An interesting post from Tim at Informal Inquiries has got me thinking about the different ways in which the media and the public react to a murder investigation. In some cases, there’s a great deal of hype and attention, sometimes to an almost frenzied level. In other cases, though, there’s very little attention paid to a case. Either it’s not seen as sensational enough, or some other major news story eclipses the case, or something else happens.
We see that distinction in a lot of crime fiction, too. And that means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to the plot. Will the case by hyped for some reason? That can add plot threads and suspense. Will it go nearly unnoticed? That, too, can add different sorts of plot threads, and a tension of its own.
One of the most eagerly followed cases of the early 20th Century was the Crippen case. In 1910, Harvey Hawley Crippen was convicted and executed for the murder of his wife, Cora. The details of the murder, of Crippen’s flight from England with his lover, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave, and his subsequent arrest, made headlines all over the world. On the one hand, people have murdered spouses for a very long time, and most of those cases don’t get into the papers, or at least not beyond a few lines. On the other, the Crippen case included lurid details. There was the love triangle, Crippen’s attempted escape, and more. All of this combined to catch the public’s attention. There’s an interesting look at this case in Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman. That’s a fictional account of the Crippen case, told from Crippen’s point of view. Among other things, it raises an interesting possible account of what really happened to Cora.
The real action in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders begins as Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning note that tells him to
‘Look out for Andover…’
Sure enough, on the day specified in the note, Alice Ascher is murdered in her small tobacconist/newsagent shop. Not much attention at all is paid the crime. It is, after all, what looks like a case of a robbery gone wrong. Terrible, of course, but hardly worth media hype. Then, after another warning note is sent to Poirot, twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is strangled. Her body is discovered on a beach, and an ABC railway guide is found nearby. Now, there’s some interest, especially after it comes out that an ABC guide was also found near Mrs. Ascher’s body. Before long, and after another murder, the media begin to carry all the details of the case, and the public is enlisted to help catch the killer. It’s interesting to see how the case of Mrs. Ascher doesn’t get any attention at all until it’s linked to others.
Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass begins as pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns to her native Auckland from London. With her are her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ Claire’s reluctant to make the move, but it’s important to Yossi, so she goes along with it. And we soon find out why she’d rather have stayed in London. In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips disappeared. There was a great deal of media attention to the case, as you can imagine. Some of the evidence pointed to Claire’s father, Patrick Bowerman. In fact, he was arrested and imprisoned in the matter. But there was never enough evidence to really make the case, so he wasn’t convicted. Still, plenty of people think he’s guilty. Claire doesn’t want this old case raked up again. That’s exactly what happens, though, when she gets involved in another case. A two-year-old patient of hers has a tumour that needs to be removed. But his parents refuse the surgery on religious grounds. The conflict between the hospital and the family thrusts Claire into the spotlight, and brings up the old case again.
In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, we are introduced to Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. The novel takes place in the late 1970s, a very dangerous time in that place. The military government is in firm control, and anyone seen as dissenting or ‘making trouble’ is quickly imprisoned. Many simply disappear. Those murders don’t make the news or get a lot of public discussion. It’s too dangerous to bring the topic up. Even Lescano, who is a good cop, knows better than to go up against the army. So, one morning, when he’s called out to a scene where two bodies were found, he’s inclined to leave the matter alone. The bodies bear all the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ But then, he sees a third body. This one’s a little different, and Lescano looks into the matter further. The dead man turns out to be a moneylender named Elías Biterman, and his death doesn’t look like a typical army killing. The murder doesn’t get any attention; after all, who cares about ‘just a Jew?’ But Lescano persists, and finds that looking into this murder might cost him his life.
Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke features Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel. The novel is set in 1931, during the last years of the Weimar Republic. The Nazis have already started to become powerful, and people know how dangerous it is to go up against them. Against this background, Vogel makes a shocking discovery one morning. She happens to be at the police station when she looks at the photographs displayed in the station’s Hall of the Unknown Dead. Among those ‘photos is one of her brother, Ernst. His death hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else; in fact, this is the first Vogel has heard of it. She wants to find out what happened to her brother, but in this place at this time, it’s very dangerous to call attention to oneself. So she’ll have to move very quietly. As she looks for the truth, we see how certain deaths get absolutely no media or public notice at all.
That’s the case with the death in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. The body of an unknown man is found in the ruins of a fire that broke out in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. When it’s established that the dead man might have been a foreigner, DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira, of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit are assigned to the case. There’s plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, so this could be a hate crime. As Zigic and Ferreira look into the matter, we see how little public and media attention is really paid to that death and to some other things that the sleuths uncover.
And that’s the way it is with some cases. They get very little media hype and public attention. Others, though, make headlines, sometimes for a long time. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Smackwater Jack.