A Gathering of Witnesses

My local Sisters in Crime chapter used to meet monthly in our downtown mystery bookshop.  We had the most amazing program chair who arranged interesting, informative programs, and our meetings usually filled to capacity—about twenty to thirty squeezed into the narrow space surrounded by bookshelves.

One time, our speaker was a police officer who intended to speak to us about procedure.  As he began to talk, however, he was interrupted by an incident in the store.  Someone who appeared to be drunk and possibly a transient entered the store and interrupted our meeting with rude comments that progressively became more threatening.  I remember thinking at the time:  “Good thing we have a police officer in our midst!”

The police officer was our guest, but he instantly took charge of the incident.  A scuffle ensued as we Sisters watched in absolute horror.  Most of us were mystery writers.  Were we taking notes?  No, we completely forgot, thanks to all the adrenaline of the moment.

You’ve probably guessed by now that this incident was staged.  The intruder was actually another police officer, and they wanted to give us a demonstration of how difficult it is for witnesses to reliably observe the same incident.  I remember thinking at the time:  “No way!  What happened was very clear, and we all saw it together!”

While it was very fresh in our minds, the police officers gave each of us the standard witness report to fill out.  Then we turned them in, and the reports were read one by one.  All twenty-five of us had reported differently.  Sometimes we even gave conflicting information about basic descriptions.  We couldn’t even agree on what had happened first.  Or next.  Or who said what.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.  Each of us witnesses—and we were supposedly semi-trained mystery observers—we had witnessed the incident differently.  It put a whole new light on writing mysteries!

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13 thoughts on “A Gathering of Witnesses”

  1. Wow, that’s wonderful. What a great cop to show instead of tell. And it really opens up a new avenue for red herrings in our writing. Great post, Sue.

  2. Thanks for the comments. We had some pretty awesome events. They make a better impression on me when they’re showing instead of telling. Hmmm…

  3. My very first ride-along was really an all day gig with some detectives. That afternoon I went with a couple of female detectives to meet with a district attorney on a case. We drove back down a sketchy street. Sitting in the backseat I listened as they conversed and watched. It struck me that they were, without a doubt, seeing a lot more than I was. They were clearly familiar with the area and the regulars who hung out there, and even if the conversation was about something completely different, I could tell from their body language they weren’t missing a thing.

  4. It’s especially cool of the police force to help us learn what they do through their many citizens’ programs.

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