And the Newspapers, They All Went Along For the Ride*

As this is posted, it’s 23 years since the beginning of the famous O.J. Simpson trial. As you’ll know, he was arrested and tried for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and the murder of Ron Goldman. The trial made world headlines, and every detail that could be shared in the press, was. In part, the trial caught people’s interest because of the lurid details. In part, it was arguably because Simpson was famous. Little wonder that it was called ‘the Trial of the Century,’ whether or not it actually deserves that status.

Certainly, Simpson’s trial wasn’t the first or last sensational murder trial. There’s just something about certain trials that get the press’ and public’s attention. That’s true in real life, and it’s certainly true in fiction.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman bridges the gap between fiction and real life. It’s a fiction re-telling of the story of Harvey Hawley Crippen, who was arrested, tried, and executed in 1910 for the murder of his wife, Cora. The arrest and trial were a media sensation, and papers all over the world carried regular news about the Crippen case. It’s not surprising that the trial caught the public’s interest as it did, even though Crippen wasn’t famous. There was a love triangle involved, which always adds to the ‘spiciness’ of a case. What’s more, the murder itself was considered sensational. There was also doubt (still is, if the truth be told) as to whether Crippen was actually guilty. All of this added to the media frenzy. And it helped make the career of pathologist Bernard Spilsbury.  Edwards tells the story from Crippen’s point of view, and suggests a possibility for what might have really happened.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned during a flight from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are other people in the cabin, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. A few of the passengers are ‘society’ people, which in itself garners a lot of public interest. What’s more, the murder itself is considered sensational. It turns out that the victim was poisoned by what seems to be a dart from a blowgun – an exotic sort of crime. The coroner’s inquest is well attended, and all of the papers cover the story.

‘The reporters wrote: “Peer’s wife gives evidence in air-death mystery.” Some of them put: “in snake-poison mystery.”
Those who wrote for women’s papers put: “Lady Horbury wore one of the new collegian hats and fox furs” or “Lady Horbury, who before her marriage was Miss Cicely Bland, was smartly dressed in black, with one of the new hats.”

It’s not spoiling the story to say that at first, the coroner’s jury accuses Poirot of the crime, since the blowpipe was found by his seat. Needless to say, Poirot isn’t happy about that finding, and neither is the coroner. Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the guilty person is.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes place mostly in the small New England town of Wrightsville. Queen’s gone there for some peace and quiet, so he can write, and he’s staying in a guest house owned by social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. That’s how he gets involved in family drama when the youngest Wright daughter, Nora, rekindles an old relationship. She’d been engaged to Jim Haight, but he jilted her and then disappeared for three years. Now he’s back, and Nora shocks everyone by agreeing to marry him. The wedding goes off as planned, but shortly afterwards, suspicion arises that Haight may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Haight’s sister, Rosemary, who’s been staying with the family, is poisoned by a drink that was intended for Nora. Now, Haight finds himself arrested and on trial for murder. The trial is a major media event, and all of the papers cover it. After all, the Wrights are social elites. And there’s the whole ‘romance-gone-wrong’ angle. In the end, only Queen and Nora’s older sister, Pat, actually believe that Haight may be innocent. And they are determined to clear his name.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill also tells the story of a sensational murder trial in Clanton, Mississippi. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for the murders of two men, and the wounding of another. There’s a lot to this case that generates interest. The two men that Hailey shot were responsible for raping his ten-year-old daughter, so there’s a lot of sympathy for him. At the same time, though, he killed two people. The man he wounded is a sheriff’s deputy, and that complicates matters. There’s also the fact that Hailey is black and his victims white. This adds fuel to the media-frenzy fire, and news outlets from all over the country cover the trial. And some powerful forces have an interest in the outcome of the case, and aren’t afraid to use that power to do so.

And then there’s William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, the first of his novels to feature Vancouver attorney Arthur Beauchamp. He’s decided to retire and move to Garibaldi Island, and he’s looking forward to stepping back from the stress of big-firm work, and the failure of his marriage. Then, his former colleagues ask for his help. Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of law at the University of British Columbia, has been arrested and charged with raping a law student, Kimberly Martin. O’Donnell claims to be innocent, and wants Beauchamp to defend him. Beauchamp refuses at first, but is finally persuaded. The trial gets a great deal of media attention. There’s the ‘he said/she said’ angle, and there’s the fact that O’Donnell is well known in the academic community. And there are the lurid details that come out during the trial. Through it all, Beauchamp works to find out what really happened on the night in question, and try to do his best for his client.

There are lots of other trials, too, both real and fictional, that get a great deal of media attention, even hype. Testimony from both sides gets splashed in the headlines, and daily updates of these cases are passed along. Some cases just seem tailor-made to become sensations.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Hurricane.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, John Grisham, Martin Edwards, William Deverell

14 responses to “And the Newspapers, They All Went Along For the Ride*

  1. The Casey Anthony trial comes to mind for real life coverage. I used to read a lot of legal thrillers but now can’t even recall one with a trial that stuck with me. I guess these days, fact is wilder and more attention-grabbing than fiction when it comes to courtroom drama.

    • You have a strong point, Pat. There are some very unusual, attention-grabbing, even lurid trials out there, aren’t there? If people read them in fiction, they’d think the author was being too unrealistic, but those things really do happen. And thanks for mentioning the Casey Anthony trial. That one certainly got full treatment in the media, didn’t it?

  2. Margot: Now here is a theme that I could write a full post upon and maybe with your inspiration I will write that post.

    For this comment I would refer to three sensational real life cases turned into excellent fiction. Each attracted intense media attention.

    The first is Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt which deals with the internment of Japanese Americans in WW II – a much regretted episode in American history that appears ever more relevant today.

    The second is Tom and Lucky and George and Cokey Flo by C. Joseph Greaves about the trial of mobster, Lucky Luciano, in New York during the 1930’s for prostitution offences. The publicity made the prosecutor, Tom Dewey, a prominent public figure.

    The third is An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris about the Dreyfus Affair at the beginning of the 20th Century in France. The Dreyfus Affair remains a media sensation even a century later. The article J’Accuse by Emile Zola in a Paris newspaper about the injustice upon Dreyfus may be the world’s most famous newspaper story.

    • You know, Bill, when I was putting this post together, I was thinking you would probably have a lot to contribute. And you did, so thank you. I hope you will write a post on the topic. All three of the books you mention are excellent examples of the way that a trial can capture the media’s/public’s attention. They’ve got all of the ingredients of a sensational story, and there are the characters themselves. Some trials really do have that much impact.

  3. I really must read Dancing for the Hangman one of these days – it sounds great. And I second Bill about An Officer and a Spy – I found it fascinating and learned a lot about a case about which I knew very little. The only other example that springs to mind is Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, where again the media were obsessed, partly because the victim and suspects were well-known and partly because there were some nice salacious details they could titillate their audiences with…

    • That’s quite true, FictionFan, and I’m glad you mentioned that one. I like the way Turow uses the media furor to add tension to that story, too. Thanks for filling in that gap. You’re right, too: the Dreyfus case is absolutely fascinating, and shows what happens when the media/public fascination serves to get in the way of finding out the truth. And as to Dancing With the Hangman, I do recommend it. Edwards is, as you know, a very talented writer. And this one does present what feels like an authentic look at the case.

  4. Col

    I can remember the Simpson verdict coming through when I was at work and feeling a sense of disbelief.

  5. Firstly realising that it is 23 years since that trial makes me feel old! Secondly I’m so pleased you mentioned Dancing for the Hangman which is a really good read, it was so well written.
    This really is a topic that interests me especially as a trial means that no matter what the popular opinion is the verdict really can go either way!

    • It certainly can, Cleo! And I’m very glad you enjoyed Dancing For the Hangman. I think it’s a very well-written book, with a real sense of the place and time. You know, it’s funny you mention how long ago the Simpson verdict was. That makes me feel old, too *sigh.* I remember the whole thing vividly, and it certainly doesn’t seem that 23 years have passed.

  6. Loved A Time to Kill, Margot. Fantastic book and movie adaptation. When O.J.’s trial aired I worked a law firm, and I can remember the entire staff huddled around the TV. We commented on the defense strategy and placed bets on whether he’d get away with murder. I felt horrible for the Goldmans and Nicole Simpson’s family, though. What a tragedy. Did you watch the semi-recent show about O.J.? It gave the impression that we’d hear “the true story” but it was nothing more than O.J.’s usual claims of innocence. After the 2nd episode, I’d seen enough.

    • I didn’t watch that TV show, Sue. But I heard from several people (now including yourself) that it really wasn’t good. I remember being fascinated by the trial, too, even though I haven’t worked in law or law enforcement. There were some really interesting strategies used on both sides. Oh, and I agree: A Time to Kill is an outstanding book.

  7. I always liked the section in Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead where the reporter talks to Poirot off the record about a feature she did on famous women connected with murders – her areal thoughts contrast dramatically with what she wrote in her dramatic feature article.

    • I love that scene, too, Moira! Miss Horsefall is so delightfully cynical, isn’t she? And I like her very forthright modern sort of character. I’m glad you mentioned her.

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