Whenever there’s a criminal investigation, the police want witnesses who are as reliable as possible. And when lawyers are planning for a trial, the perceived reliability of their experts and other witnesses is a crucial factor as they prepare their cases. And the fact is, not all witnesses are seen as equally reliable. Even if a witness is telling the truth, that person may not be taken seriously for any number of reasons. It’s interesting to see how that plays out in crime fiction, as those prejudices and beliefs about who is reliable can (mis)lead the detective in one direction or another.
Some characters, for instance, aren’t taken seriously because they’re on medication. In a way, that makes sense, since medication can have all sorts of side effects. But being medicated doesn’t necessarily mean people can’t be aware of what someone says or does. In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for example, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the local police to solve a series of murders that seem to be connected. Before each killing, Poirot receives a cryptic warning note, and an ABC railway guide is found near each body. As you’d imagine, they interview the family and friends of those who were murdered. One of the victims, Sir Carmichael Clarke, leaves behind a widow, Lady Charlotte Clarke, who was at home at the time of his murder. At first, not much attention is paid to her, because she’s dying of cancer and is often heavily medicated. But she has some valuable things to say, and when Poirot gets the chance to talk to her, he finds that the effort of working with her is worthwhile.
In Molly Thynne’s The Case of Sir Adam Braid, we are introduced to Chief Detective Inspector Fenn. He is called in when a friend of his, Sir Adam Braid, is murdered. As a part of the investigation, he speaks to the other people who live in the same building as Sir Adam. One of these witnesses is Everard Webb, who went to Braid’s flat to see if he could spare a stamp. Webb’s sister is a charwoman who ‘does for’ Sir Adam, and she’s got some useful information. However, there are a few reasons she’s not taken as seriously as she might be, at least at first. One is that she is a middle-aged spinster. At that time, an unmarried woman of ‘a certain age’ was often considered fanciful, even unbalanced. So, anything she says can likely be set aside. It doesn’t help matters that she’s a charwoman, so definitely not ‘one of us.’ Eventually, Fenn and his friend, Dr. Robert Gilroy, do take in what Miss Webb says, and they find that it gives them solid information.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is the story of seventeen-year-old Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrea. In 1869, he is arrested and tried for three murders in the Scottish town of Culduie, on Scotland’s Applecross Peninsula. Told through the means of Roddy Macrae’s own narrative, as well as various court documents and witness statements, the story details the background for the murders. It also describes the police investigation and the lawyers’ perspectives on the trial. Among other things, the story shows how some accounts and statements are given more credence than others. For instance, Roddy’s statement is immediately discounted by several people, and not just because he’s the one who’s on trial. He’s also poor and not well educated – certainly not one of ‘the better class.’ There are other characters, too, whose perceived credibility has a lot to do with their social class and/or level of education.
Race plays a major role in the way witnesses are regarded in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (and that’s not the only novel where we see this). Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance agrees to defend Carl Lee Hailey when Hailey (who is Black) shoots two white men who raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter. On the one hand, there is, at least initially, a lot of sympathy for Hailey. Most men in town privately feel they’d do much the same thing if they were in that situation. That said, though, Hailey did commit murder, and vigilante justice cannot be condoned. As the novel goes on, and Brigance prepares for the trial, we see how race impacts the way people view what the various witnesses say.
In Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, we are introduced to Captain Sam Wyndham. It’s 1919 Calcutta/Kolkata, and Wyndham has just arrived to take up a position with the police. In this novel, he and his assistants, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, investigate the murder of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. As they investigate, they talk to a number of people, including MacAuley’s church connections, his colleagues, and friends. They also talk to others who might have information. One of the interesting things about these interviews is that they’re often impacted by the witness’ ethnic background. These are the last years of the British Raj, and the British are still firmly in charge, although there is simmering resentment and a desire for Indian independence. That social ‘pecking order’ means that British witnesses are often given more credibility than their Indian counterparts. It’s simply assumed that they’re more likely to be both accurate and honest. It’s not always true, of course, as fans of this series know, but it does play a role. We see that also, by the way, in the work of Brian Stoddart, whose Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place at about the same historical time, in what is now Chennai.
Anyone can potentially have valuable information about a case. So, the police, and lawyers, do well to pay attention to what’s said, no matter who says it. It can be difficult to do, though, and it takes a willingness to set aside assumptions about who’s worth listening to, and who’s not.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ It’s Gonna Get Better.