions like this are due to how much (or how little) people trust the police. Sometimes just being called in to talk with the police causes problems for people. Even when they know nothing.

    • That’s true, Tracy. I think the better the relations between the local people and the police, the more the police can learn. I’m glad you added that dimension to the discussion; it really is likely a factor.

  4. I wonder if it was easier back in the days of the ‘local bobby’, when people tended to know the police in their own area. In the couple of Sergeant Cluff books I’ve read, by Gil North, Cluff already tended to know what might be going on because he’d lived in the communtiy for years, and he certainly had a lot of contacts who already trusted him, whom he could call on for information…

    • You know, FictionFan, that’s a really interesting point. I can think of more than one mystery where the ‘local bobby’ knows everyone, and works out who probably knows something, just because of that. I don’t think there’s that personal connection as much these days (or perhaps I’m painting with too broad a proverbial brush). I know there’ve been pushes for what’s sometimes called community policing, where there are special efforts made to get to know members of the community. I don’t know how successful that is, but it certainly might get the police better information sometimes…

  5. Margot, one detective who seems to run into this kind of public unwillingness to speak pretty often is DI Napoleon Bonaparte, the central character of Arthur Upfield’s marvelous Australian mysteries. Bony has his own way of working around the freeze, however – a way that usually causes the “locals” in the small towns where Bony usually carries out his investigations to open up to him. In Death of a Swagman, for instance, he arrives in asmall town to investigate a murder with no apparent witnesses or evidence and immediately gets himself arrested by insulting the local police sergeant. After his very public arrest, Bony privately reveals his identity to the sergeant and arranges to have himself locked up in jail for 14 days – assigned to paint the fence around the jail. As a result, he is able to sit outside painting, as a simple itinerant laborer himself who has run afoul of those nasty police – so, as Bony explains it to the sergeant, “instead of everyone holding their horses in the presence of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, they will talk quite freely with poor old Bony, the latest victim of the ber-lasted per-leece.”

    • That’s an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post, Les. Thanks for sharing it. Bony has a very skilled way of getting to know the locals (who wouldn’t normally speak to the police). They tell him things they wouldn’t tell just anyone. We see that here, we see it in The Bushman Who Came Back, and other novels, too. It’s an interesting aspect of Bony’s personality and skill set, and I”m glad you mentioned it.

  6. This is a list of books I have been meaning to read, but haven’t.

  7. I just finished the advance review copy of Shannon Baker’s 2nd Kate Fox mystery (really good story!). Kate is the sheriff now, and she has folks (mostly men) who don’t want to talk to her because she’s a “girl” and shouldn’t be toting a gun and solving crimes. In some communities, that can still be a problem, even in today’s world.

    • That’s a really interesting perspective on this question, Pat. A police offer who’s ‘the wrong’ sex/race/etc.. may very well have difficulties getting certain people to talk. And you’re right; that sort of thing still goes on. It works the other way, too, if you think about it. One of the reasons women were initially put on certain police forces was that it was believed that other women would talk to them more easily. And thanks for recommending the Kate Fox series.

  8. Col

    A lot of great books mentioned, a few of which I’ve read and enjoyed and a few I want to.

  9. Communities vary so much – when I worked as a reporter you could find very different attitudes to this. In some areas (and whole cities) it just wasn’t done to help the police, at all. There was a complete assumption of silence. In other places, there was a moral duty to help the police, anything else would be frowned on. It’s a fascinating topic…

    • Thanks, Moira. I think it’s really interesting, too. And I think you have a very well-taken point about the impact of community on this issue. If the ‘done thing’ is to talk to the police, you do. If it’s to keep quiet and say nothing, you do. Anything else and you risk becoming a pariah, and most people wouldn’t want that.

  10. kathy d.

    It depends on the community and what are the dynamics with the police, and who’s the one giving information.Is there distrust of the police? Is there police brutality in that neighborhood? Will someone get in trouble by disclosing something to the police? Not all communities are the same and experiences with the police are different.
    Also, what’s the record with the police?
    Years ago I reported a burglary to the police. Two officers came by to hear my report. Then the following year when I had to fill out documents on what was taken I went to the precinct and there was no report. Huh? Didn’t give me confidence.
    Also, police officers were in my building asking about an elderly resident. One was fine; the other was very rude. I didn’t want to say anything.
    And then when there are constant reports of police brutality or misconduct in the area, who wants to get involved?
    Also, many police officers deal differently with people of different ethnicities, income levels, agesand appearance. The homeless are often not treated well either in many cities.
    That all has to be considered.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that there are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to willingness to talk to the police. There’s relations with the community, there’s the interaction style of the police, and there’s the the community’s history. As you’ve shown, all of those can impact whether a given person will co-operate with the police. It’s also perception of what happens as a result of interacting with the police. Rudeness, reports that don’t get filed, etc., do not inspire confidence, as you say.

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