Have you ever noticed that when people say that they don’t want to tell you how to do your job – they do? And it can be awfully annoying when someone tries to be ‘helpful.’ Even if that person has the best of intentions, it can still be grating. The police have to deal with that whenever there’s a very public case. ‘Armchair detectives’ and members of the media are quick to have their say. And, with the advent of today’s social media, it’s easy for members of the public to second-guess an investigation, too. It’s little wonder that the police can get fed up with all of that ‘help.’ But it’s a part of the job. And besides, the police don’t want to miss an important lead. So, it’s worth the annoyance (well, most of the time) to get a sense of what people think.
There are different ways, too, in which people let the police know what they ‘should be doing.’ And many of them show up in crime fiction. That sort of plot point can add a layer of suspense to a story. It can also be an effective tool for providing clues, if the author wants to do that.
We see one example of telling the police what to do in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings to discover who poisoned Emily Inglethorp. There are several suspects, as she was a wealthy woman. The killer has been clever, too, so it’s not an easy case to solve. But the victim’s friend and companion, Evelyn Howard, is sure she knows who’s guilty. She tells several people, including Hastings and Poirot, that the criminal is Alfred Inglethorp, Emily’s husband. That’s certainly a possibility, but there are other suspects, too, and other leads to follow. Evelyn sticks to her guns, though, as the saying goes, and insists that the police are wasting their time looking at anyone else as the guilty party. And it’s interesting to see how strident she is about what the police should and shouldn’t be doing.
Domingo Villar’s Vigo-based Inspector Leo Caldas has an interesting way to listen to what members of the public have to say. Along with his police duties, he hosts a radio show called Patrolling the Waves. It’s a call-in show that invites listeners to share their concerns, comments and so on – a chance to ‘talk with a cop.’ And Caldas gets all sorts of ‘helpful suggestions’ for improving police work. On the one hand, it’s sometimes tiresome, even frustrating. On the other, Caldas knows that it’s best to have the reputation of being open to public comment. And a call-in show is an ordered way (well, usually) to hear what people have to say without spending too many hours doing so.
Sometimes, the police use press briefings and the like to update the public on their investigations. And, since the media’s job is to inform people, journalists sometimes ask challenging questions. If they’re not handled well, it can seem as though the press is trying to tell the police how to do their jobs. We see that sort of tension in ’s Dregs. Police detective William Wisting and his team are trying to solve a bizarre case. A left food, clad in a trainer, was found near the Norwegian town of Stavern. Shortly afterwards, another was found. And another. The story has made all of the news outlets, and everyone has an opinion on what’s going on. One of the most popular is that there’s some sort of serial killer at work. There’s so much gossip about the investigation that the police believe it’s best to hold a press briefing, so that they have a say in the information that becomes public. Wisting isn’t a big fan of such events, but he knows they have value. During the briefing, he’s grilled on several aspects of the case. One journalist in particular challenges him on several matters, even suggesting that the police have made mistakes. It’s a tense scene, and certainly doesn’t make Wisting’s job any easier.
The police also have their share of input from individuals who call or visit. Sometimes those visits are fruitful; sometimes not. That’s part of what can make the police’s job challenging. In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, for instance, Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne. Orla’s brother Callum went missing years ago, and no trace of him has been found. Now, Orla wants his case re-opened. When she calls in, though, she’s both emotionally fragile and drunk. So, she’s not very coherent and doesn’t make a very good impression on Scarlett. In fact, she’s all but brushed off. Then, Orla herself dies by suicide (or is it really suicide?). Now, Scarlett wishes she’d accepted Orla’s suggestion to look into Callum’s disappearance. Her guilt is part of what spurs her on to open the case again. And what she finds is a dark story that goes back decades.
And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to Victoria, they’re hoping to make a new start. The trip doesn’t go well, though, as their nine-week-old son, Noah, is not an easy baby. In fact, the flight is dreadful. But, they land safely and start to make their way from Melbourne to their destination, Alistair’s home town. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police spearhead a massive search, and they get all sorts of advice from the media and the public. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other social media are full of people’s opinions about what the police ought to be doing, and where they should be looking. People are even more ‘helpful’ when they begin to suspect that one or both of Noah’s parents may have had a hand in whatever happened to him. In the end, we find out the truth. We also see how difficult it can be for the police when everyone wants to make suggestions.
But the fact is, you never know when someone’s ‘help’ may actually include vital information. So, the police know that they can’t shut people out entirely. It makes for an interesting dilemma, and (in crime fiction) a solid source of tension.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Black’s Freedom Rock.