Interviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.
In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.
Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.
Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.
Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.
There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.
In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?