With the obvious exception of journalists, most fictional sleuths don’t spend a lot of time in front of television cameras. So, many of them aren’t particularly comfortable ‘going live.’ Yet, in real life and in fiction, television can be a useful ally in solving crime. That’s why, for instance, police give interviews to the press. Real and fictional lawyers know this, too, and may (or may not) give interviews, depending on whether they see an interview as helpful or hurtful to their clients’ chances.
It’s realistic, especially in today’s world of 24-hour news, to include a TV interview with a sleuth. What’s more, such a plot point can add tension to a story, especially as the media impacts public opinion. So, it’s little wonder that we see that influence of television in crime fiction.
A great deal of Agatha Christie’s writing was done before television dominated the news landscape. But at the time, newspaper interviews often played similar roles. For instance, in The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Captain Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp and local police to solve a baffling set of murders. The case has captured the public’s attention, in large part because this isn’t a matter of one murder, or of one murder with a second murder committed to keep someone quiet. Hastings, in particular, isn’t used to being in the media spotlight, and it leads to consternation for him, especially when he learns the way some newspapers operate:
‘‘Poirot,’ I would cry. ‘Pray believe me. I never said anything of the kind.’…
‘But do not worry yourself. All of this is of no importance. These imbecilities, even, may help.’
‘Eh, bien,’ said Poirot grimly. ‘If our madman reads what I am supposed to have said to the Daily Flicker today, he will lose all respect for me as an opponent!’’
In the end, Poirot gets to the truth about these murders. And it’s interesting to see the way that those public interviews play a role in the story.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is an academician and political scientist. She understands how important television interviews can be, especially for politicians. But she herself isn’t in front of the cameras very often, at least not at first. But then, in The Wandering Soul Murders, she gets a new opportunity. Nationtv is making some changes to the panel for its politics-themed show, Canada Tonight, and Joanne’s name is put forward as a good choice for a new panelist. At first, she’s reluctant, but she agrees to be a part of the show, and it turns out to be the right choice for her. Still, it requires adjustment for someone who’s usually worked behind the political scenes, rather than in front of the cameras:
‘I had bought a new dress for the show, flowered silk, as pretty as a summer garden.
‘Next time,’ she said kindly, ‘try to find a solid colour. That’s going to make you look like you’re wearing your bedroom curtains.’’
Joanne learns quickly, and in A Killing Spring, makes really effective use of being on camera.
In high-profile trials, attorneys know that giving interviews can be a useful legal strategy. And, for those lawyers who are ambitious, television interviews can be an effective way to get their names ‘out there,’ especially if they win an important case. So, even those who aren’t particularly comfortable in front of television cameras often learn how to do successful interviews. That part of what a lawyer does comes out in several novels, including John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. In the novel, the small town of Clanton, Mississippi becomes the scene of a very public set of crimes. First, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left for dead. Her attackers are soon caught and arrested. Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is, of course, enraged and heartbroken. And, since the two men responsible are white, while he and is family are black, Hailey doesn’t think justice will be done. So, he ambushes the two men, killing them both, and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. Hailey asks Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. Because of the sort of case this is, it gets a lot of media scrutiny, and television cameras are everywhere. And it’s interesting to see how both Brigance and his opponent, Rufus Buckley, make use of interviews.
In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, we are introduced to Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson. As the novel begins, they’re en route from Scotland to Alistair’s home town in Victoria with their nine-week-old son, Noah. It’s a long, nightmarish flight, and both parents are only too happy when it ends. Then, tragedy happens. During the drive from the airport to their destination, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search begins, and the media soon pick up on the story. There’s no sign of the baby, though. At one point, it’s proposed that a television interview with the parents might produce results. Joanna is very reluctant to do this, but Alistair insists, so the cameras are set up and the interview takes place. It’s an awful experience for Joanna, who’s not used to being on television, and who is devastated by the ordeal she’s suffering. What’s worse, when the public sees that interview, plenty of people take her discomfort as one of several signs that she may have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. It’s not long before the media and the public begin to turn against Joanna and Alistair, and it’s very interesting to see how that tense interview plays a role in what happens.
And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread of this novel, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team take on a new investigation. The body – well, really, the torso – of an unknown man has been found in a disused chicken coop. There is no identification, and no immediate clues as to who the victim is. This means it’s going to be very hard to identify him, let alone track down the killer. So, it’s decided that a television interview might be a good way to make the public aware of the case. To that end, the police send Grace’s second-in-command, Glenn Branson, and another colleague, Bella Moy, to appear on a true-crime show called Crimewatch. This show presents re-enactments of real crimes, interviews with people involved, and invitations for call-ins from people who may know something about the cases. It’s not a typical way for police officers to spend their days, but Branson and Moy go on the air.
Not everyone is comfortable in a television interview. But they can be very useful for getting information. And in a crime novel, they can add interesting layers to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Turn It On Again.