I Can’t Reach You*

An important part of most criminal investigations is interviewing, and getting information from, suspects and witnesses. Often that’s a straightforward matter. Police and PIs know that people may lie to them, but an interview is usually a matter of asking questions and evaluating the answers to them. It’s more complicated, though, when a witness can’t be interviewed in what you’d call a conventional way. Some witnesses, for instance, are small children, who need to be interviewed by people with a special background. Others have mental or emotional problems that interfere with their ability to communicate. Whatever the reason for them, these challenges can make it difficult for the detective to find out information. And in crime fiction, that can add an interesting layer to a story.

In Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers, for instance, Cale Hanniford approaches former NYPD police detective Matthew Scudder. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy was murdered, and he wants to know what led up to it. There’s not much question about the crime itself; police have arrested Wendy’s roommate, twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel, and the case seems quite straightforward. But Hanniford had been estranged from Wendy, and wants to know what sort of life she had, who her friends were, and whatever else Scudder can find out. Scudder’s not sure what he can do to help, but he agrees to at least ask some questions. One of the first people he approaches is the suspect himself. Vanderpoel is in custody, so Scudder uses his connections to the police department to gain access to the young man. The interview doesn’t go well, though. Vanderpoel is either too dazed or too drugged (or both) to be very coherent, and he doesn’t seem to have a clear picture of exactly what happened. Still, some things that he says suggest that Wendy Hanniford’s death might not be as clear-cut a matter as it seems. That becomes even clearer when Vanderpoel ends up dead of what looks like suicide…

Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness is the story of the murders of Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes. Scotland Yard’s Inspector John Madden is called to the village of Highfield to investigate. On the surface, it looks like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But not all of the evidence points in that direction. The only witness to the crime is the Fletchers’ four-year-old daughter, Sophy. But it won’t be easy to get information from her. Not only is she a young child, but she has also suffered trauma as a result of the murders, so she’s not able to say anything. Interestingly enough, she does express herself in drawings, and it’s there that Madden gets some clues as to what happened.

As Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring begins, the body of Reed Gallagher has been found in a seedy hotel room. He was head of the School of Journalism at the university where Joanne Kilbourn teaches, so she naturally hears about it. She’s also asked to go along to break the news to Gallagher’s widow, Julie, because the two women know each other. The murder is trouble enough, but then, a journalism student, Kellee Savage, goes missing. Kilbourn’s already involved in the case, and she’s concerned about Kellee. So, she tries to find out what happened to her. She telephones to Kellee’s home, which is how she meets Neil McCallum, the young man who lives next door. She wants to find out what she can from him, but Neil has Down syndrome, so she will have to frame her interview with that in mind. It’s a good thing she takes the time to do so, too, because Neil has some important information and insights to offer. One of them is that Kellee was more mentally fragile than Kilbourn had thought. Another is that she was definitely afraid of something, or someone. And that helps in finding out what happened to her.

There’s also Errki Jhorma, whom we meet in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf. Halldis Horn is murdered right outside of her home, but there’s not a lot of evidence as to who might be responsible. She lived on her own in a remote area, so it’s hard to find witnesses. But some people have said they saw Errki nearby, and it’s possible he either is the killer or saw the killer. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre take on the case, and of course, they want to interview Errki. But this isn’t going to be a typical interview. Errki is considered ‘mad.’ At the very least he has mental issues that he’s working through with a psychiatrist. In fact, he’s been living in an institution. When Sejer and Skarre try to talk to him, they find that he’s escaped from the facility. Then, he’s abducted. If they’re to learn the truth about what happened to Halldis Horn, Seher and Skarre will have to find Errki and then establish some sort of communication with him.

One of the really interesting interview challenges is in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. As the story begins, the body of Katherine Torn’s body is discovered at the home she shares with her common-law husband, radio start Kevin Brace. On the one hand, Brace tells a witness that he killed her. On the other hand, he will say nothing else. He writes a note asking that attorney Nancy Parish defend him, but he won’t speak to anyone. Even when Parish begins to work on the case, he communicates with her only through notes. And even they aren’t particularly informative. She’s going to have to find out the truth about the murder without much help from her client if she has any hope in winning this case.

It can be challenging enough to find out information from witnesses. It’s even more so if the witness doesn’t communicate, or at least not in the conventional way. It’s a reminder that among the many skills detectives need to have is making connections with all sorts of witnesses.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Who.


6 thoughts on “I Can’t Reach You*

  1. Margot: You have provided some fine examples of the challenges of interviewing witnesses. Lawyers are keenly aware of the risks of leading questions resulting in answers wanted by the questioner. Such questions are particularly risky with young children and the intellectually challenged.

    It remains a disappointment to me that law schools spend little to no time on students learning to interview. At a conference I once suggested to law school professors that several hours should be devoted to interviewing for it is one of the most important skills a lawyer must master unless they are going to strictly researchers. Even as researchers I believe interviewing skills would be important.


    1. Thanks for your insights, Bill. I can well imagine that lawyers need to learn to interview, even if, as you say, they don’t intend to be trial lawyers. It takes a special skill set and it makes sense to spend some time on that topic during law school. I’m glad you brought it up at that conference; I think it makes a lot of sense.


  2. Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s current series is about Freyja, a psychologist in charge of the Children’s House, a place specialising in helping traumatised children. This leads Freyja to be involved in helping the police to interview traumatised child witnesses. I must admit the series got too gruesome for me – she has an inventive imagination when it comes to murder methods! – but I thought she handled the child witness aspects very well.

    (When I worked with boys with behavioural difficulties, I often got roped in as “appropriate adult” during police interviews with one or other of the boys. Since happily it was always over something petty and since we knew the local police well – too well! – it was often hilarious watching my poor boys unintentionally give themselves away. It showed me you really don’t need to beat suspects up – just let them talk… 😉 )


    1. Oh, you must have some great stories to tell about those interviews, FictionFan! Your boys were trying so hard to be ‘cool’ and dropping themselves in the soup more and more with each word. I’ve seen it too, in my years working with my students and their students.

      Thanks for mentioning the Freyja series. That’s a great example of how difficult it can be to interview a child (although I’m like you; I have a ‘gruesomeness’ limit). Your comment also reminded me of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. Delaware, too, is a child psychologist, and he, too, has to undertake some of those difficult interviews.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Interviews can add a lot of tension and depth to a book, Col, when they’re done well. I like them, too.


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