Now I’m Calling All Citizens From All Over the World*

Public AppealsI’m sure you’ve seen them on television or online, or heard them on the radio. Perhaps you’ve seen them in newspapers or even on notices posted in public places. I’m talking about appeals for help with a criminal investigation. You know the kind: Anyone with any information is asked to contact… Sometimes they come from police departments, and sometimes they come from private citizens, but either way, public appeals are sometimes a big part of trying to get leads and other information about crimes.

The advantage of a public appeal is that usually someone, somewhere has seen or heard something valuable to an investigation. So making an appeal can yield helpful information. On the other hand, it can also draw out all sorts of people who have their own reasons for either claiming to be guilty or claiming to know something about the crime. Trying to separate important leads from ‘background noise’ takes a lot of time and effort, and most police departments don’t have a lot of extra staff to handle the inevitable ‘phone calls and visits. Still, public appeals can be very useful. Here’s a quick look at the way they work in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning about a major crime that’s to take place in Andover. Then shopkeeper Alice Ascher is murdered. At first there’s not a huge amount of public interest in the crime, other than in the street where she had her home and shop. But then Poirot gets another warning note, and there’s another death. This time the victim is twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard. Other than the notes and the sex of the victims, the only thing the deaths have in common is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. But those are enough for the police and Poirot to believe that they’re dealing with a multiple murderer. They don’t get very far in their investigation though, and the decision is taken to ask for the public’s help. There’s an interesting discussion about whether to do so. On the one hand, it will put people on the alert so that they can help catch the killer. On the other, it will also bring out all sorts of people that the police don’t have time to deal with, and it may be exactly what the murderer wants. It turns out that asking for the public’s help leads towards something very important about the case. I know, I know, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead…

In one plot thread of Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are faced with a perplexing case. The body of an unknown man has been discovered in an old chicken shed. The body’s head, hands and legs have been removed, so identification is extremely difficult. Even matching what the police have to missing person reports doesn’t prove to be successful. The police do get a few leads, but they don’t yield very much. It’s finally decided that Grace’s colleagues Glenn Branson and Bella Moy will go on Crimewatch, a monthly TV show that features unsolved crimes. They duly appear on the show, and although their participation doesn’t solve the case, it does point the police towards an important lead.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Constable Maeve Kerrigan of the Met. She and her team are up against a very difficult case: a killer who tries to destroy the bodies of his victims by fire. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and so far, the police haven’t made much headway in finding him. Then, there’s another killing. This time the victim is Rebecca Haworth, a successful PR professional. Her death might or might not be the work of the Burning Man, and Kerrigan’s boss doesn’t want to risk losing a very important lead. Kerrigan isn’t so sure, and she would really like to be a part of the continuing hunt for the Burning Man. But it wouldn’t look good for the police to appear not to be following up on a murder. So Kerrigan starts digging into Haworth’s background to find out who might have wanted to kill her. In this case, public appeals are made not just to get information about the Burning Man, but also to warn potential victims.

Perhaps no public appeals are more poignant than appeals for information and help when a child disappears. We see that for instance in Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone. When four-year-old Amanda McCready disappears one night, the police are notified and soon there’s an all-out search for the child. The case generates quite a lot of media and public interest because Amanda is so young. And of course there’s lots of public discussion as to how and why she disappeared. Despite all the effort, no trace of her turns up – not even a body. Amanda’s Uncle Lionel and his wife Beatrice ask PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to take the case. They’re reluctant at first; after all, it’s hard to see what they can do if the efforts of dozens of police and hundreds of area residents haven’t been successful. But they’re finally persuaded. And what they discover turns out to be quite different to what they had imagined this case would be. At one point in the novel, Amanda’s mother Helene goes on television to make an appeal for her daughter’s safe return. And of course there are all kinds of notices and posters displayed all over the area. They don’t solve the case, but they add a sense of authenticity and urgency to the plot.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also makes use of appeals to the public for information when a child is lost. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson are the proud parents of nine-week-old Noah. They’ve just landed in Melbourne after a very long and difficult trip from Joanna’s home in Scotland, and they’re preparing to take the drive from the airport to their destination. Along the road, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of Noah. Alistair calls the police, who immediately do a search of the surrounding area. No leads turn up, and of course every moment counts. So a public appeal is made for any information that may lead to the baby’s safe return. The couple even go on television themselves to make a direct appeal. There are websites and Facebook pages set up too to raise money and contribute to the search. And then questions begin to be raised about what really happened to baby Noah…

And then there’s Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street. One hot summer night, June Giatto and Valerie ‘Val’ Marino decide impulsively to take a raft ride on the bay near their home in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The next morning, Val is discovered washed up on the beach; she’s hurt but alive, and is rushed to the nearest hospital. June has disappeared though. The police do a search for her and a public appeal is made on the news and in local newsletters for any information that may lead to her whereabouts. Nothing turns up though, and months go by. There are still notices up, and the case is still discussed, but the appeal for help doesn’t yield much. In part that’s because of the relationship between the police and the community. In part it’s also because of what certain people know but aren’t willing to disclose. The public appeals for help don’t solve the case, but they do add to the sense of loss as the fact of June’s disappearance settles in.

It’s true that going on television, radio or online to appeal for information has its risks. Dozens and dozens of ‘leads’ may come in, and each must be followed up, but most of them don’t go anywhere. And sometimes, a public appeal for help gives the criminal an important source of information about police suspicions. But those disadvantages can be completely forgotten if just the right person sees or hears the appeal and comes forward with just the right information…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Catch Me Now I’m Falling.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dennis Lehane, Helen Fitzgerald, Ivy Pochoda, Jane Casey, Peter James

28 responses to “Now I’m Calling All Citizens From All Over the World*

  1. A fascinating subject that raises a lot of questions as the public are now aware that sometimes relatives are asked to make an appeal because they are suspects and it is a good way to observe them, detectives in books also use an appeal for this reason too. I love the variety of books you used to illustrate this post, particularly The Cry which was a really unnerving read.

    • Cleo – It was unnerving, wasn’t it? And you’re quite right that those public appeals serve a purpose if the police suspect a particular person. I’ve even read books where the police are sure of the criminal, and say things – veiled, perhaps, but clear to the culprit – to show that they know. It’s a very useful too. And as you say, those appeals are also good ways to observe people who make them to look for anything untoward.

  2. Keishon

    I need to read Visitation Street. I started it and set it aside for some reason. I need to get back to it. I need to read Peter James, well, all of the books you mentioned in here sound great.

    • Keishon – I’ll be really interested to learn what you think of Visitation Street. It’s an unusual sort of novel, and it’s got a strong sense of place and context. And as for Peter James, he’s got a popular series with his Roy Grace novels. If you give them a try, I’d be interested in your view of them too.

  3. In Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, one prominent character has failed to come forward and give a young man an alibi – he missed all the appeals for information because he had left on a trip immediately afterwards, and was out of reach of all media. When he comes back he realizes that his evidence would have cleared the young man…

    • Moira – Oh, that’s quite true, and a great example of how public appeals don’t always work. Of course, the members of the family are not happy bunnies when he comes forward now and to me, that adds an interesting dimension to that novel. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  4. Several of those books appeal to me too, especially Visitation Street by Pochoda.

    • Tracy – Visitation Street is definitely a different kind of book. It has a very strong sense of place and community, too. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

  5. Margot: In The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver, which I finished today, a drawing by a police artist is circulated in New York City of the suspect. There is a twist (no surprise with Deaver) that I do not think will spoil the book if I reveal. The twist is that the witness does not give an honest description. All eyewitness evidence is only as reliable as the observer.

    • Bill – Oh, that is a neat twist. And yes, that’s Deaver’s style. It’s interesting too, come to think on it, how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Even if the public’s help is sought in a case, one can’t be sure that someone coming forward will tell the truth. It might be purely an innocent mistake, or it might not…

  6. Thank god we in Germany are more or less spared such appeals towards the baser human instincts. Innocent until proven guilty still has some meaning over here … 🙂

  7. I have a French friend who was always fascinated by the public appeals for information that we get here in the UK. She said there were much less in France, partly for historic reasons and partly because of the differences in the justice system. I guess they must work if they are so popular.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s very interesting about the differences between public appeals in France and the UK. I’m sure that the decision to make those appeals is as much about history/culture as it is about anything else. But you’re right; I think there must be some benefit to making them or the police wouldn’t take the time.

  8. I must say these appeals always baffle me, though I agree they must work. But I feel if I saw a child being abducted or an old woman being beaten up, I’d tend to report it without waiting for an appeal! Over here we have a program called Crimewatch which appeals for info on all kinds of crime, minor to major, and they get inundated with witnesses calling in – and every time I wonder why they didn’t contact the police at the time…

    • FictionFan – I’ve actually heard of Crimewatch, and Peter James mentions it in Not Dead Yet. There are similar kinds of things in the US too, and they do make me wonder why people don’t come forward right when they see things. Some people say it’s because of lack of trust in the police. Others say it’s because people simply don’t want to get involved in others’ business. Others have other reasons. I’d contact the police if I saw something, too, but I suppose not everyone feels that way.

  9. I hate it when parents of a missing child go on TV to appeal for information or the child’s return. The media uses them for ratings and then as soon as something sexier happens, they drop those people like a hot potato. Seems like I’ve seen this very thing in a mystery novel but don’t remember which one.

    • Barbara – It is really sad the way the media exploits distraught parents who simply want their child back. It’s just as sad (perhaps even worse – I can’t make up my mind) when not-so-innocent parents exploit the media to avoid suspicion. And yes, both situations have cropped up in crime novels. In my opinion, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Cry both do a solid job of showing how media appeals from frightened parents play out, and how the media moves on when something new comes along. If you haven’t read them, I recommend it.

  10. Hi Margot. Great topic. I recall the movie No Way to Treat a lady and the bogus confession of the dwarf. I believe this came about as the result of a pubic appeal and, alas, is an example of the background noise that has to be filtered amongst the good stuff.

    • Bryan – You’re absolutely right. That confession is a terrific example of why the police often think twice or more before they put out a public appeal. There’s so much ‘background noise’ (I like that term!), and so many people who may honestly think they have some important information, but who don’t. And you can’t always tell at first what’s ‘noise,’ what’s important and what’s just an honest, human mistake.

  11. The post for some strange reason reminded me of The Man in the Balcony. Not quite the same thing, but along similar lines.
    ABC Murders, incidentally, is a personal favourite of mine.

    Great post, as usual

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words. And you know, you’re right about The Man on the Balcony. As you say, not really exactly the same thing, but there’s a similarity there. Thanks for bringing it up. And I think The ABC Murders is definitely one of Christie’s better novels…

  12. Pingback: Writing Links…8/17/14 | All Twangs Romance

  13. Col

    Visitation Street sits on the pile here as well!

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