Welcome to the February 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. I want to begin discussing interviews and why it is important for your fictional detectives to be good at gathering information. For this month’s segment, I will define what an interview is and discuss “breaking the ice” and “building a rapport”.
NOTE: This is only the beginning of a discussion that will cover numerous blog posts (not necessarily consecutively), because the interview process is complex and there are many options available to your protagonists—whether they are police detectives or amateur sleuths—during this important phase of an investigation.
Whether in fiction or the real world, law enforcement officers conduct interviews on a daily basis. Many crimes are solved based solely on the information received during interviews, so it stands to reason that one would have to be skilled in the art of interviewing in order to be a successful investigator. I have often said officers are only as good as their information, and this statement has proven to be correct many times over. Officers who are capable of obtaining confessions from suspects and gathering pertinent information from witnesses are able to solve many more cases than those who cannot.
While interrogating suspects and obtaining confessions might seem challenging, you are probably thinking that interviewing witnesses and victims is a piece of cake. After all, how hard can it be to ask a few questions and gather a bit of information from people who are willing to talk to you? Well, have any of you ever had a bad encounter with a law enforcement officer? One who was rude and talked down to you? If so, imagine how willing you would be to answer his questions and cooperate fully with his investigation. On more than one occasion I have seen victims and witnesses become so frustrated by the officers interviewing them that they shut down and refused to continue talking. Compare that to an officer who is friendly and respectful when questioning you. You would definitely be more inclined to respond in a positive way to that officer.
Let us look at this from a different angle. Think back to your childhood. Have your parents ever yelled at you simply because your room was a mess? Did they threaten some horrible punishment if you did not clean it immediately? If so, how did you respond to them? Did you yell back or say something sarcastic? Did your response escalate the situation? While you would have probably been blamed for the escalation and punished more severely, would you have reacted differently had they asked nicely? As a child, had you ever wished they would have worked on their delivery? Do you think they would have gotten more mileage out of you if they had been more polite?
If you want your fictional detectives to be successful interviewers and effective law enforcement officers, you should have them adhere to that old adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Sure, they will have to be firm at times, but there is no need for them to be rude just because they can—unless that is what your story calls for, of course.
While I have focused primarily on law enforcement officers to this point, does that mean interviews are limited to cops? Absolutely not! Anyone in your story can conduct interviews—from the most seasoned detective investigating a brutal homicide to a child protagonist trying to locate her stolen Bichon Frise. Any of your characters can conduct interviews with anyone at any time and any place—well, maybe not while court is in session, but you get my point.
WHAT, EXACTLY, IS AN INTERVIEW?
An interview is, quite simply, a conversation with a purpose. It can be formal, but is not an interrogation, and can be casual, but it is not idle chatter. Rather, it is a series of questions designed to gather information from someone who might possess certain details involving a crime or other incident under investigation. Each question should have a specific purpose. That specific purpose can be anything from establishing a rapport with the witness to establishing “who done it”.
ESTABLISHING A RAPPORT
Although witnesses and victims are usually willing to be interviewed by the police, it is always a good idea to “break the ice” before delving right into the heart of the matter. It is no different than going on a first date. You don’t meet your date and immediately start making out…right? You have to at least say “hello” first—then you can start kissing.
It is no different when you are approaching an interview with a witness or victim. Your fictional detective might “break the ice” by complaining about the unusually cold winter they are experiencing or by saying something about the horrible season the New Orleans Saints have had. If she is investigating a tragic case, she would not want to utilize this approach, of course. Instead, she would want to inquire about the witness’ condition. As an example, if she is interviewing a man who just lost his wife, she might want to begin by saying how sorry she is for his loss and then asking if he is okay.
The following example from my crime novel JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2014) illustrates how this translates to fiction:
The door to the double-wide trailer burst open and a twenty-seven-or-so-year-old woman stood in the doorway. She wore thin shorts and a tank top with no bra. Her eyes were swollen, mascara smeared on her cheeks. “What do y’all want?” Starla Landry’s voice was gruff. “I already talked to the other detectives. I don’t know who did this to Anthony.”
Bethany reached out and put a hand on Starla’s arm. “I want to begin by offering our deepest condolences. As I’m sure you’re aware, your husband was a legend to the men and women of Magnolia Parish and everyone loved him. It’s impossible to think that anyone would want to do him harm, but we’d like to sit down with you and see if we can maybe recreate his activities for the past week or so and maybe come up with something—a lead, perhaps.”
Another thing I always do when greeting a witness or victim is introduce myself by name, rather than title. My title or my job does not define who I am. I am simply a person doing a particular job and am no better or worse than the witness or victim I am interviewing. I do identify my occupation, so interviewees will know to whom they are speaking, but that comes after I let them know I am a human being just like they are. I find this helps them feel more at ease with me. If they feel more at ease, they tend to open up more and reveal things they might not ordinarily reveal. If I introduce myself as “Detective Bourg”, I believe it makes the interview seem more formal and could make the witnesses and victim feel more anxious. I would rather them feel relaxed while we are visiting.
Does this mean that you should have all of your detectives introduce themselves by name only, like I do? No, because that would not be realistic. Most of the law enforcement officers I know introduce themselves by title. When I answer my phone at work, I say, “Hello, this is Billy.” Most officers will answer by their title. I have jokingly asked many of my friends if they changed their first name when they became cops or got promoted, because they would answer their phones something like, “Lieutenant Riggs, how may I help you?”
Bear in mind that there is no right way or wrong way to have your fictional detectives introduce themselves. It is all a matter of personal preference. In the larger scheme of things, it is not a big deal.
In the following excerpt from my crime novel JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, December 7, 2015), both viewpoints are expressed:
After talking to the sheriff for a moment, she strode briskly to where we waited. She stuck her hand out to me. “Sergeant Carter?”
I nodded, took her soft hand in mine and squeezed. She squeezed back, and I was surprised at her grip strength. I was also surprised at how blue her eyes were. “You can call me London,” I said.
“London, I’m Lieutenant Bethany Riggs, Internal Affairs. You can call me Lieutenant Riggs.” She glanced at the others, nodded. “The sheriff just informed me that I’ll be lead on this case. I understand Captain Anthony Landry was a dear friend of yours.”
Once your fictional detective makes it through the introductory phase and says something to break the ice, she can begin making small talk to establish a rapport with the victim, as this will help to relax him and put him at ease. When I conduct interviews at work, I walk to the waiting room and escort the witness to my office. As we are walking, I strike up a conversation to get him talking. I want him to know I am friendly and that there is nothing to be nervous about. My goal is to immediately put him at ease and get him talking, so I can obtain as much information from him as possible about the case I am investigating. If I can find some common ground between us, such as our kids attend the same school or both of us are Manny Pacquiao fans, it will be much easier to establish a rapport and gain his trust.
In fiction, I do not believe it is necessary to waste a lot of words detailing the rapport-building stage. However, I think it is important that writers understand what it is and how it happens, so they can make casual reference to it and compose interviews that are realistic and believable.
The following excerpt from my upcoming mystery novel titled HOLLOW CRIB (Five Star Publishing, 2016) illustrates how the rapport-building stage can translate to fiction (it was during an interrogation, but the process is the same for interviews):
“What happened when you met with Mr. Chiasson at his house?”
“I asked him to accompany me to the station and he agreed to do so. When he got in the car with me, I read him his rights.”
“Did you question him in the car?”
“No, ma’am. I just talked with him about fishing, hunting . . . small talk. I was trying to establish a rapport with him.”
“At what point did you question him about the burglary?”
“When we arrived at the office.”
Well, that will do it for this month’s segment of Righting Crime Fiction. As always, thanks for reading and, until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!