When there’s a crime, one of the important things that police do is talk to the people involved. Whether those people tell the truth or lie, the investigator can usually get some useful information. So, it’s critical to be able to communicate with witnesses, suspects, and others who can provide information.
But what if that’s not possible (or at least, if it’s very difficult)? In today’s world, if someone involved in a case speaks another language, it’s usually possible to get an interpreter to help facilitate communication. And if a witness simply decides not to speak, that person can sometimes be persuaded to do so. Those are straightforward, if not easy, challenges.
But there are cases where a witness or other involved person cannot communicate. When that happens, the police can be at a real disadvantage. And that can add a really interesting plot twist to a crime novel.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, the Boynton family travels from their home in the US to take a tour of the Middle East. Part of the trip involves a visit to the ancient city of Petra. One the second day of the visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. Given her age and health, it wouldn’t be surprising. But Colonel Carbury isn’t so sure. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to ask questions. He finds that the victim was malicious, tyrannical and manipulative, so every one of her family members has a very good motive for murder. One of those members is her youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny.’ Jinny is mentally fragile, and lately, seems to have been losing touch with reality more and more. So, it’s very difficult to make sense of what she says and get to the truth. In the end, though, Poirot discovers who really killed Mrs. Boynton and why.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’ Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces his sleuth, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, Mørck is named head of ‘Department Q,’ a department created to investigate ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. The first one he and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad investigate is the 5-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She went missing during a ferry trip with her brother Uffe, and it was always believed that she drowned. But now there’s evidence that she might still be alive. If she is, then she may be in grave danger. Mørck wants to talk to Uffe about the incident; after all, he was on the ferry. But he is a very troubled young man who doesn’t really communicate. So, Mørck and the team have to do the best they can with what little they can learn from him, and with other information they learn. And they discover that the roots of Merete Lynggaard’s disappearance are in the past.
In Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, Chicago police detective Luton is assigned to investigate the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. The most likely suspect is sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White, who lives next door. But she has been diagnosed with dementia, and is slowly losing her grip on reality. Still, Luton is sure that White knows all about the crime, and may very well be guilty. So, she works to find ways to communicate. The story is told from White’s point of view, which adds to the tension as well as to a deep sense of unease as the dementia takes greater hold of her thinking.
In Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness, Inspector John Madden of Scotland Yard is called in when a group of murders shocks the village of Highfield. The victims are Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. The Fletcher’s young daughter, Sophy, survived, because she hid under a bed during the murders. But she is very young, and of course, is suffering from the trauma of having her family members killed. So, she can’t really communicate about what happened. At first, Madden wants Sophy to remain locally, so that she can be available to the police as soon as possible. But Dr. Helen Blackwell, the local GP, insists that Sophy is in no condition to be interviewed or answer questions. At her insistence, Sophy goes to Scotland to stay with her aunt and uncle while Madden and the team investigate. But Sophy has her own way of communicating, and she provides an interesting clue.
Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces Toronto Detective Ari Greene. He and Officer Daniel Kennicott investigate when the body of Katherine Torn is discovered in the bathtub of her home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Thorn’s common-law husband, radio celebrity Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect; he’s even said he killed her. But Brace’s attorney, Nancy Parish, is determined to do the best job she can for her client. And there is the possibility that he is innocent. She’s going to find this case difficult, though, because her client won’t speak with her. He only communicates through written notes, and even those are not overly informative. Little by little, though, and each in a different way, Greene and Parish find out the truth about what happened to Katherine Thorn.
And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreo’s The Cemetery of Swallows, which features Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID. Mallock travels to the Dominican Republic when a French citizen, Manuel Gemoni, murders a Dominican citizen, Tobias Darbier. There’s no question that Gemoni is guilty. In fact, it comes out that he went to the Dominican Republic specifically for the purpose of murder. What isn’t clear is the motive. And Gemoni can’t be much help in the investigation. For one thing, he’s badly injured. For another, he’s not particularly coherent. So, it’s very difficult for the team to know exactly where to start with this investigation.
And that’s the real challenge when people simply cannot communicate. Even if they have useful information in a case, they may not be able to share it. So, the investigating team sometimes has to be creative in finding ways to reach out.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Go to the Mirror.