Chapter 22 of The Techniques of Mystery

contents

EVIDENCE

  1. The Coroner
  2. The Inquest
  3. The Witnesses
  4. Presentation of the Evidence
  5. Circumstantial Evidence
  6. Deductions from Evidence
  7. Deductions from Clues
  8. Evidence by Applied Psychology
  9. Direct Observation
  10. Exactness of Detail
  11. Theories of Evidence
  12.  

1. The Coroner In case of a murder, the Inquest should follow, as the night the day.

  “The Scales of Justice” is a book which, aside from its very clever pages, has most interesting and enlightening aphorisms at the head of its chapters. One of these tells us “When evolution has produced a perfect thing, it stops working. Crowner’s quest law has not changed in three centuries.”

  This is by way of a fleer at the Coroner’s Inquest.

  Another current authority says, “Mr. Coroner has been losing his importance so rapidly that not long ago it was seriously proposed to do away with him and his utterly useless performances. However, he is still in power, but it is a very much shorn power nowadays.”

  Mr. Arthur C. Train refers to this subject in stronger terms. “The coroner,” says he, “is at best no more than an appendix to the legal anatomy, and frequently he is a disease. The spectacle of a medical man of small learning and less English trying to preside over a court of first instance is enough to make the accused himself chuckle for joy.”

  This argues a good sense of humor on the part of the accused, but Mr. Train must know whereof he speaks. But be that as it may, the Coroner has not yet been ousted from his position in detective fiction, and is too picturesque a figure to fear imminent dethronement. On the contrary, this official gives opportunity for what is known as a character sketch, and is often described as if with the author’s keen relish for satire.

  For instance this description is quoted from “The Scales of Justice,” by George L. Knapp:

  Coroner Lutgers was the sort of doctor who gets a political job or goes to advertising within three years of his graduation. In one capacity or another, he had been drawing public money for twenty years; and meant to continue in the same occupation for twenty years more. His strong point was dignity, a dignity much resembling a safety night lamp; for no matter how often it was tipped over, it always righted itself, to gleam austerely from the doctor’s bald forehead and patriarchal whiskers. At this particular inquest, the doctor’s dignity lacked something of its usual calm. It was not a case in which the public would willingly accept the “person or persons unknown” verdict; and yet for the life of him, the coroner could not see how any other verdict was possible.

  However, we still cling to the coroner as a necessary and desirable member of our detective fiction family, and we feel that we could better spare a better man.

  

2. The Inquest

  The inquest, in detective fiction, came in with ” The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where it is used as a vehicle for telling much of the story. Since then, the inquest has been a prominent incident in most of the murder stories of detective fiction; and as it can be made to present all manner of thrilling and exciting scenes, and also as it is most useful in leading or misleading the reader, it will probably remain with us.

  In a short-story, the inquest is seldom if ever described in detail, because of lack of space. But in a full book the inquest provides several chapters of interesting and instructive reading.

  Poe, ruled as ever by his exact economy of attention, and moreover, because his story is a short one after all, gives merely the gist of the inquest; listing the witnesses in descriptive fashion and tersely reporting their depositions.

  I. Zangwill, in “The Big Bow Mystery,” takes advantage of his inquest scene to indulge in sarcastic humor and veiled innuendos.

  Anna Katharine Green is conscientious and straightforward in her inquest recitals; while the earlier French authors are diffuse and elaborate in their descriptions.

  Taken by and large, the inquest is invaluable to the Detective Story writer. It affords such necessary opportunities for cataloging details without seeming to do so; for convincing the reader that the innocent are the criminals; for introducing and characterizing the actors; and for setting the stage with the necessary properties for the future scenes of the drama.

  

3. The Witnesses

  The principal element of the inquest is, of course, the witnesses and their testimony. Few realize that the nursery tale of Cock Robin partakes of the nature of an inquest. In the first line, “Who killed Cock Robin?” we are informed as to the crime and the victim. This is immediately followed by the complete confession of the criminal and the disclosure of the weapon:

 

“I,” said the sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow;
I killed Cock Robin”
 

  This is a frank enough confession, and doubtless true; but even a confession must have corroborative witness, and, an eye witness, if possible. Hence we read:

 

Who saw him die?
“I,” said the fly,
“With my little eye,
I saw him die.”
 

  And this investigation, this testimony of an eye witness, presented in an entertaining manner, is the reason for the introduction of the inquest in our story.

  The witnesses are naturally the characters of the book. The jurymen are but transients, and are not heard of again after their verdict is rendered. But the witnesses comprise the chief movers of the machinery and it is in their power to make or mar the plot. For if the plot of a detective story is the knot and its unraveling, the evidence of the witnesses constitutes the strands of the skein.

  The plot is the skeleton, but the evidence and the deductions therefrom are the muscle and sinew. On the value and presentation of the evidence does the reader’s interest depend. No matter how absorbing the puzzle, if the evidence and deduction be not full of action and surprise the story palls.

  

4. Presentation of the Evidence

  Indeed it is the chain of evidences, all more or less surprising, that holds the reader’s interest through the five hundred pages of “The Moonstone,” where the puzzle is only a jewel robbery. And here is one reason why real murder trials are not as interesting as fictional ones. For the newspaper reports are plain accounts of the evidence found, whether entertaining or not; but the wily detective author need introduce no evidence that is not picturesque or exciting.

  The author should know exhaustively the truth about evidence, its real value and meaning; and knowing this, utilize such knowledge at will.

  Learn too, the difference between vital and incidental evidence. Sherlock Holmes remarks:

  It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated. Now, in this case there was not the slightest doubt in my mind from the first that the key of the whole matter must he looked for in the scrap of paper in the dead man’s hand.

  Of course; since the scrap of paper was put there by the author for that very purpose. But a close study of Conan Doyle’s stories will prove the best lesson in collating and understanding evidence.

  

5. Circumstantial Evidence

  Learn, too, the difference between circumstantial evidence and the testimony of an eye witness. Remember, circumstantial evidence must be strong and well attested to convict a murderer. Remember, too, how rarely it is the case that a murderer allows an audience when he commits his crime. Learn to adjust for yourself the harmonization of these statements.

  This point is reduced to an absurdity in Melville D. Post’s story, “The Corpus Delicti.” In this story an atrocious murder is committed, but with diabolical cleverness the criminal utterly destroys the body of his victim by the use of chemicals. When the trial is on, and overwhelming circumstantial evidence proves the crime, the counsel for the prosecution says:

  “Men may lie, but circumstances cannot. The thousand hopes and fears and passions of men may delude, or bias the witness. Yet it is beyond the human mind to conceive that a clear, complete chain of concatenated circumstances can be in error. Hence it is that the greatest jurists have declared that such evidence, being rarely liable to delusion or fraud, is safest and most powerful. The machinery of human justice cannot guard against the remote and improbable doubt. The inference is persistent in the affairs of men. It is the only means by which the human mind reaches the truth. If you forbid the jury to exercise it, you bid them work after first striking off their hands. Rule out the irresistible inference, and the end of justice is come in this land; and you may as well leave the spider to weave his web through the abandoned court room.”

  This is rational and straightforward, but the counsel for the defence reports:

  “I care not if the circumstantial evidence in this case were so strong and irresistible as to be overpowering; if the judge on the bench, if the jury, if every man within sound of my voice, w ere convinced of the guilt of the prisoner to the degree of certainty that is absolute; if the circumstantial evidence left in the mind no shadow of the remotest improbable doubt; yet, in the absence of the eyewitness, this prisoner cannot be punished, and this Court must compel the jury to acquit him.”

  This is unanswerable and after much hesitation the judge spoke thus:

  “In this case the body has not been found and there is no direct proof of criminal agency on the part of the prisoner, although the chain of circumstantial evidence is complete and irresistible in the highest degree. Nevertheless, it is all circumstantial evidence, and under the laws of New York the prisoner cannot be punished. I have no right of discretion. The law does not permit a conviction in this case, although every one of us may be morally certain of the prisoner’s guilt. I am, therefore, gentlemen of the jury, compelled to direct you to find the prisoner not guilty.”

  This is an erratic plot, but founded on absolute knowledge of the law, and resulting in a most picturesque use of circumstantial evidence.

  In this connection we might refer to a speech of Jacques Futrelle’s hero detective who thus delivers himself:

  “Circumstantial fiddlesticks!” snapped The Thinking Machine. “I wouldn’t convict a yellow dog of stealing jam on circumstantial evidence alone, even if he had jam all over his nose.” He squinted truculently at Hatch for a moment. “In the first place, well-behaved dogs don’t eat jam,” he added more mildly.

  Indeed, most detective stories are simply the case of the dog with the jam on his nose and the plot is mostly concerned with proving that that particular dog is not the criminal after all.

  

6. Deductions from Evidence

  The evidence, whether at the inquest or at a trial, must be carefully chosen, not only for its own attractive or surprising character but with a view to its material for deduction and analysis. A burnt match on the stairs of an elevated railroad station offers the casual observer little clue; but a burnt match of a particular style, on those same stairs, proving the hour when the criminal lit his “big black cigar,” is of immense importance in leading to a conclusion, foregone in the author’s mind but not in the reader’s.

  Remember, it is re-solution that counts. The interest depends on the fact of that match being a beacon light and proving its illuminative power as the tale goes on. No burnt match has a right to be in a detective story unless it is a lamp to the feet of the detective; and a light to a path, either right or wrong, but intentionally so.

  Though circumstantial evidence may depend on personal testimony, it is oftener deduction from inanimate clues, preferably small ones, but always unexpected or incongruous ones.

  In one of the “Astro” stories, the reader’s interest is at once aroused by an unknown baby found in the street playing with a priceless fire opal and a black dead hand. Had the child held a rattle and a doll no curiosity would be felt as to the situation. This, of course, goes back to the accepted principle of the value of the bizarre.

  

7. Deductions from Clues

  But even more advantageous than this is the use of the infinitesimal clue. When not irrationally lugged in, shreds, ravelings, scrapings of dust from boot heels, or scraps of paper are all much prized as fictional evidence.

  In one of the best recent Detective Stories a red shoe button figures as the clue to a murderer. In one of Ottolengui s stories a waistcoat button is the clue. Of course buttons are a favorite clue as they can conveniently drop off and stay behind on the scene of the crime; or can even be pulled off the criminal’s clothing by the frantic clutch of the victim.

  A story by Melville D. Post, entitled “The Missing Link,” hinges upon the loss of a cuff link. But this particular clue is rather hackneyed, and it even cropped up again in “The Trevor Case,” a very popular recent novel; and also plays its part in “The Circular Staircase.”

  The great Sergeant Cuff, in “The Moonstone,” first describes the value of a tiny clue by way of instructing his reader; and then goes on to work up a small smear on a freshly painted door into a clue of immense importance.

  In “The Silent Bullet” the clue is so minute as to require a very powerful microscope to discern it. The paragraph quoted below describes the impression of the threads of woven material on a leaden bullet; which, though scientifically possible, is certainly a novel and ingenious bit of evidence for a Detective Story.

  “Every leaden bullet, as I have said, which has struck such fabric bears an impression of the threads which is recognizable even when the bullet has penetrated deeply into the body. It is only obliterated partially or entirely when the bullet has been flattened by striking a bone or other hard object. Even then, as in this case, if only a part of the bullet is flattened the remainder may still show the marks of the fabric. A heavy warp, say of cotton velvet or, as I have here, homespun, will be imprinted well on the bullet, but even a fine batiste, containing one hundred threads to the inch, will show marks. Even layers of goods such as a coat, shirt, and undershirt may each leave their marks, but that does not concern us in this case. Now I have here a piece of pongee silk, cut from a woman’s automobile-coat. I discharge the bullet through it — so. I compare the bullet now with the others and with the one probed from the neck of Mr. Parker. I find that the marks on the fatal bullet correspond precisely with those on the bullet fired through the pongee coat.”

  Nearly all of the Sherlock Holmes stories depend on the deductions from tiny clues, so finely drawn as to be sometimes a strain on the reader’s credulity; but the credulity of the experienced reader of detective fiction becomes exceedingly agile; and he can believe any number of impossible things from before breakfast until long after midnight.

  Of course this use of tiny clues is the direct result of the principle of microscopic observation, and it is inseparable from the work of the Transcendent Detective.

  In “That Affair Next Door,” the astute Miss Butterworth finds for a clue a small black pin: “A small matter,” she declares to the reader, “but it points in the right direction.”

  In a story of Ashton-Kirk, the clue is the tiny, but symmetrically-shaped bit of pasteboard punched from a railroad ticket. Indeed, all Detective Stories fairly bristle with these tiny clues. But there are plenty yet unused. The alert Detective Story writer can find many that will serve his purpose. A single shred of excelsior found on the floor of a room, where no carefully packed bit of china or bric-a-brac has been unwrapped, will prove the presence of the only man under suspicion who received such a box by recent parcel delivery. Or a tiny, shiny spangle may lead as unerringly to a certain evening gown of a certain grande dame, as a grain of rice in a hat brim proves a bride, or straws in the hair, a farmer.

  But these things must have some sort of a subtly indicative interest. Nobody wants to read of a dead leaf fallen from a tree, merely to prove that it is autumn. And so it is the author’s work to provide clues that lead to something, and that pique the reader into endeavoring to find out for himself what it is.

  

8. Evidence by Applied Psychology

  A new kind of evidence has appeared of late in Detective Stories that is not deduced from an inanimate clue or voluntarily spoken by a witness. It is the scientific procedure known as applied psychology. It necessitates apparatus with such impressive names as kymographs and tachistoscopes and ergographs; and it may be learned in its general plan from Professor Münsterberg’s book, “On the Witness Stand.”

  This science aims to assist and serve such fields of practical life as education, medicine, art, economics and law. But the book in question considers only problems in which psychology and law come in contact. They deal essentially with the mind of the witness on the witness stand and their purpose is to turn the attention of serious men to this science. The detective writer who wishes to make a point of the credibility of testimony of witnesses cannot do better than to make a close study of the principles set forth in this book.

  

9. Direct Observation

  As a matter of fact, the inquest or trial scene in detective fiction makes a great point of the testimony of eye witnesses. Yet really the utter unreliability of eye witnesses has often been remarked upon; and Hawthorne, in his “Note-Book,” says:

  “Every day of my life makes me feel more and more how seldom a fact is accurately stated; how, almost invariably, when a story has passed through the mind of a third person it becomes, so far as regards the impression that it makes in further repetitions, little better than a falsehood, and this, too, though the narrator be the most truth-seeking person in existence. How marvelous the tendency is. Is truth a fantasy which we are to pursue forever and never grasp?”

  Now, it is sufficient to pay attention to the conversations in which we take part every day to discover that the worth of evidence depends to a very small degree on the good faith or the moral value of the witness. Who is there who has not seen for himself to what an extent accounts of the same fact may differ, even when related by serious witnesses endeavouring to keep scrupulously to the truth?

  Nothing, indeed, is more difficult than to tell the truth; that is to say, to recount the past, to make a deposition upon some fact, even if the fact be one which has come a great number of times under our own eyes.

  To prove that this is so, let the reader make the following simple experiment. Without any preliminary, ask a number of persons kindly to draw from memory the figure which indicates six o’clock, exactly as it appears on the dials of their watches. You will find that some of these persons will simply write the figure VI or 6; others, sharper, remembering that the figures take their line of direction from the centre of the dial, will write the symbol upside down, I// or 9. Everybody, however, will be quite convinced that his particular testimony is correct, and ready to swear to it on oath. Now ask them to take out their watches and look at them. Most of them will discover to their stupefaction that the figure VI or I// which they saw so clearly at the foot of the imaginary watch floating before their mind’s eye has no existence at all on the dial of the real watch, where its place is taken by the small seconds-hand dial!

  Here, then, we have a great number of inaccurate depositions; and yet, how often in the course of a day do most people look at their watches! There is no doubt, moreover, that all these people whom you have thus proved to be wrong acted in perfect good faith; not one of them had any wilful intention of deceiving.

  Again, it is not uncommon to find a man who has owned his watch for many years, utterly unable to state whether the hours on the dial are indicated by Roman numerals or Arabic figures. This means only lack of observation, but quite as common is mistaken observation.

  An amusing practical test of this is thus related of Professor Dueck. In order to test the memory and susceptibility to suggestion of his pupils he performed the following experiment on forty-eight boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. He passed a silver coin about the size of a fifty-cent piece around the class, instructing each boy to examine it carefully, but giving no further indications as to the purpose of his action. At the end of the lesson, which in other respects proceeded as usual, Professor Dueck, having again taken possession of the coin, addressed the class as follows:

  “You have no doubt observed that the coin which I handed around had a hole in it; now I should like to test your powers of observation. I am, therefore, going to ask each of you to indicate the point on the coin where the hole is found. Just take a piece of paper, draw a circle upon it, and indicate roughly the position of the head on the coin and of the hole which you observed.”

  As a matter of fact there was no hole in the coin at all. Nevertheless no fewer than forty-four out of the forty-eight pupils indicated the position of the alleged hole in the coin, some even indicating the position of two holes. Of the four remaining pupils, only one positively asserted that there was no hole in the coin, the other three merely said that they had not observed the hole.

  This alone is interesting enough, but there were several other features in the case which are well worth recording. In the first place the one and only individual who had not been open to suggestion was a boy who had previously shown his independence by giving considerable difficulty in matters of discipline. Furthermore, several of the younger boys, even after they were told that there was no hole in the coin, absolutely refused to admit this.

  The Scientific American, commenting upon this experiment, remarks:

  “It hardly needs to be pointed out how significant an observation of this character is in its bearing on legal testimony. We must not be surprised that the witness may under certain circumstances not merely make a certain statement incompatible with facts, but may even insist in his erroneous belief in the face of overwhelming evidence against it — and all this in perfectly good faith.”

  Once an observer of a magnificent military parade noted the exact and well-trained marching of the soldiers; and in describing it afterward, said positively, “And every man was exactly the same height.” Which was far from being true, as the soldiers were of varying heights, but the strong impressions of harmony and precision, had given an unconscious effect of uniformity of height. All of which goes to prove that with the best intentions in the world, false testimony may be given.

  Further than this, if desired, false testimony may be induced by suggestion of the questioner. Indeed in the giving of evidence suggestion plays a most important part. The simple fact of questioning a witness, of pressing him to answer, enormously increases the risk of errors in his evidence. The form of the question also influences the value of the reply that is made to it. This has given rise to the well-known prohibition of “leading questions” in courts of law.

  Let us suppose, for instance; that some persons are questioned about the colour of a certain dog. The replies are likely to be much more correct if we ask the witnesses, “What is the colour of the dog?” than if we were to say to them, “Was the dog white, or was it brown?” The question will be positively suggestive if we ask, “Was the dog white?” To such a question the answer is probably of no value. In questioning witnesses — that is to say, in pressing them and forcing their memory — we may obtain, it is true, a much more extensive deposition than if we leave them free to answer spontaneously. Any advantage thus obtained, however, is problematical, since we lose in fidelity whatever we may gain in extent of information. A trained observation takes things in at a glance, and correctly, too.

  M. Robert Houdin gives this interesting description of training his own eye, as quoted in “The Lock and Key Library:”

  “My son and I passed rapidly before a toy-shop, or any other displaying a variety of wares, and cast an attentive glance upon it. A few steps farther on we drew pencil and paper from our pockets, and tried which could describe the greater number of objects seen in passing. I must own that my son reached a perfection far greater than mine, for he could often write down forty objects, while I could scarce reach thirty. Often feeling vexed at this defeat, I would return to the shop and verify his statement, but he rarely made a mistake.

  “My male readers will certainly understand the possibility of this, but they will recognize the difficulty. As for my lady readers, I am convinced beforehand they will not be of the same opinion, for they daily perform far more astounding feats. Thus, for instance, I can safely assert that a lady seeing another pass at full speed in a carriage, will have had time to analyze her toilet from her bonnet to her shoes, and be able to describe not only the fashion and quality of the stuffs, but also say if the lace be real or only machine made. I have known ladies to do this.”

  Zangwill in “Big Bow Mystery” thus argues the worthlessness of most casual observation:

  “Sir, everything depends on our getting down to the root of the matter. What percentage of average evidence should you think is thorough, plain, simple, unvarnished fact, ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?'”

  “Fifty?” said the Minister, humoring him a little.

  “Not five. I say nothing of lapses of memory, or inborn defects of observational power — though in the suspiciously precise recollection of dates and events possessed by ordinary witnesses in important trials taking place years after the occurrences involved, is one of the most amazing things in the curiosities of modern jurisprudence. I defy you, sir, to tell me what you had for dinner last Monday or w hat exactly you were saying and doing at five o’clock last Tuesday afternoon. Nobody whose life does not run in mechanical grooves can do anything of the sort; unless, of course, the facts have been very impressive. But this by the way. The great obstacle to veracious observation is the element of prepossession in all vision. Has it ever struck you, sir, that we never see anyone more than once if that? The first time we meet a man we may possibly see him as he is; the second time our vision is colored and modified by the memory of the first. Do our friends appear to us as they appear to strangers? Do our rooms, our furniture, our pipes strike our eye as they would strike the eye of an outsider, looking on them for the first time?

  “Can a mother see her baby’s ugliness, or a lover his mistress’ shortcomings though they stare everybody else in the face? Can we see ourselves as others see us? No; habit, prepossession changes all. The mind is a large factor of every so-called external fact. The eye sees, sometimes, what it wishes to see, more often what it expects to see. You follow me, sir?”

  

10. Exactness of Detail

  In this connection we are not discussing the value of evidence, per se, but merely for what it is worth in the construction of a Detective Story. The bringing forth of false evidence to complicate the mysteries of the story, is entirely permissible, if fairly done. And to do this fairly and properly it is wise to make a study of evidence and its relative value.

  As we have seen, the average citizen is not observant. He rarely could tell the details of an incident he has witnessed, unless he were already familiar with the conditions. Therefore the author of a worth-while Detective Story must make it his business to familiarize himself perfectly and accurately with the conditions he is describing. A lack of this familiarity with details is often seen in our best artists who portray scenes of whose especial characteristics they are carelessly unobservant. An amusing instance of this sort is remarked in this letter, which appeared in one of our popular periodicals:

  DEAR SIR: — Your “Ministers’ Number” has just come to hand. I assume that some degree of accuracy is desirable even in a cartoon. Most of the clergy at whom your shafts of wit are aimed seem to be of the Episcopal Church, and I guess we can stand it, but what hurts is the vesture in which you attempt to garb us.

  For instance, “Charley, the Assistant Minister at St. Joseph’s” — and by the way $1,200 is a large salary for Charley; from his looks I should not say he was worth as much as that, at least he would not be as assistant to me — is dressed in a long old-fashioned surplice with bishop sleeves. Young assistants sometimes have Episcopal bees in their bonnets, but never Episcopal sleeves in their surplices. Again, Charley has around his neck what appears to be a feather boa or a tippet. Twelve hundred dollars would not allow him to sport such luxury. Lastly, Charley, who is apparently meant to be a very high churchman, at least he looks like it, is wearing Geneva bands! What a combination! A long surplice with bishop sleeves, fur collar, and Geneva bands is not to be found in the heavens above or the earth beneath — it might be in the other place, but I have my doubts.

  If any of your artists ever went to church for any purpose — incidentally it might benefit them and raise the moral tone of the paper! — they would see what kind of garments a minister does wear, and their fun would have added force and pungency, I think. I am sure LIFE always wants to be correct, even in its humor.

  What I have said about Mr. Walker’s little picture applies with equal force to Mr. Flagg’s extraordinarily vested parson. Really, to what church does he belong? They say we Episcopalians never disturb the peace. Can it be that Mr. Flagg has the idea that Presbyterians, with their strenuous views on predestination and the election, are vested that way? Very sincerely yours, 
CYRUS TOWNSEND BRADY,       
 Rector.

  KANSAS CITY, MO,
    September 25, 1912.
  

11. Theories of Evidence

  If it is necessary, then, for an artist to attend carefully to the costuming of his models, how much more necessary is it for the writer of a Detective Story to be carefully accurate even to the tiniest detail of his work. And as evidence is part and parcel of every Detective Story, let the earnest young writer make a close study of it from the best examples in literature.

  Read Poe; “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is all evidence. Read Gaboriau; he understood the fine points of testimony. Read Conan Doyle. Read Anna Katharine Green. And then compare and connote and contrast their presentation and treatment of evidence.

  This subject is well summed up in the following quotation from “The Man in the Corner,” in which the author both entertains and instructs us with his theories.

  “But supposing it were of paramount importance that you should give an accurate description of a man who sat next to you for half an hour to-day, how would you proceed?”

  “I should say that he was of medium height ——”

  “Five foot eight, nine, or ten?” he interrupted quietly.

  “How can one tell to an inch or two?” rejoined Polly, crossly. “He was between colours.”

  “What’s that?” he inquired blandly.

  “Neither fair nor dark — his nose ——”

  “Well, what was his nose like? Will you sketch it?”

  “I am not an artist. His nose was fairly straight — his eyes ——”

  “Were neither dark nor light — his hair had the same striking peculiarity — he was neither short nor tall — his nose was neither aquiline nor snub ——” he recapitulated, sarcastically.

  “No,” she retorted; “he was just ordinary looking.”

  “Would you know him again — say tomorrow, and among a number of other men who were ‘neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, aquiline nor snub-nosed,’ etc.?”

  “I don’t know — I might — he was certainly not striking enough to be specially remembered.”

  “Exactly,” he said, while he leant forward excitedly, for all the world like a Jack-in-the-box let loose. “Precisely; and you are a journalist call yourself one, at least — and it should be part of your business to notice and describe people. I don’t mean only the wonderful personage with the clear Saxon features, the fine blue eyes, the noble brow and classic face, but the ordinary person — the person who represents ninety out of every hundred of his own kind — the average Englishman, say of the middle classes, who is neither very tall nor very short, who wears a moustache which is neither fair nor dark, but which masks his mouth, and a top hat which hides the shape of his head and brow, a man in fact, who dresses like hundreds of his fellow-creatures, moves like them, speaks like them, has no peculiarity.

  “Try to describe him, to recognize him, say a week hence, among his other eighty-nine doubles; worse still, to swear his life away, if he happened to be implicated in some crime, wherein your recognition of him would place the halter round his neck.

  “Try that, I say, and having utterly failed you will more readily understand how one of the greatest scoundrels unhung is still at large, and why the mystery on the Underground Railway was never cleared up.”

  Two paragraphs from “The Whispering Man” give another twist to the theory of evidence, and whether absolutely true or not, it is interesting and convincing.

  Jeffrey caught the word out of my mouth. “Evidence? There was evidence against every single innocent person in this case — Pomeroy, Armstrong, Gwendolen Carr. The only person against whom there wasn’t any was the guilty man himself. No, evidence doesn’t amount to much until it’s tied on behind the right guess.

  “What does the best evidence in the world amount to, anyway, when it comes to that?” he concluded. “It’s utterly meaningless, except when it’s tied on behind some theory, like the tail on a kite. As for expert testimony, there’s only one kind of true expert, and he’s just an inspired guesser, no more, no less.”

  A contrast or discussion of the merits of circumstantial evidence and the testimony of an eye witness is always provocative of interest. Though like many other discussions it is really futile, it carries a certain weight if cleverly set down.

  Sherlock Holmes thus remarks upon it:

  “I could hardly imagine a more damning case,” I remarked. “If ever circumstantial evidence pointed to a criminal it does so here.”

  “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes, thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

  And seemingly opposed to this, is the opinion of the great detective John W. Murray, who says:

  “I believe in circumstantial evidence. I have found it surer than direct evidence in many, many cases. Where circumstantial evidence and direct evidence unite, of course, the result is most satisfactory. There are those who say that circumstances may combine in a false conclusion. This is far less apt to occur than the falsity of direct evidence given by a witness who lies point blank, and who cannot be contradicted save by a judgment of his falsity through the manner of his lying. Few people are good liars. Many of them make their lies too probable; they outdo truth itself. To detect a liar is a great gift. It is a greater gift to detect the lie. I have known instances where, by good fortune, I detected the liar then the lie, and learned the whole truth simply by listening to the lie, and thereby judging the truth. There is no hard and fast rule for this detection. The ability to do it rests with the man. It is largely a matter of instinct.”

  While Mary E. Wilkins in “The Long Arm” voices the same theory with equal cleverness:

  “Crime detection is not a secret art; anybody can do it if he has the writs and the time, and patience to get at all the facts, and if he knows enough of the ways of men and women. It sounds like boasting to say so much, but it isn’t; we all fail too often to be vain, and when I fail, I always say, ‘I couldn’t get at all the facts,’ or, ‘I didn’t know enough about the sort of people concerned.'”

  Zangwill, too, states these principles clearly:

  “Pray do not consider me impertinent, but have you ever given any attention to the science of evidence?”

  “How do you mean?” asked the Home Secretary, rather puzzled, adding with a melancholy smile, “I have had to lately. Of course, I’ve never been a criminal lawyer, like some of my predecessors. But I should hardly speak of it as a science; I look upon it as a question of common-sense.”

  “Pardon me, sir. It is the most subtle and difficult of all the sciences. It is, indeed, rather the science of the sciences. What is the whole of Inductive logic, as laid down, say, by Bacon and Mill, but an attempt to appraise the value of evidence, the said evidence being the trails left by the Creator, so to speak? The Creator has — I say it in all reverence drawn a myriad red herrings across the track, but the true scientist refuses to be baffled by superficial appearances in detecting the secrets of Nature. The vulgar herd catches at the gross apparent fact, but the man of insight knows that what lies on the surface does lie.”

  So, realizing the importance of the presentation of evidence as one of the prime factors in our work, let us endeavor to gain a working comprehension of the subject and use it with discrimination and discernment.

(End of Chapter XXII)

contents

Published on June 21, 2009 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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