In None So Blind, the convicted murderer, James Rosten, has been protesting his innocence for 20 years. Urged by Inspector Michael Green to let it go and apply for parole he makes the application. Crucial to the application is an admission of fault by Rosten. While not quite as critical in real life as in fiction accepting responsibility and expressing remorse are important in gaining parole in Canada.
Rosten provides a delicate expression of regret. Green describes it:
Damn it, Green thought as he sat back in frustration. Clever bastard. Nowhere in his carefully crafted appeal was there an actual, unequivocal admission of guilt. He had left that to his parole officer.
Marilyn Carmichael, the mother of the victim, after a lifetime of condemning Rosten shocks everyone by filing a letter of support for his release.
Rosten is granted parole. Shortly after his release he breaks parole and is found dead in his beloved cabin, an apparent suicide.
Buffeted by Rosten’s sudden death Green is troubled by the idea that Rosten, having endured 20 years of jail protesting his conviction and now free, would take his own life.
His life is sent into turmoil when he receives a letter from Rosten posted before death. It reads:
I’ve been blind. I’ve spent twenty years pursuing the wrong villain. Lucas didn’t kill Jackie, but I have a horrible suspicion who did. I just have a couple of tests to run and I will prove it to you!
Green must confront the possibility that he and the Canadian judicial system convicted an innocent man 20 years ago. Has Rosten been killed by the actual killer of Jackie Carmichael to prevent Rosten from disclosing the real killer?
Green recognizes that he was but a cog in the system. There were other police, prosecutors, a jury and judges (trial and on appellate) who participated in the prosecution. Yet he knows he was a zealous young officer determined to find every bit of evidence that would convict Rosten. He was not objective.
Alluding to the real life Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, the “Ken and Barbie” couple who killed young Canadian women, Green realizes that Canadians at the time of the murder trial of Rosten were all too ready to convict a well-educated, somewhat cocky, university professor to avenge the death of Jackie Carmichael
How do a police officer and the rest of the judicial system react to a possible miscarriage of justice? There is great reluctance to revisit the conviction. Green’s superiors are quite content with the pathologist’s finding of suicide.
In the real life Saskatchewan case of David Milgaard the police and prosecutors have never been satisfied they were wrong. Even the conviction of Larry Fisher for the murder for which Milgaard was wrongfully convicted has not convinced them.
For Green it is a quest for justice. If Rosten was not the killer then the real murderer must be found and Rosten must be cleared and his murderer discovered.
Green’s superiors are ready to blame him should the whole mess blow up. Green is undeterred. I was reminded of Georges Picquart, the French Army officer, who persisted in fighting, at great personal cost, the cover-up of the wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. As with Picquart it is a matter of personal integrity for Green.
Few fictional detectives must face they have identified the wrong person as killer. One of the reasons we like crime fiction is that the sleuth gets the killer. To have the detective a mortal who does not get it right is an approach few writers are willing to take in their books.
Two of the best mystery writers have gone part way.
In The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly the plot involves a re-investigation of the Dollmaker killings. Harry Bosch had killed the original suspect. While it addresses the police getting the wrong killer there was no conviction involved.
In my review of Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais I said:
Elvis Cole is stunned when the LAPD alleges a murder suspect, Lionel Byrd, that he cleared 3 years before was actually a serial killer whose victims also include the murder for which he was cleared. Elvis, the World’s Greatest Detective, cannot believe that his work set free a killer. With the confidence/arrogance of those who cannot admit mistake Elvis and Joe Pike set out to find the real serial killer.
In both books the authors have their detectives face being wrong but they cannot bring themselves to actually have the detectives being mistaken about an innocent man.
Does Fradkin, in None So Blind, take the step of actually having Green deal with being wrong and sending a blameless man to prison for murder? You will have to read the book if you want the answer.
Fradkin, Barbara - (2015) - None So Blind