Welcome to the April 2015 edition of Righting Crime Fiction. Before I get started, I want to mention how much fun I had at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference in Houma, LA earlier this month. I presented a session on interrogating suspects called “Two Routes to the Truth” that relates closely to what I’ve been discussing here for the last couple of months. In the session, I talked about lying suspects and how to obtain admissible confessions from them. Today, I’ll discuss lying witnesses and victims.
While most witnesses and victims are usually willing to speak to investigators, there will be times when your fictional detectives encounter witnesses who lie or who will refuse to speak with them. There are many reasons why witnesses and victims lie, and the sooner your sleuth can discover the reason behind the lie, the sooner s/he will be able to get to the truth.
WHY VICTIMS LIE OR REFUSE TO TALK
Some of the reasons victims refuse to talk to investigators include embarrassment, fear of retaliation, or they want to protect someone. If the crime is of a sensitive or private nature, such as sex offenses, the victim may deny it ever happened out of embarrassment. If it is a crime involving spousal abuse, victims may refuse to talk to authorities because they feel they will be punished more severely when their spouse bonds out of jail. If the crime is of a sexual nature and involves an immediate family member, victims may refuse to speak because they don’t want their loved one to go to jail.
Victims may lie to investigators for the very same reasons they refuse to talk, but there is another very common reason they lie; because they are covering up their own crime. Some of these situations might include lying about being the victim of a burglary to cover-up abusing or selling their prescription medication, or lying about being the victim of a rape to cover-up having consensual sex with a minor.
WHY WITNESSES LIE OR REFUSE TO TALK
Witnesses withhold information for various reasons. They may think the information they possess is insignificant, may be afraid of retaliation, may distrust the police, or may be afraid of subsequent publicity. I have interviewed many witnesses who saw things but did not fully recognize the importance of what they saw. Had I not asked probing questions, I might never have gathered the information. I have also interviewed many witnesses after they had already been interviewed by other officers and learned new information. Some of the information was crucial to the cases I was working and, early in my career, I would ask them why they had not divulged that information to the previous officers. Many of them had similar answers: “They never asked the question.”
Witnesses lie for different reasons, such as trying to cover-up for a friend or family member, trying to cover-up for their own criminal activity, not wanting to reveal a moral indiscretion, or they feel they may be implicated in the offense if they talk. I worked a case once where a kid was the passenger in a car wherein the driver was murdered. During the interview, the kid provided details about what happened in the car that only a passenger or the driver would know, but he claimed to have witnessed it from across the street. As I interviewed him, he continued to deny being in the car, and I realized he was afraid of going to jail for accessory to murder. I explained that he could not be charged with murder if he had no involvement in the commission of the offense. I also told him that, as a passenger in the car, he was also a victim. Since he had earlier stated the passenger had tried to steer the car to safety, I also told him he was a hero for trying to save his friend under the threat of gunfire. He nodded and said, “I am a hero.” He then began telling the truth about everything. He was not a bad kid or a lied for some sinister reason—he was simply scared.
TRANSFERRING TO FICTION
Witnesses and victims lie or withhold information every day during real police investigations, and writers can use this to their advantage when trying to create compelling and believable crime stories. It would not be realistic for every witness and victim to tell the truth about everything in crime fiction, so writers should definitely sprinkle in some lies here and there and offer credible reasons for the lie.
Here is an example of how a witness from one of my short stories (MUDDY WATERS, Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, Summer 2004) lied to detectives because he was having an affair with the victim and he did not want his wife to find out:
When we were seated in the interview room, I offered Andrew a cigarette. He took it.
“Tell me about your relationship with Cynthia Coleman,” I said.
His brow furrowed. “Who?”
I propped my elbows on the desk and leaned close to him. “Don't play stupid. You know who.”
Andrew licked his lips and shifted in his chair. “I don't know anyone by that name.” He fumbled in his pocket for a lighter.
“Andy, you're fixing to cause yourself a world of grief. Tell me about your relationship with—”
“I don't know who you're talking about. And if I did, what business is it of yours?”
Rick jerked a Polaroid of Cynthia Coleman's body from his pocket. I winced when he threw it on the desk. Andrew recoiled in horror. His cigarette spat from his mouth and fell to the floor.
“It became our business when we pulled her out the bayou.” Rick’s voice was loud. “If this doesn't refresh your memory, a punch in the head will!”
I put my hand on Rick's outstretched arm. He jerked it from me and stormed out the room.
Andrew's face was ashen. “Is that really her?”
I nodded. He buried his face in his hands and it was then that I noticed the gold band around his ring finger. I collected his cigarette from the floor, handed it to him. He stuffed it in his mouth and I held the lighter for him. He nodded his thanks. A couple of drags later he was calm.
“Want to tell me about your relationship with Cynthia?”
“I'm married with three kids. If my wife finds out about this...”
As a writer, you have the power to pick and choose who lies and why they lie. Whatever you do, make sure the lie is well placed, it is believable, and it advances the story or widens the suspect pool. Your detectives must work to determine the reason for every lie, and you can use this to lead them to the actual evidence that solves the case and closes out the story.
Well, that will wrap up the April 2015 segment of Righting Crime Fiction. If any of you have any questions or comments or suggested topics, feel free to contact me and I will reply as soon as I can.
Until next time, write, rewrite, and get it right!
BJ Bourg is the author of JAMES 516 (Amber Quill Press, 2014), THE SEVENTH TAKING (Amber Quill Press, 2015), and HOLLOW CRIB (Five Star-Gale-Cengage, 2016).
©BJ Bourg 2015