Part of investigating a crime is talking to anyone who might have any knowledge about it. That sometimes means that a lot of innocent people, who didn’t have anything to do with the crime, get mixed up in it, at least to some extent. That can lead to annoyance and drains on time (e.g. if one is deposed or summoned as a witness at a trial). It can also lead to embarrassment (e.g. the person who is in a hotel with a lover and happens to witness something related to a crime that takes place there). And, although there are some people who feel a certain amount of excitement about being deposed or summoned to court, the process can be nerve-wracking, too.
People’s differing reactions to getting mixed up in an investigation can add some interesting layers to a crime novel. They can also add character development. It’s also realistic that innocent people get mixed up in criminal investigations. So, it’s no wonder that we see this sort of plot thread in a lot of crime fiction.
Agatha Christie used such reactions in many of her stories. For instance, The ABC Murders begins with the murder of a shop owner, Alice Ascher. She’s killed in her shop late one afternoon, and, of course, the police want to talk to anyone who might have been there at the approximate time of her death. So does Hercule Poirot, who actually received a warning note about this murder. Two of the customers they speak to are James Partridge and Bert Riddell, and it’s interesting to see how they react to being drawn into the case. Partridge made a purchase just before Mrs. Ascher was killed, and he goes to the police of his own accord with his story once he learns of the murder. He’s not at all ghoulish, but he does enjoy being able to provide evidence. Riddell, on the other hand, doesn’t come forward. When he is interviewed, he blusters a bit as he tells his story, and wonders out loud (and rather angrily) whether the police suspect him. Soon enough, it’s established that neither man is likely to be the killer, but it’s interesting to see how they respond to giving their stories. I see you, fans of Death in the Clouds.
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel has his sleuth, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk, seconded to the small town of Swinderen. Someone has been sending vicious anonymous letters accusing the different residents of all sorts of things. It’s the sort of town where everyone knows everyone’s business, so no-one is comfortable talking about the letters. But they’ve wreaked havoc. In fact, they’ve caused two suicides and a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out who’s responsible, so Van der Valk’s been sent in to see what he can learn. Slowly, he gets to know the people of the town, and begins to talk to some of them. Most are terrified to reveal they got letters, because they don’t want anyone suspecting that what’s in the letters is true. And, although everyone wants the letters to stop, no-one really appreciates being drawn into the case and interviewed. It’s a challenge for Van der Valk, but in the end, he gets to the truth.
In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, mystery novelist Martin Canning is among a group of people who are in Edinburgh, waiting to buy tickets for a lunchtime radio comedy show. As they’re waiting, they see a blue Honda crash into a silver Peugeot. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. Then, the Honda driver brandishes a bat, and starts to attack the Peugeot driver. Canning sees this, and instinctively throws his computer case at the Honda driver to stop the attack. Out of concern, Canning accompanies the Peugeot driver to the nearest hospital, and ends up getting drawn into a case of fraud and multiple murder. All of the other people who were waiting for tickets get drawn into the case, too, to some extent or other, simply because they were witnesses to the accident.
In Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, attorney Guido Guerrieri gets a new client. It seems that Abdou Thiam, who emigrated to Bari from Senegal, has been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. He claims that he is not guilty, but he’s not very hopeful of getting a fair trial. Still, Guerrieri promises to do everything he can, and goes to work on the case. One of the witnesses he speaks to, and later questions in court, is a bar owner named Antonio Renna. It seems that Renna saw Thiam pass by his bar shortly before the abduction and murder, although Thiam has said that he was in another town at the time. Naturally, Guerrieri wants to know everything he can about that incident. For his part, Renna never really wanted to be involved in the investigation in the first place. He’s drawn into it, and it turns out that what he has to say figures into the real truth about the murder.
And then there’s William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, which introduces retired Vancouver attorney Arthur Beauchamp. He’s hoping to enjoy retirement in his new home on Garibaldi Island, but he is drawn back into the courtroom when some of his former colleagues persuade him to take the case of Professor Jonathan O’Donnell. He’s been charged with the rape of a law student named Kimberly Martin. O’Donnell isn’t satisfied with the representation he’s gotten, and he wants Beauchamp to defend him. Of course, O’Donnell and Martin tell different stories about the night of the alleged rape, but there are some facts that are not in dispute. On that night, the Law Students Association (of which Martin is a member) held a dance, to which O’Donnell and some other faculty members were invited. After the dance, a group of several people went on to another party, and then back to O’Donnell’s house. A great deal of alcohol was consumed, and not just by the two parties to the case. As Beauchamp and his opponent prepare their cases, they speak to several of the other students who were present at the dance, the party, and at O’Donnell’s house. In the end, we find out what really happened that night, and it’s interesting to see how those young people, who were simply out to have a good time, get drawn into this investigation.
And it’s like that with many witnesses. They may be entirely innocent, even in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the saying goes. But they can be drawn into murder cases just the same.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.