An interesting post from crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta has got me thinking about murder interrogations. This guest post, written by a former homicide detective, details an actual interrogation in connection with a murder. G’wan, read it. It’s quite potent. And as you’ll be at Sue’s excellent blog already, do check out her crime novels. They’re potent, too.
Back now? Thanks. Interrogations aren’t easy. For one thing, the police are, in most cases, limited in what they can do during an interrogation (e.g. they are not allowed to be violent, although there are cases where that has happened). They are allowed to lie to suspects, but they generally aren’t allowed to continue an interrogation if a suspect requests a lawyer. For another thing, most murder suspects don’t want to admit, at least at first, that they are guilty, or that they played a part in a murder. So, whoever does the interrogating often has to get past a tissue of lies, bluster, and so on.
It’s interesting to see how interrogations are done in crime fiction. When they’re done effectively, they can certainly add tension and suspense to a story. And, they can allow for the author to misdirect the reader if the sleuth is interrogating a suspect who later turns out not to be guilty. Whether or not that’s the case, interrogations are a part of real-life criminal investigation, so it makes sense that they’d be woven into the genre. Here are a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more.
Sometimes, the sleuth finds it very effective to appear understanding, even sympathetic, towards the suspect. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does this in more than one of the cases he investigates. In Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, Poirot is in the Middle East when he is asked to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. Her husband, noted archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner, is leading an excavation team at a site a few hours from Baghdad, and she has joined the group. One afternoon, she is bludgeoned in her bedroom. Poirot discovers that more than one person could have wanted to kill her, but in the end, he finds out which person actually did. Here’s a little of what that person says in the course of admitting the killing:
‘‘…if you’d known Louise you’d have understood…No, I think you’d understand anyway…’’
Just because Poirot does not approve of murder doesn’t mean he can’t understand what motivates a killer.
We also see that sort of approach in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. In that novel, Bowen’s sleuth, academician Joanne Kilbourn, gets involved in the investigation of the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. She knows the victim’s widow, so she’s asked to go along to break the news, and before long, starts asking questions about what really happened. In the end, she finds out who the killer is. In one scene, she finds herself alone with the killer, and in some danger, too:
‘All I had going for me was the possibility that…. would be unable to resist the chance to tell his tale.
I tried to keep my voice steady. ‘I’ve always told my kids there are two sides to every story,’ I said. ‘Maybe it’s time I got your perspective on everything that’s happened.’’
At first, the killer sees her comment as condescending. But soon, the whole story comes out, and that keeps Kilbourn alive until the situation’s resolved.
There’s a different approach to getting a murderer talking in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, which introduces Detective Sergeant (DS) Anna Travis. She joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London, which is under the supervision of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton. That team is currently investigating the murder of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens, who was killed in the same way as a group of six other women. There are enough differences between those cases and this new one that there is a chance that two killers are involved. But the team doesn’t think so. Little by little, the members of the team slowly zero in on their prime suspect. But, of course, they could be wrong about the guilty person. Finally, the team finds out the truth. And when they do, they confront the guilty person. At first, that person is confident. But, as Travis brings up the various pieces of evidence, things change. There’s bluster, even anger. And eventually, Travis’ firmness and the murderer’s own underlying fear get the better of that person. It’s hard on both people, and it’s a very suspenseful scene.
In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Police Inspector Leo Caldas investigates the death of a fisher, Justo Castelo. At first, it looks as though it might be a suicide, and that wouldn’t be out of the question. The victim had been dealing with several issues, and it’s not too farfetched that he might have chosen that method of solving his problems. But a few little hints suggest to Caldas that this was a murder. The question, though, is who would have wanted to kill Castelo. By all accounts, the victim had, as the saying goes, kept himself to himself. He didn’t have a lot of money or obvious enemies. Then, Caldas learns about a tragedy that took place years earlier, when Castelo was out on a fishing boat under the command of Captain Antonio Sousa. A storm came up and Sousa went overboard. Castelo and the two other men on board the boat that night have never talked about what really happened, but there is a possibility that whatever it was, it might be related to Castelo’s death. Gradually, Caldas finds out the truth. And when he does, he confronts the killer. At first, the killer remains calm and confident. But, when Caldas confronts that person with the evidence, the confident exterior cracks, and the murderer tells the truth. It’s a suspenseful moment, since the killer,
‘…wasn’t used to losing.’
And it’s an interesting look at a police interrogation.
And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel takes place in Kolkata/Calcutta in 1919, just after WW I. Captain Sam Wyndham has joined the Indian Police Service, and is working to investigate the murder of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. There is a chance that his murder is connected to the Indian independence movement, and that’s what the Powers That Be want as the explanation. There is evidence to support that account, too, and Wyndham duly tracks down and arrests Benoy Sen, a hero of the independence movement. The interrogation scenes between them are full of tension and reveal things about both men’s characters.
Interrogation scenes need to be done carefully, or they run the risk of not being credible, or of being melodramatic. When they’re done well, though, they can add much to the story. These are a few examples. Your turn.
Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steel Pulse’s Blame on Me.