I’ve just finished reading a crime novel in which the crime and its victim get co-opted, as you might say, by people who want to further their own agendas. It’s not that those people have no sympathy for the victim; rather, they want to use what happened as a ‘showpiece’ for their cause. That’s, at least, how the victim comes to see it. And if you think about it, that happens in real life, too. In one sense, that can have a positive consequence. The victim of, say, a traffic accident, can become the ‘face’ of a movement to make streets safer. But it’s easy to lose sight of the people involved, and the very real pain and grief they go through, if a crime is used to further others’ agendas. It’s a very delicate balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike it.
That balance is a part of a number of crime novels, not just the one I’ve been reading. For example, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team investigate the death of Dennis Brinkley. At first, the death looks like an accident, but Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle is convinced he was murdered. It takes some time (and another death) to convince Barnaby that Brinkley was killed deliberately, but once he re-opens the case, he finds out the truth. In one plot thread of the novel, a self-style medium named Ava Garrett uses Brinkley’s murder to further her own career, and to convince people that spiritualism has merit. She doesn’t do so in an obvious way, but it seems to be her goal. One night at a séance, she says some things about the case that only the killer would know. When she herself is murdered not long afterwards, it’s clear that someone is determined to keep the truth hidden.
John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is the story of the Hailey family. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is raped and left for dead, her family is devastated. She survives physically, but she suffers severe psychological damage. As you can imagine, her father, Carl Lee, is enraged and grief-stricken. He’s also not sure that justice will be done in this case; the family is Black, Tonya’s two attackers are white, and it’s a small town in Mississippi. So, he ambushes the men and shoots them both. He asks local attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s a difficult case, though. There is real sympathy for the Hailey family, and plenty of local fathers might have done the same thing. Still, vigilantism cannot be condoned, and Hailey did kill two people. The case gets a lot of media coverage, and more than one group wants to co-opt it. Civil rights groups want it to be a ‘showpiece’ case to highlight the need for racial justice. The KKK wants it to be a ‘showpiece’ case to support their position on race. All of this makes the case difficult to pursue. Meanwhile, the Hailey family just wants to cope with what happened.
In James Hallis’ The Long-Legged Fly, we follow private investigator and sometimes debt collector Lewis ‘Lew’ Griffin. He lives and works in New Orleans, and this novel’s focus is four major cases in his career. The first one, in 1964, concerns the disappearance of noted civil rights activist Corene Davis. She was scheduled to visit New Orleans for a series of speeches and other appearances, but she never made it to any of them. Evidence shows that she did arrive in New Orleans as scheduled, so either she is still in town, hiding somewhere for some reason, or she is dead. Griffin traces her movements and finds out the truth about what happened to her. Throughout that case, we see how different groups want to use Davis’ disappearance for their own purposes. And that makes it all the harder for Griffin to do his work.
Felicity Young’s Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series begins with The Anatomy of Death (AKA A Dissection of Murder). In the novel, it’s 1910, and McCleland has just qualified in forensic pathology, and is returning to London to start her career. She wants to work for Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, but for the moment, she’s taken a position in a local hospital. Shortly after she arrives in London, a women’s suffrage march turns ugly, with some of the protestors beaten and several jailed. Three protestors were killed. McCleland is asked to examine the victim’s bodies, and she begins her work. She finds that two of the deaths have straightforward explanations, but the third does not. Lady Catherine Cartwright died of blunt force trauma that might or might not have been the result of an accident. Each in a different way, McCleland and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Matthew Pike look into the case to find out what happened. Their work is complicated by the fact that the death has political overtones. Suffragettes want to use it to highlight their plight; others want to use it to highlight the need for order and a strong police presence. Beneath the politics, though, is the real truth about the death, and McCleland and Pike have to put the other issues aside to find out what really happened.
There’s also Brad Parks’ Faces of the Gone. Carter Ross is a reporter for the Newark, New Jersey Eagle-Examiner. One morning, his boss sends him to a vacant lot where the bodies of four people have been found. The original theory is that the four were engaged in robbing a bar, and that the owner had them killed. But there’s no evidence that they knew each other, and there are other facts of the case that are also inconsistent with that explanation. Parks looks into the case more deeply and finds that these deaths have a very different explanation. As the novel goes on, we see how a major case like this one can be co-opted. The National Drugs Bureau (NDB), which investigates international drug trafficking, wants to use the case to show how dangerous the drugs business is. Other groups want to use the case to show that the police are incompetent, since they don’t seem able to solve it. Ross, though, sees the real people impacted by these deaths, and that adds to the story.
That’s the thing about, especially, high-profile cases. They can be co-opted by groups that have agendas they want to pursue. That in itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But it can be difficult for the individuals involved in the case. And it can make it harder to solve the case.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sloan’s The Marquee and the Moon.
8 thoughts on “We All Get Co-opted*”
A very timely subject, Margot, given real life events over the last few weeks and months. When a case becomes as high profile as some of these through being co-opted as part of a “cause”, then it always seems to me it must be extremely difficult to get a really unbiased jury. Even moving the trial to a different location doesn’t help much in these times of global online news. But surprisingly, justice is still sometimes served!
You’re right, FictionFan, about the real life events lately. It seems that, with social media, it’s even easier for a ’cause’ to co-opt a case. And that can have some important benefits. But, as you say (and I hadn’t thought of it when I was writing this post), it can make it harder to find an unbiased jury and an unbiased place to hold a trial. It doesn’t mean that justice isn’t served, but I think it does complicate things.
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Interesting examples Margot. In real life class actions there will be a representative plaintiff or plaintiffs. They are the face of the action. Their individual cases often assume a disproportionate role. I “found” the Plaintiff for a Canadian national class action against a major bank over unpaid overtime. Two weeks after she contacted me we were at a news conference in Toronto with the lead counsel announcing the action to the media.
Thanks, Bill. And thanks for that real-life example. That was a quick move into the spotlight for that case. I’d heard that in class action suits, one plaintiff is the ‘face’ of the case, and it makes sense to me. My guess, too, would be that some class actions get more media attention than others do.
I agree, Margot, it’s a difficult subject and so relevant today. As a true crime writer, it becomes an even more delicate issue to handle. On one hand, I’m working on a case that ticks all the right boxes to become a book that could help shine a spotlight on an important subject matter. On the other, I feel for the victim’s family, having their tragedy displayed for all the world to see. I’ve reached out and offered to change their names but the tap dance still slipknots my stomach. Problem is, if I don’t write the story, another writer will. At least I’ll write from a place of understanding and truth, not sensationalism.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Sue. You really point out the dilemma that writers of conscience face. How does the writer shine the light on an issue that needs to be addressed, but still allow the people involved their privacy and dignity. It’s a really difficult balance that I don’t envy. And, as you say, if you don’t write the story, someone with less compassion might really exploit the people involved in the interest of selling copies.
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Quite like the sound of the Brad Parks books. And I have enjoyed a bit of James Sallis in the past.
I think you’d like the Parks series, Col. Among other things, it’s got a nice sense of place, and the characters would, I think, be to your taste. And as for Sallis, he does write fine noir, I think, full of atmosphere.