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.