Any police officer or other first responder can tell you that when a call comes in, there’s no telling what, exactly, awaits. So those who are called to the scene need to be prepared for just about anything.
That first few minutes at the scene are crucial, too. There’s sometimes valuable evidence there, if it’s a crime scene. If it’s a medical emergency scene, every second can count. And in either case, it’s important to get as accurate a first impression as possible.
In a crime novel, the arrival at the scene of a crime or other tragedy gives the author a potentially powerful tool for suspense and tension. And authors of whodunits can use that scene for clues or ‘red herrings.’ It’s also a very realistic part of dealing with crimes. So, it makes sense that we’d see a lot of those moments in the genre.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t officially a first responder. But in The Hollow, he does come upon a murder scene. He’s been invited for lunch to the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. They’ve got several weekend house guests, and he’s included in their Sunday plans. When Poirot arrives at the house, he’s escorted to the outdoor pool area. There, he finds one of the guests, John Christow, lying by the pool, very close to death from a gunshot. Another guest is holding what appears to be the murder weapon. Everyone else is also nearby. At first, Poirot thinks it’s some sort of macabre ‘amusement’ for his benefit. But very quickly, he sees that Christow really has been murdered. The police are called, and Inspector Grange and his team begin the investigation. Later, Poirot’s first impression of the murder scene turns out to add an interesting dimension to the story.
Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice sees his sleuth, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch, listening to the police-band radio in his home one evening when he’s ‘on call.’ That’s how he finds out about the discovery of the body of another police detective, Calexico ‘Cal” Moore in a seedy hotel room. Bosch rushes to the scene, not happy at all that he wasn’t called out right away, since he’s on duty. He’s soon told that Moore committed suicide, mostly because he had ‘gone dirty,’ and that he (Bosch) should leave the matter alone. Anyone who knows anything at all about Harry Bosch will know that ‘leaving matters alone’ is one thing he doesn’t do. He follows up on Moore’s death, and finds that it leads to a vicious drugs gang, incidents from the past, and some things the police department would rather not have made public. And one of the first impressions he gets from that initial arrival at the scene turns out to be helpful.
Katherine Howell is a former paramedic, and often taps those experiences in her writing. And several scenes in her novels depict what it’s like when first responders arrive. In Violent Exposure, for instance, paramedic Carly Martens and her teammate for the day, Aidan Simpson, are called to the scene of what seems to be a domestic dispute between Connor Crawford and his wife, Suzanne. The couple assure the paramedics that all’s well. But Suzanne is injured, and the tension between her and Connor is palpable. Still, there’s not much the paramedics can do in this particular situation, so they leave. The next day, Suzanne is discovered brutally murdered. New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her partner, Dennis Orchard, begin the investigation. Based on what Martens and Simpson tell them, they suspect Connor Crawford right away. But he’s disappeared. Then, one of the young people who work at the Crawfords’ nursery also goes missing. Now, the detectives have to find the two missing people, if they’re still alive, and find out who killed Suzanne Crawford and why.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins as journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up. He’s sleepy and hung over, but he hears a lot of noise coming from the flat downstairs. Too curious to stay where he is, he leaves his own flat, and forgets to take his key with him. He goes downstairs to see what all the noise is about, only to find that that flat’s door is open. Parlabane soon regrets going in, because he finds a brutal and very ugly murder scene. He knows he can’t simply go back upstairs, because he’s locked out of his flat. So, he decides to climb out an open window in the downstairs flat, make his way up to his own open window, directly above, and return to his home that way. It doesn’t work. He’s no sooner heading out the window when he’s stopped by Detective Constable (DC) Jenny Dalziel. Soon enough, Dalziel sees that Parlabane is not guilty of the murder. Little by little, they begin to work together, and they soon find that they can be helpful to each other. It may be a very gory murder scene, but helps to forge a solid working partnership.
Every first responder, police or otherwise, knows that going to the scene can be highly dangerous, even fatal. We see just how fatal in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. One day, the Tasmania Police are alerted to a home invasion. Sergeant John White goes to the house, bringing with him probationer Lucy Howard. When they get there, they decide to split up. Howard will stay at the front of the house, and White will go to the back. Very shortly afterwards, White’s dead of a stabbing attack. Everyone thinks that the killer is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley. The theory is that he was in the home, taking what he could, when White interrupted him. Rowley’s going to be a difficult case, though. For one thing, he knows how to work the juvenile justice system very effectively, so as to stay out of trouble. For another, he’s part Aboriginal. So, the media will be closely watching everything the police do. Still, they start the task of linking him to the murder.
Of course, once in a while, a crime/murder scene comes to the police, if I can put it that way. In Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl, for instance, Sea Haven police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast one morning with one of the summer-hire cops, Danny Boyle. They’re sitting in a local restaurant when they hear screaming. Running down the street towards them is a young girl, whose dress is covered with blood. She’s practically incoherent, but they finally calm her enough to find out what’s wrong. She says her name is Ashley Hart, and that she and her father, wealthy Reginald Hart, were on a ride at the local amusement park when a strange man with a gun came up and shot her father. Ceepak and Boyle go right to the crime scene, and end up involved in a murder investigation that isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems.
The first look at the scene of a crime can be jolting. But it’s an important part of an investigation. And it can yield valuable clues.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe’s Scene of the Crime.