One of the challenges in making sense of eyewitness statements is that our senses can deceive us. We may not see what we think we saw. Or we may believe we saw something that wasn’t there. And there are many examples in crime fiction of witnesses thinking they saw (or didn’t see) something when it’s not true.
That’s also the case with what we think we hear. Even if someone’s speaking our language, we may not hear what we think we heard. And that can add an interesting twist to a crime plot. It can be used for misdirection, and it’s a reminder that what eye (ear?) witnesses report may or may not be accurate, no matter how scrupulous they try to be.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Inspector Lestrade has asked for Sherlock Holmes’ input. Charles McCarthy has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to his son James as the culprit. They’d been heard quarreling just before the murder, and the accused was seen with a gun. But James McCarthy’s fiancée Alice Turner doesn’t believe that he’s guilty. She’s asked the police to look into the matter more deeply, so Holmes has been called in. He considers the evidence, talks to the accused, and deduces that the victim gave an important clue as to his murderer, but it was misunderstood. Holmes works out the meaning of what was actually said, which leads him to the solution for the case.
Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is the story of the murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned one afternoon, and his wife, Caroline, was assumed to be guilty. She had motive, as he was having an affair and making no secret of it. The evidence was against her, too, and she was tried and convicted. A year later, she died in prison. Now, sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla wants her mother’s name cleared. She’s always believed in Caroline’s innocence, and she hires Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot talks to the people who were present at the time of the murder and gets a written account from each of them. From this information, he’s able to find out who really killed the victim. One of the things he discovers is that someone didn’t accurately hear something that was said. Once Poirot discovers what was really said, it gives him an important clue.
Anthony Berkeley’s first novel, The Layton Court Mystery, introduces his sleuth, Roger Sheringham. Sheringham and his friend Alexander Grierson are the guests of wealthy Victor Stanworth. One evening, Stanworth is holding a gathering, in a happy state of mind, and everything seems to be going well. The next morning, he’s found dead, in a room with the doors and windows locked from the inside. At first, the police are inclined to put this down to an unexpected case of suicide. But Sheringham notices that the bullet holes suggest something else. But if it was murder, then how did the murderer get in without being seen, and get out without leaving a door or window unlocked? Sheringham decides to investigate, and he and Grierson start looking into the matter. As they speak to the various witnesses, they gather a picture of what happened at the time of the murder. It turns out that what some witnesses think they heard is not what they really heard. That makes a great deal of difference in the case and helps Sheringham towards the solution.
Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life sees Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, invited for a weekend to the home of jet-setter John Levering Benedict III. They’ll be staying at his guest house because he already has his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary staying at the main house. Things are understandably a bit tense, but all goes well enough until the Saturday night, when Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict. He tells Queen he’s been killed, and Queen rushes over to the main house. It’s too late, though; Benedict is dead from a blow to the head with a heavy statuette. The physical clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves, each belonging to a different woman. The real clue, though, is something Benedict said during their conversation. When Queen works out what he actually heard, instead of what he thinks he heard, he’s able to find the killer.
And then there’s Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. In the novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. That’s the group tasked with overseeing exams administered in foreign countries that use the British system of education. As Morse and Lewis get to work, they learn that Quinn’s appointment to the Syndicate was not a unanimous decision, and there are people who absolutely did not want him in the group. The detectives also learn that the other members of the Syndicate are all keeping different secrets, any one of which Quinn could have discovered. That’s not to mention some questions about the way the Syndicate operates. So, there are multiple suspects and possibilities. In fact, Morse doesn’t get to the real truth until he learns that someone misunderstood something that someone else said. That misunderstanding turns out to be the key to the crime.
So often we think we know what we’ve heard. We’ve heard it with our own ears, after all. But have we really? It’s interesting to see how crime writers explore what happens when we haven’t.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Heard it Through the Grapevine.