Welcome to the March 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. Last month I defined what an interview is and I discussed “breaking the ice” and building a rapport. Next, I will discuss a few different ways your fictional detective can locate potential witnesses.
As I mentioned last month, every question a detective asks during an interview must have a purpose. This is never truer than when writing fiction, where every word counts. While a real detective can take her time getting to the point in her interviews, your fictional detective does not have that luxury. You need to pick your fictional witnesses and interviews carefully, decide what you want to accomplish with each interview, and then have your detective execute the interview with concision. How and where will your fictional detective locate her witnesses? The same way real detectives do . . .
Law enforcement investigations often begin when people contact the police to report crimes or file complaints. These people may or may not be a witness. They could be an eyewitness to the crime—as in, they could have actually seen what happened with their own eyes—or someone could have simply asked them to call the police. In any event, the person who first makes contact with the police to report an incident is commonly referred to as the “complainant”.
Some complainants might prefer to remain anonymous when making a complaint and this could present a number of questions for your detective. Did the complainant actually witness the incident? If so, does s/he have information that might assist in the prosecution of the perpetrator? Why does the complainant want to remain anonymous? Is s/he afraid of retaliation? Is s/he the perpetrator of the crime?
In order to answer these questions, your detective should attempt to identify the complainant. If the complaint was received via 9-1-1, there should be a record of the number from which the call originated, possibly the name of the caller, and an audio file of the actual call, which might yield some clues as to the identity of the caller. Interviews with people at the scene might also help to reveal the identity of the complainant.
In many cases, detectives are among the last to arrive at a crime scene. By the time they do get there, the patrol officers have usually determined the identities of the victims and witnesses and already performed a walk-through of the crime scene, so it is vital that detectives stop and consult with these officers before diving into their investigation. It can involve a detailed conversation between your characters, if warranted, or it can be a simple exchange.
If you are writing the story from your detective’s point of view, this is easy to convey. What follows is an example from my current work in progress—a follow-up to my crime novel HOLLOW CRIB (Five Star – Cengage, 2016)—that describes a patrol lieutenant identifying and interviewing a witness before the detectives even arrive:
Dawn was already at the edge of the crime scene tape when I walked up. She shot several photographs of the area while I walked over to Lieutenant Jim Marshall.
“Hey, Lieu, what gives?”
Jim Marshall hitched up his patrol belt. His breath was labored and beads of sweat raced down his forehead, but it was not unusual for the three-hundred-pound man. “This lady was driving by and saw something on the highway. She wasn’t real sure what it was, so she pulled over and backed up. Well, I tell you, she ‘bout shit her pants when she saw that bloody mess. She whipped it around in the road and drove like hell out of there. She called nine-one-one and waited by Gretchen’s One Stop until I got there.”
The importance of the patrol officer’s role at a crime scene cannot be overemphasized. They are the first trained law enforcement personnel on the scene and they will get to view it while it is relatively “fresh”—usually long before the detectives arrive. The information they gather is almost always vital to the investigation, and a detective would be foolish to ignore their efforts and proceed without first consulting with them.
In addition to patrol officers, it is important to identify all first responders and interview them to determine what they observed when they arrived. This includes paramedics, members of the fire department, volunteers, etc. These first responders often possess valuable information that can greatly assist detectives in determining what occurred and what the scene looked like at its earliest moment.
While it is important to understand the many sources of information at the crime scene, it is not always necessary to include all of them in your story. If the first responders have nothing to offer that advances your story, you wouldn’t want to fill pages of mindless conversation that leads nowhere just for the sake of padding your word count.
In the earlier example from my current work in progress, the woman who located the “bloody mess” is a witness, but her information is restricted to discovering the body, so I didn’t feel the necessity to have a full-blown conversation between her and my detective, Brandon Berger. It is true that the person who discovers and reports a crime in real life is always important to the investigation, so I felt it deserved some mention. I simply passed the pertinent information on to the reader in a realistic manner—the lead detective stopping to speak to the first responder. Had she possessed more information, Detective Berger would have conducted an “on-screen” interview, such as in the following example from JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2014):
Starla threw the door open and stepped back. “Come in, I guess, but I don’t know what good it’ll do. I already told them other detectives that Anthony never got into it with nobody.”
I nodded when I walked by Starla. She nodded back and said, “Your name is…let me see if I remember…London Carter, right?”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s right. Anthony was like a father to me.” I thought I saw Starla’s face lose a few shades of color. I followed Bethany Riggs into the double-wide and we took seats around a small dining room table.
“Want something to drink?” Starla asked. “All I have is milk and beer.”
We both declined the offer, and Bethany opened her notebook and set it on the table. “Can you begin with the night before Anthony was killed and tell us what he did leading up to the last time you saw him or spoke with him?”
Starla propped both elbows on the table and rested her chin in her palms. “He got home from work at about seven o’clock. We ate supper and then he watched TV while I ran to the store. When I got back, he was sleeping on the couch. I left him there and went to bed. When I woke up yesterday morning, he’d already left for work. I ran some errands during the day and then I went to my sister’s in the afternoon. I’d planned to spend the night there because we were going shopping today.
“So…I guess the last time I saw him was when I got home from the store the night before he died.” Tears welled up in Starla Landry’s eyes and rolled down her face. “Had I known what was going to happen, I would’ve stayed home and spent time with him.”
Starla was bawling now, chin trembling, hands covering her face.
Bethany waited patiently until Starla Landry regained her composure and then asked, “What store did you go to?”
Starla wiped her eyes. “Excuse me?”
Bethany glanced down at her notes. “You said you went to the store after you and Captain Landry ate supper. What store did you go to?”
Starla stared blankly from Bethany to me and back to Bethany before she spoke. “I…I went to the store up the road. Um, Food and Stuff Supermarket.”
“What time did you go?” Bethany asked.
“It was after we ate, so it had to be about eight-thirty or nine o’clock.”
“What did you buy?”
“Yes, ma’am. What did you buy at the store?”
Starla Landry began wringing her hands. “I don’t really remember.”
Bethany raised a single eyebrow, fixing Starla with a cold stare. “I understand you’ve been through a lot, but we’re only talking about the night before last. Surely you remember what you bought.”
Starla nodded nervously. “Sure, I remember, it’s just… I’ve been through a lot. Um, I bought some eggs and milk.”
“How did you pay for it?”
“What does that have to do with Anthony’s death?”
“Please, Mrs. Landry, these are important questions. Even though it might not seem like it right now, they all have a purpose and they’ll help us determine what happened to your husband.”
Starla Landry nodded her understanding. “I usually always pay with my debit card.”
“Did you do so that night?”
Starla nodded, then hung her head.
“Okay,” Bethany said. “Do you have a receipt?” Before Starla could answer, Bethany waved her hand. “Never mind. I’ll get that from the bank. It’ll help us establish a hard timeline.”
As Bethany questioned Starla Landry, I studied Starla’s face carefully. I was no detective—well, technically I was, but hadn’t been for long—but I could tell she was hiding something. I was certain Bethany was on to her as well because of the questions she was asking.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
How did Bethany Riggs and London Carter identify Starla Landry as a witness? She is the wife of the decedent, so she would most likely possess direct information about the victim’s activities and possible enemies. Anytime there is a murder, interviewing friends and family members of the victim might help to open many investigative doors for the detectives and should lead to other witnesses.
Have you ever watched true crime documentaries on television, where they take you from the crime scene (or earlier) to the courthouse? Other than those involved in the criminal justice process, who do they interview for the program? That’s right . . . family and friends. The reason is simply because those are the people who knew the decedent the best and who can shed the most light on the situation.
ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER
I have always said that every interview should lead to another witness or another source of potential evidence, and this process can easily transfer to fiction. Let’s say fictional detective Grace Winston is investigating the murder of a businessman who is married and has two grownup children—a son and a daughter. Grace interviews the wife and she says she suspects her husband was having an affair because he was always working “late”, but she does not have a clue who with. Grace then interviews the daughter, who says she called and spoke to her dad the night before his murder and he told her he was heading home from the gym. Lastly, Grace interviews the son and he says his dad recently told him he wanted to buy a gun for protection and asked his opinion regarding what type to buy.
While the information Grace learned from these family members/witnesses did not tell her anything conclusive, it did give her several directions in which to go. She needs to visit the gym and interview the employees who work there to find out the victim’s habits while at the gym—what time does he workout, who does he workout with, any problems with other members, etc. She also needs to visit his place of business and interview his coworkers and supervisors to obtain work schedules, find out if he really does work late, determine who goes to lunch with him, uncover any workplace gossip about him, etc. Lastly, she needs to check with all the local firearms dealers to see if he purchased a gun for protection.
All of the work and gym interviews should then lead to other interviews or evidence until the case is resolved.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CANVAS
Another technique for locating witnesses is the neighborhood “canvas”. This involves investigators knocking on every door in the neighborhood or location where the crime occurred and obtaining as much information as possible about all of the occupants, whether permanent residents or visitors. Things like names, dates of birth, and contact information for each occupant should be gathered. Investigators should seek to interview every occupant who was in the area around the time of the crime to determine if they saw or heard anything that might assist them in identifying the suspect.
Transferring a neighborhood canvas to fiction is quite simple. Here’s an example from JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2014) where a canvas is suggested:
“How about you follow-up on that angle when we’re done here, Gina,” I suggested. “Check the complaint database to see if there were any complaints filed against him that never made it to IA, and canvass his neighborhood to see if anyone saw anything suspicious…”
Since canvasses are a “hit and miss” effort, you can realistically have your detective strike investigative gold during one, or you could have her strike out. Real detectives must report all of their investigative results, even if they turned up nothing, but it is not necessary for writers to do this. In fact, you risk boring your readers if you write pages and pages of canvas interviews and introduce characters that serve no purpose in the story.
In the above excerpt, Gina was asked to conduct a canvas of a particular neighborhood. She turned up nothing valuable, so it is not necessary to take the reader along for the boring ride, but I think it is important to let the reader know what became of that canvas, so they are not left “hanging”. Here is a brief mention of the negative result of the canvas, which appears about a dozen pages farther:
Bethany bit her lower lip as she studied her notes. She glanced up and nodded toward Gina. “Did you ever get to complete the canvass of Captain Landry’s neighborhood?” . . .
“Yes, ma’am,” she said in a strained voice, “I did canvass Anthony’s neighborhood—like I said I would—and I also checked our database to see if there’d been any suspicious person complaints filed. No one from Anthony’s neighborhood saw anything suspicious and the only complaints we’ve had out of that neighborhood over the past six months have been for lock-jobs”—someone locking their keys in their car—“and animals roaming at large.”
For the most part, victims and witnesses will be willing to talk to your detective. However, there will be those who, for different reasons, will either be reluctant to talk to your detective or will downright lie to her. My plan is to explore some of those reasons in next month’s segment of Righting Crime Fiction.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!