A recent interesting post from Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about how important it is to handle a police investigation as carefully as possible. Bradley, a retired police officer, has been sharing her experience and wisdom in a fascinating feature called Writing Crime. In that feature, she writes about aspects of a police investigation such as securing a crime scene, collecting evidence, and interviewing witnesses and suspects, among other things. If you write crime fiction, or are thinking about it, that feature is well worth your attention. And even if you don’t, Rebecca’s blog is a treasure trove. And she’s a talented crime writer, so you’ll want to try her work.
Rebecca’s right, too, about how important those details (such as collecting evidence) really are. Carelessness can destroy evidence, or at the very least, corrupt it. Among other things, that means that a case won’t hold up in court. It also means that crimes may not be solved. That’s one reason why every police trainee is thoroughly drilled on the rules about collecting, preserving, and using evidence.
It matters just as much in crime fiction as it does in real life. If a crime novel is to be credible, then the evidence is supposed to be handled in a specific way. This gives the author some flexibility, actually. Authors who want to create a plot based on mishandled evidence can do that. Authors who want to use properly-preserved evidence to make a case can do that, too. In either case, it’s an important and interesting aspect of crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the small French town of Merlinville-sur-Mer at the request of Paul Renauld, who’s made his home there. He’s written to Poirot, claiming that his life is in danger, and asking Poirot to go to France immediately. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté is assigned to the case, and one of his first priorities is to find clues. Admittedly, he is insufferable, rude and arrogant. But he does have a point about preserving the crime scene. Here’s his comment to M. Bex, who has been supervising the local police.
‘‘Is it your police who have been trampling all over the place? I thought they knew better nowadays.’’
To Giraud, getting physical evidence and preserving it is the key to solving the crime.
Small bits of evidence prove very important in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In it, Travis has recently joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. She’s joining at a critical time, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and her murder bears several similarities to six other murders, all of women. But there are some differences. For one thing, the other victims were older sex workers; Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. There are a few other little differences, too. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton, who leads this team, believes that the same killer is involved. This is a smart murderer, though, who is neat and careful, and doesn’t leave evidence. Still, no-one is perfect. And, in the end, a small piece of evidence that hasn’t been destroyed ends up implicating the real killer. And it’s interesting to see how Travis (who happens to think of where that evidence might be) is able to get it properly collected.
Angela Marsons’ Silent Scream also features the importance of handling evidence carefully. Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone and her team are called in when high school principal Teresa Wyatt is found murdered in her bathtub. Then, there are two other murders. All of the victims were, in some way, connected to Crestwood, a former home for girls. That in itself piques Stone’s interest. But then, Professor Milton, who’s gotten approval for an archaeological excavation on the site, is cruelly threatened, and told to halt his plans. Now, Stone and her team are more interested than ever in what happened at Crestwood. There are several points in the story where evidence comes to light. And Stone has to go through the correct procedures to get approval to look for the evidence, to collect it, and to preserve it properly. She doesn’t always like doing things ‘by the book,’ but she does understand that those rules are there for a reason.
Because the handling of evidence is so important, it’s a serious problem if that evidence is lost or in some way compromised. And that’s what’s suspected in Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life. Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison, where she served time for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. There’s talk that she was innocent. Worse, there’s talk that the investigating officer, Wally Tallentire, hid evidence that pointed to her innocence. In fact, a new investigation into the case is launched. This upsets Superintendent Andy Dalziel, who considered Tallentire a mentor. Determined to clear Tallentire’s name, Dalziel looks into the Westrup murder again. And it’s interesting to see how the matter of evidence plays such an important role here.
And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, in which Tasmania Police Sergeant John White is stabbed as he is investigating a home invasion. The novel shows how this murder impacts everyone involved, including White’s colleagues, subordinates, and even the suspected killer. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the handling of certain evidence adds a layer of character development and plot to the story.
Handling evidence appropriately is key to any police investigation. So it’s no wonder that the way evidence is gathered and stored plays such an important role in crime fiction. One post is not enough to do justice to the topic, so tell me – what have I forgotten?
Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stiff Little Fingers’ Forensic Evidence.