It’s always the little things that give a crime away.
That credit card slip from a stolen lunch with a lover, the famous dog that didn’t bark, a single cell phone call triangulated off a mast, a single trace of DNA left on a cooling corpse, pollen residue on a killer’s shoes.
In one particularly chilling case in 2004, a pretty blonde girl called Leigh Matthews was abducted from her university campus in Johannesburg. It was just days before her twenty-first birthday. She was held for ransom, which her heart-broken family paid, but instead of being released, she was executed. It was some time before her killer dumped her body. It was some time before it was found.
The police had a suspect, a fellow student called Donovan Moodley, in their sights. But they had no concrete evidence to place him at the dumpsite. There was, however, one silent witness.
A tiny spider, endemic to the Highveld, had spun her intricate web on the underside of Leigh’s body. Shaded, protected, she had then laid her neat package of eggs. The attentive investigating officer had noticed this little creature. He called in a spider expert. She could give him an almost exact time as to when the spider would have started to spin her web.
The detectives then worked through thousand of cell phone records. There was a flurry of calls from their suspect that placed the suspect in the area. They had their man. And the spider woman’s evidence was one of the many little keys that locked Leigh’s killer away for life.
This is the way crime is often solved, through the careful attention to detail. Satisfying and rare in a country where most murders are unsolved.
In crime fiction it is those little details that create verisimilitude and the feeling, for the reader, that they are in a ‘real’ world of crime and investigation. Movies are the same – their success lives and dies in those devilish details. They are hard to get right. And when they are wrong, they seem oh so stupendously wrong.
Take the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller, The Girl Who Played With Fire. All very hard core with extreme Swedish torture/sex/weather/computer hacking/Tank Girl action.
One of the bad guys in the movie is a blonde giant who rips people limb from limb without batting an eyelid. He also has a medical condition that makes him impervious to pain.
All well and good when you read the book. You can sketch in the unwritten details with your own imagination. But in the movies everything is sketched and styled for you.
So picture this:
There is a scene in which Lisbeth Salandar, the actual girl with the dragon tattoo, is holding a taser to his balls.
He feels nothing.
He fights like a maniac.
But all the time he is wearing a dove grey jersey with a fashionable rollover collar. It jarred.
But, I say to myself, perhaps muted cashmere is the sartorial choice of Swedish psychopaths. I have never been to Sweden. They have, outside their fabulous crime novels and the odd prime minister, no crime to speak of.
So I suspend my disbelief.
But next comes the car chase.
All the bad guys jump into the car (a Volvo no doubt, the ultimate family sedan) and they….put on their seatbelts.
These are meant to be men who kill for fun and feel no pain. What’s with the seat belts?
But I get myself over that one and they hurtle off, safely buckled up, into the Swedish night….
At the speed limit.
Once doubts about the badness of the heroes’ adversaries set in – the soft sweater, the seatbelt, the speed limit – the tension is gone. The movie just seemed comical after that.
I try to work through this.
Maybe the details just read differently from this southern African perspective of mine. The likelihood of seeing a gangster with a neat collar and his seatbelt buckled are about zero. Things are a little wilder here than they are in Sweden, for example. Life is a little cheaper. There are not enough seatbelts to go around. Even in the movies.
And real life and true crime does offer up some wonderful details. Not all of which are usable. My favourite one is this: a couple of cops who have helped me out over the years. Advice, tip offs, reality checks. I would love to use them in a book. But who would believe me if I put them in a story.
Their names (truly) are Engel (Angel) and DeVille.