The Children, They Know*

A few days ago, I did a post on fictional interrogations, and the leaven that they can add to a story. When the subject is an adult, there are all sorts of possibilities, depending on what the author wants to achieve, and on the circumstances in the story. An interrogation can be gentle, verbally rough, or more.

Things are quite different when the subject is a child. For one thing, children don’t have an adult’s perspective or knowledge. So, they may have seen something without understanding what it all means. And, they may think they’ll get deeply in trouble for something if they tell what they know, even if they had nothing to do with the crime at hand. There’s also the issue of betrayal. Children may feel that, by telling what they know, they’re betraying a friend or an important adult. And that’s to say nothing of the trauma a child might feel after witnessing a crime. All of this means that interviewing or interrogating a child can be an extremely delicate, and tricky, matter.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with the police to find out who strangled famous actress Arlena Marshall. She was taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, with her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda Marshall, when she was killed. And, as it turns out, more than one person at the hotel could have murdered her. As a matter of course, the police and Poirot talk to sixteen-year-old Linda. Like most teens, she’s awkward and not comfortable in her own skin, as the saying goes. At first, she says she liked her stepmother, and that Arlena was quite kind. But that’s not exactly how she really feels, and it’s not long before Poirot works out that there are things Linda’s not saying. It’s interesting to see how both he and Colonel Weston (who’s investigating for the police) handle questioning Linda.

Peter Robinson’s first Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks novel is Gallows View. In it, we learn that Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And it’s not long before he’s enmeshed in a few cases. One of them is a voyeur who’s been making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s also a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. When he starts spending a lot of time with local hoodlum Mick Webster, you can imagine the consequences aren’t going to be exactly happy. Banks and his team talk to Trevor, and it’s interesting to see how he uses a very teenaged mix of bluster and lies to try to stay out of trouble.

Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness introduces Scotland Yard Inspector John Madden. He is called to the small village of Highfield when Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, are found murdered. The only survivor is the Fletchers’ daughter, Sophy. But it’s nearly impossible to talk to her. For one thing, she’s only four years old. For another, she was hiding under a bed at the time of the murder and is coping with a great deal of trauma. In fact, local GP Dr. Helen Blackwell doesn’t want the police talking to Sophy at all. She and Madden clash a bit about this, but he finally accedes to Blackwell’s request that Sophy go away to visit relatives for a time. That doesn’t mean that the child isn’t of any help, though. She communicates in her own way, through art, and it’s interesting to see how the police and Blackwell use what they learn from her.

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road takes place in the rural South Australia town of Tiverton. Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has been transferred there from Adelaide, mostly as a punishment. He’s seen as a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation, so to say the least, he is not popular among his new colleagues. Still, he does the best he can when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch tries to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, he learns about her best friend, Gemma Pitcher, who works at the local convenience store. If anyone knows what Melia might have been doing, and with whom, it’ll be Gemma. At first, Gemma does everything she can to avoid Hirsch. But he finally manages to talk to her. It’s not easy, as Gemma doesn’t want to be disloyal, or get herself in trouble. But she eventually tells him what she knows, and it proves to be useful information.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe gets a new client, Karen Mackie. Karen’s recently been released from prison after serving time for the murder of her son, Falcon, and attempted murder of her daughter, Sunny. Now, she wants Diane to find Sunny (who’s now fourteen), whom she hasn’t seen for the seven years she was in prison. Diane makes no promises and warns Karen that she won’t reveal where Sunny is without the girl’s approval. Karen agrees to those terms, and Diane gets to work. Finding Sunny (who’s living with her father, Justin) turns out to be quite straightforward. But then, there’s a not-so-straightforward murder. And it turns out there is much more to this case than it seems on the surface. At one point, there’s an interesting bit, told from Sunny’s perspective, that takes place immediately after the incident in which her brother was killed. She’s seven at this time, and a police officer is asking her about what happened. What’s particularly interesting about this is that we see how a seven-year-old thinks and responds, and how the police adapt their interview/interrogation strategies when the subject is a child.

It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is important if the police are going to get information from child witnesses. These are jus a few examples. I know you’ll think of many more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Mangione’s Look to the Children.

4 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Malane, Garry Disher, Peter Robinson, Rennie Airth

4 responses to “The Children, They Know*

  1. Yrsa Sigurdardottir started her new Children’s Home series with The Legacy, a story where a 7-year-old girl was the only witness to a horrific murder. The Children’s Home is a specialist unit set up to help traumatised children, so the psychologist there, Freya, works with the investigating officer, Huldar, to try to find out what happened. It’s an excellent book, if overly gruesome for me in parts, and I’ve just reminded myself that I’m sure I heard somewhere that book 2 is due out around now. Must check!

    • And I must read that series, FictionFan. I’m not one for gruesome, mind, but I’ve heard good things about this, and I’ve enjoyed her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series very much. Your example is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking of when I was writing this post, too, so thanks for adding it in. I can’t imagine what it must be like in real life to work with children with so much trauma. I admire those who can help them.

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