An interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about what it’s like to be accused – even put on trial – in a case of murder. Of course, it’s unpleasant to say the least to be accused of any crime, but murder is arguably different. Being accused of or tried for murder takes a heavy toll on a person, as you can imagine. Even if the verdict is ‘not guilty,’ there’s still a psychological price to pay. And that reality can add a solid layer of character development and suspense to a story.
FictionFan’s post (which you really should read!) concerns Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Chianti Flask, in which Laura Dousland is on trial for the murder of her husband. She is acquitted, but that doesn’t mean everything is fine again. As FictionFan points out, there are still people who think that she’s guilty. And that’s to say nothing of the tension and pressure of the trial itself.
There are several other examples of this experience in crime fiction. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle stands trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. There is evidence against her, too. Her former fiancé, Roderick Welman, had become infatuated with Mary. What’s more, her wealthy Aunt Laura was quite taken with Mary, and there was every indication that she would leave the bulk of her fortune (perhaps all of it) to her, instead of to Elinor. The evidence is strong enough that Elinor is arrested. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Among other things, the novel shows the psychological toll it takes on Elinor to be on trial for murder, and it’s interesting to see the events through her eyes.
In Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane stands trial for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. They’d had an argument before the murder, and it was known that she had given him a cup of coffee. So there’s every reason to believe she might be guilty. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and becomes smitten with Harriet – so smitten, in fact, that he determines to clear her name so that he can marry her. When the jury can’t return a unanimous verdict, Harriet is granted a new trial, and Lord Peter has 30 days within which to prove her innocent if he can. The trial does take a toll on Harriet. In fact, she’s grateful to Lord Peter, but reluctant to get involved with him because of the trial. The topic is brought up again in Gaudy Night, when Harriet returns to her alma mater to investigate some unsettling events there. She’s not sure she should go, because of the notoriety she’s gained as a result of the trial. In the end, she does go, and finds out what’s behind the rash of vandalism and other happenings at the university.
Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town sees Queen visiting the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s looking for a quiet getaway so that he can get some writing done. Instead, he’s plunged into the drama of the Wright family, with whom he’s staying. They’re the social leaders of the town, so it was big news when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé Jim Haight. Now it’s three years later, and Haight comes back to town. More than that, he and Nora rekindle their relationship and even get married. On New Year’s Eve, Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is killed with a poisoned cocktail, and all indications are that it was meant for Nora. There are other suggestions, too, that Jim might be trying to kill his wife. He’s soon put on trial for murder, and the whole town turns against him. The only two people who believe he might be innocent are his sister-in-law, Pat, and Ellery Queen. In the end, they find out the truth. And it’s really interesting to see how the experience of being on trial impacts Jim.
John Grisham has, of course, written several novels in which his main characters are attorneys who defend clients on trial for murder (A Time to Kill is just one of them). And the stress of being accused of murder plays an important part in the tension in those novels. The same is true of some of Scott Turow’s novels. Part of the suspense comes from the psychological pressure of being accused of a horrible crime.
In Aline Templeton’s Last Act of All, we are introduced to Helena Radley, who’s just been released from prison, where she served time for the murder of her first husband, soap opera star Neville Fielding. She and her new husband, Edward Radley, return to the small town of Radensfield, where they live, and try to start over. It’s not easy, though. Helena has been in prison, and everyone knows it. Sergeant Frances Howarth investigated the murder, and she has never been entirely convinced that Helena was guilty. Now, she wants to re-open the case. You might think that Helena would be eager to have her name cleared if she was innocent, but at first, she is vehemently opposed. She simply doesn’t want to rake the whole thing up again; that’s how difficult it’s all been for her. But after a time, she begins to see that things might get dangerous for her. She knows she is innocent, and so does the killer. So she finally agrees to go over the case again. This lets Frances Howarth look into the case, and this time, she finds out the real truth.
It’s always a terrible strain to be suspected of a murder, and even more so to be tried for one. And it’s interesting to see how that strain impacts the people involved. Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, folks, may I suggest that your next stop be FictionFan’s Book Reviews? There’s a wealth of fine reviews and commentary waiting there for you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Take Me to the Pilot.
14 thoughts on “I’m On Trial*”
Trials can add such drama to a story, with awkward juries, last minute events, and of course the accused still being considered guilty even after being cleared. One of the British Library Crime Classics I’ve read even has a trial where you don’t know which person is actually being tried – very clever!
Oh, that is clever, KBR! And I agree with you about trials. They do add suspense and drama to a story, and the author can take a trial in any direction to suit the story. I think that gives that plot point a lot of flexibility. There’s also the natural adversarial nature of a courtroom trial. That, too, adds to the tension, at least for me.
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An interesting post as always Margot
Thanks, June! Glad you enjoyed the post.
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This is a great topic, Margot. I just read FictionFan’s post today.
I like the sound of the last one you mentioned, Last Act of All. That one sounds especially interesting.
I’m glad you got the chance to read FictionFan’s post, Tracy; I thought it was excellent. And as for Last Act of All, I think it’s a well-written book. There’s some interesting small-town/village atmosphere in it, and the characters are solid. If you do get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.
An interesting post Margot that is just right for me to comment.
John Grisham addresses the experience of the accused in several of his books. The most vivid for me was The Confession where the issue is whether an innocent accused will be executed.
I read FictionFan’s fine review and the suspicion of the acquitted accused reminded me of Martin Edwards recent book, Mortmain Hall, where a trio of individuals either acquitted or investigated as the prime suspect are gathered together. Each has undergone their own form of stress and risk of the consequences of conviction.
Our office has represented few accused of murder. The cases involved situations where the circumstances rather than the identity of the killer were at issue. In each case the taking of a life, no matter the reasons, changed he accused forever.
I can well imagine, Bill, that taking a life, for whatever reason, really does change a person. It’s one of those profound experiences that can’t help but have a real impact. I think that’s why I appreciate books where that change is acknowledged: it’s realistic.
Thanks for mentioning Mortmain Hall. Edwards really is a talented writer, and he does justice to the Golden Age sort of book. And as for Grisham, one of the things I really like about his writing is that he explores the experience of being accused and on trial in all its complexity. He doesn’t offer superficial explanations, either.
A reminder than I still haven’t read anything by Turow. Thanks, Margot.
I do recommend Turow’s work when you get to it, Col. He writes some strong characters and well-crafted stories.
Thanks for the link and the kind words, Margot! 😀 I find the idea of being acquitted of murder intriguing, since in the eyes of many of the public the very fact of being charged is enough to convict. We have several real life cases over here, and I’m sure there will be on your side of the pond too, where people are considered to have “got off” with murder. So much for innocent until proven guilty! The other fictional one that springs to mind is Constance in We Have Always Lived in the Castle – despite being tried and acquitted, everyone still assumes she poisoned most of her family. Hmm… I can’t remember now if she did or didn’t – time for a re-read, I think!
It’s always a pleasure to mention your excellent blog, FictionFan! You have a good point that in a lot of cases, people are considered guilty, even if they are acquitted (and, in fact, even if they are actually innocent). Just the fact of having been on trial starts the ‘no smoke without fire’ sort of talk. And, yes, it runs counter to ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ There are plenty of stories on both sides of the pond of people who’s had to go through that.
As to Constance, it is interesting how the townspeople feel about her and her family. It doesn’t matter what the courts have found, they still think she’s guilty. Whether she is or not…well… I could tell you, but then, well… 😉 It’s not a long book, so if you do decide to re-read, it’s not a huge investment of time.
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Great post, Margot. One thing I’ve enjoyed in murder trial stories by Grisham and Turow and the likes is the fact that they also show how the stress is handled by not only the people directly involved in the trial, but also the families of those impacted such as the lawyer’s families. The stress of a murder case has far reaching arms.
It really does, Mason, and I’m glad you brought that up. When someone’s child/partner/parent/close friend/etc. is tried for murder, that stress and anxiety can be horrible. And even if the person is acquitted (and is actually innocent), everyone still goes through trauma.
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