As a police detective whose job was to solve murders, I found it especially helpful to immerse myself into the lives of the victims rather than merely going through the motions of filling in the blanks of police reports. I had to make it personal, to try my absolute best to see the case through the eyes of the victims. I needed to know them and everything about them. I practically had to BE them until the point where they exhaled for the final time.
I needed to know a victim’s family and friends. I walked the paths they traveled. I learned their routines. I spoke with and interviewed their friends and family and neighbors, yes, but I also made the effort see those friends and relatives from the victim’s perspective, not in reverse, as those people thinking about their loved one occupying a table space in the state morgue.
To know the family and friends and acquaintances from the point of view of the victim is a telling and sometimes eye-opening experience. Getting to know people on a personal level is a key that unlocks many “doors,” and doing so, more often than not, helps to crack those hardened exteriors people often develop toward police officers. Showing that you do indeed care about them and their loved one as people and not as items on a checklist goes a long way.
Above all, I listened. And I listened and I listened and I listened.
Caring About the Victim
I cared about the victims, each of them. I learned their habits. Their likes, hopes, and dreams. I grew to know their coworkers and their bosses and the people in the stores where they shopped for food and clothing, and the places where they purchased gas for their cars. I knew what they liked to read and to watch on TV. I held their dogs and cats and their babies. I hugged their parents, their spouses, and their young children. I played ball with their kids. I sat with the family, again listening to stories about the past and of lost futures.
I had to know the victim, personally.
If a victim once stopped by a donut shop in the mornings, well, I sometimes retraced the route and did the same. Along the way, I saw joggers, dog-walkers, letter carriers, delivery people, children on their way to school, bus drivers, cab drivers, and I saw the grumpy old men and women who spend their days peering at the street through gaps in dingy lace curtains. I saw garbage collectors, street sweepers, patrol officers, ambulance drivers, FED EX and UPS drivers, animal control officers, the man who waters his lawn at precisely 9 A.M., and the woman who wore a big floppy hat while tending to her roses each day at the crack of dawn. I spoke with each of those people. People see the little things and those “things” no matter how small, could lead to the killer.
Tiny clues are often the ones that bring a case to a close. And those leads are sometimes offered by ordinary people not associated with the crime in question—the lawn waterer, neighborhood street sweepers, etc.—who each have an opportunity to see something, and often times they did. But had I not taken the time to to stop and say hi and to ask a few simple questions, well, those little tidbits and tips may have gone forever unspoken.
I visited the homes of murder victims. I examined the rooms where they slept. I saw where they cooked and ate their meals. I looked into the refrigerators to see their contents, searching for anything that could help me better understand the unfortunate and poor soul whose heart no longer beat with metronome precision.
I even used this method when researching and writing a true crime tale published by Prometheus books. The story was about the extremely brutal murder of a young woman named Tina Mott.
While conducting the research for the book , a process that lasted over a year, I found myself delving deeper and deeper in Tina’s life until I felt as if I’d known her. I learned so much detail about her short time on the planet that I knew her likes and dislikes, her hobbies, and even her emotions.
Tina wrote poetry and it was through her writings, works I studied, hoping to use them to provide me with insight, when I began to set her story to page.
I tacked photos of Tina on my bulletin board. I even had one of my desk. In the image on my desk, she was at a birthday celebration for her, a small event hosted by friends. In the picture, she was smiling and obviously happy.
Images like those helped to take me into her life and, together with the poems and interviews with friends and family, well, she was no longer a stranger whose remains sadly went unfound for a year.
Instead, I knew Tina even though we’d never met. She was a person. A good-hearted young woman, a brand new mother with feelings and emotions. She laughed. She cried. She hurt. And she loved life. And then she died at the hand of her boyfriend, another person I came to know during the research.
I experienced both his good and his dark side. He, too, was real person. A real and evil person.
This is the same way I approached all murder cases. I came to know the victims as people.
Locking Away Biases
While working to solve a homicide case, it is paramount that investigators leave their predispositions locked away in an imaginary safe. Actually, officers should never pre-judge anyone. Instead, they should start fresh at each and every crime scene and with each and every suspect, witness, and victim. Isn’t that exactly how the great writers of our time produce such wonderful books, over and over again? They do so by starting with a fresh story on page one, chapter one.
Starting anew, without predisposition and prejudice, and without knowing the identity of a killer is one reason why I believe Agatha Christie remains so wildly popular in the mystery world. This is so because she, like police homicide investigators, did not know the name of the killer when she started her stories.
As Christie’s characters worked through their convoluted and fictional crimes—bad and good folks alike—, they often made the same mistakes real-life officers tend to experience as they wind their ways through along the journeys leading to the ends of their cases. Christie wrote in this style because she, too, was working out resolutions to the clues and traps that she herself had planted while writing.
As a former detective who still thinks like an investigator as I read book after book, I sometimes see subtle things in Christie’s writing that leads me to believe she was solving her own cases with each written word.
In Five Little Pigs, Christie’s story clung tightly to the cause and effect of human nature. It’s a character-driven book where Poirot solves a cold case and he does so through his and Christie’s understanding and examinations of a person’s emotions and passion. Like Poirot, through Christie’s eyes and typewriter, a real-life police investigator who has the ability to “see” human nature is an investigator who’ll find success in their field.
Sure, DNA and fancy lights and chemicals and laboratories are nice, but they’re nothing more than icing on the cake when compared to the detective who knows and understands people, and human nature.
Are Real-Life Detectives Plotters or Pansters?
If one were to stop and ponder for a moment they’d see that homicide and other detectives are often both plotters and pansters. The former due to department guidelines and standard methods as to how a scene is approached—911 call, first responder arrives, detectives and CSI arrive, coroner is called, speak to witnesses, collect evidence using Sirchie evidence collection tools and products, yada, yada, yada.
But it is the panster detective, the cop who’s not afraid to step outside the line, who’s the investigator that people will open up to most quickly. They’re the cops who turn over all the stones, just not in any particular order. They easily adapt to fast paced and quick-changing cases.
Detectives who follow along a more plotter-type course of investigation are perhaps science-based linear thinkers and, sure, their style produces results. But even they must vary from the “plot line” in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Christie knew and understood that humans are flawed. No one, including either of her characters, is perfect. And it is this, the fallibility of human beings, that helped her characters and her tales ring so wonderfully true, and believable.
Agatha Christie was indeed the queen of writing believable make-believe, and this is so because she understood the importance of adapting real-life into her work. Poirot, for example, was based upon first World War refugees who arrived Torquay, in 1916. Miss Marple assumed characteristics of Christie’s own grandmother. Others were based upon traveling companions and co-workers from her dispensing days. She based settings on her own property, holiday locations, archaeological digs, and more. Much more.
Police detectives understand the importance of knowing each of the characters involved in the crimes they investigate. They also study setting, the crime scene, victim’s home, etc.
They know the value of stepping outside one’s comfort zone to reach a satisfactory conclusion. They’re also extremely willing to conduct research and attend training to help set them apart from the average cop. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be willing to do the same?
Research. Research. Hands. On. Research!
There’s still time to register for this extremely rare opportunity where you will attend the same training offered to top homicide investigators from around the world! This course of instruction is typically for law enforcement eyes only, but the Writers’ Police Academy, in conjunction with Sirchie, the world leader in in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions, has made it possible for to attend this, the only event of its kind in the world!
MurderCon takes place at Sirchie’s compound located just outside of Raleigh, N.C.
Please, do your readers a huge favor and sign up today while you still can.