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Investigations 101: What police officers learn by reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Story of “The Yellow Face”

July 10, 2023  By Gilles Renaud



I believe that police officers learn valuable lessons about the demeanour of those they interview, interviewing and investigative skills, judgment and professionalism, by reading classic detective stories. In this series on The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I plan to review each short story to reveal what investigators should do, and what not to do. The second of these is “The Yellow Face”. In brief, a spouse seeks to hide from her second husband the existence of her young child, who wears a yellow mask when looking down onto the street from a nearby house.

The story contains this relevant passage, spoken by someone who consulted the great detective: “I want your opinion as a judicious [person]—as a [person] of the world.” In that context, literature will assist you in becoming more worldly, more sophisticated. I suggest that the best exhibit that I may produce is a quote from a great teacher of criminal evidence, Dean John Wigmore, that I have modified: “The lawyer [and the detective] must know human nature. [They] must deal understandingly with its types and motives. These [they] cannot all find close around… For this learning [they] must go to fiction which is the gallery of life’s portraits.”1

I propose to review the various elements of investigative work to assist you in your current assignments, and to entertain.

Demeanour evidence and the conduct of successful investigations

Demeanour – A brief definition

Although I have written a book on this subject2 and could discuss it at length, the best brief definition I know is found in this story. At one point, the narrator states: “Our visitor again passed his hand over his forehead, as if he found it bitterly hard. From every gesture and expression I could see that he was a reserved, self-contained man, with a dash of pride in his nature, more likely to hide his wounds than to expose them. Then suddenly, with a fierce gesture of his closed hand, like one who throws reserve to the winds, he began.”

It is that kind of assessment, embracing both gestures and facial expressions, that is at the heart of your decision to rely fully, somewhat, or not at all, on the words spoken by the potential witnesses you will interview. Of course, you may also be provided with tapes of interviews or of statements that are recorded, for that purpose. The bottom line is your response to the question: “Is what you hear reliable, based in part on what you saw?” bearing in mind the difficulties inherent in evaluating how strangers act? In this context, note that the witness stated at one point: “… she came forward, with a very white face and frightened eyes which belied the smile upon her lips.” Another relevant introductory quote follows: “… My wife had always been a woman of a frank, open nature …”, an insight you do not possess until you seek out this kind of information.

Demeanour – The Grey’s Anatomy of what the investigator must assess

In most cases, you will wish to evaluate what the demeanour of the person you are interviewing tells you about the credibility and reliability of their account of the situation you are interviewing. Unlike the case of “The Yellow Face”, in which the face described was a mask, investigators must seek information from actual elements of demeanour, as set out below:

Agitation” “… we could see in the light of the station lamps that he was very pale, and quivering with agitation.”

Breathing: “She was deadly pale and breathing fast, glancing furtively towards the bed as she fastened her mantle, to see if she had disturbed me…”

Cry: “She gave a violent start and a kind of gasping cry when I spoke, and that cry and start troubled me more than all the rest, for there was something indescribably guilty about them. My wife had always been a woman of a frank, open nature, and it gave me a chill to see her slinking into her own room, and crying out and wincing when her own husband spoke to her.”

Eyes: “… she came forward, with a very white face and frightened eyes which belied the smile upon her lips.”

Face: “I don’t know what there was about that face, Mr. Holmes, but it seemed to send a chill right down my back. I was some little way off, so that I could not make out the features, but there was something unnatural and inhuman about the face.” Later, we read: “[The door] was instantly opened by a tall, gaunt woman with a harsh, forbidding face.” Further, note: “I was struck dumb with astonishment at the sight of her; but my emotions were nothing to those which showed themselves upon her face when our eyes met. She seemed for an instant to wish to shrink back inside the house again; and then, seeing how useless all concealment must be, she came forward, with a very white face and frightened eyes which belied the smile upon her lips.” Further yet, we read: “… the maid ran into the hall with a startled face.”

Glances: “Holmes glanced reproachfully at me.” Later, we read: “She wore an expression such as I had never seen before—such as I should have thought her incapable of assuming. She was deadly pale and breathing fast, glancing furtively towards the bed as she fastened her mantle, to see if she had disturbed me…” Still later, we read: “… I could see from the little questioning glances which she kept shooting at me that she understood that I disbelieved her statement, and that she was at her wits’ end what to do.”

Hand movement: “‘I beg your pardon’, said he, with some embarrassment; ‘I suppose I should have knocked. Yes, of course I should have knocked. The fact is that I am a little upset, and you must put it all down to that.’ He passed his hand over his forehead like a man who is half dazed, and then fell rather than sat down upon a chair.” Later, Sir Arthur wrote: “Our visitor again passed his hand over his forehead, as if he found it bitterly hard. From every gesture and expression I could see that he was a reserved, self-contained man, with a dash of pride in his nature, more likely to hide his wounds than to expose them. Then suddenly, with a fierce gesture of his closed hand, like one who throws reserve to the winds, he began.”

Manner: “There was such earnestness, such despair, in her manner that her words arrested me, and I stood irresolute before the door.”

Pallor: “She wore an expression such as I had never seen before—such as I should have thought her incapable of assuming. She was deadly pale and breathing fast, glancing furtively towards the bed as she fastened her mantle, to see if she had disturbed me…” Later, we read: “… we could see in the light of the station lamps that he was very pale, and quivering with agitation.”

Patience: “‘Kindly let me have the facts, Mr. Munro,’ said Holmes, with some impatience.”

Restlessness: “He was a very restless gentleman, sir, a-walkin’ and a-stampin’ all the time he was here.”

Start: “She gave a violent start and a kind of gasping cry when I spoke, and that cry and start troubled me more than all the rest, for there was something indescribably guilty about them. My wife had always been a woman of a frank, open nature, and it gave me a chill to see her slinking into her own room, and crying out and wincing when her own husband spoke to her.”

Sternness: “‘Where have you been?’ I asked, more sternly.” Later, “‘I have trusted you too long, Effie,’ he cried, sternly.”

Voice: “‘How can you tell me what you know is false?’ I cried. ‘Your very voice changes as you speak.’”

Wincing: Refer to the discussion under “Cry”.

Demeanour and the issue of looking at the eyes of the person asking questions

We have reached the stage in our understanding of basic psychology such that judges rarely consider the scenario whether a witness has looked at the eyes of the person who is interviewing them. Mainly for cultural reasons, we are discarding the flawed notion that persons who tell the truth invariably sustain the look of their accuser, so to speak, and those who do not are thereby demonstrating their lack of reliability.

Consider this dated and unconvincing comment: “All the time that she was telling me this story she never once looked in my direction, and her voice was quite unlike her usual tones. It was evident to me that she was saying what was false…”3

Interviewing skills in investigations

Interviewing skills – Clarifying questions

I suggest that you follow the guidance found in this passage: “If there is any point which I have not made clear, pray question me about it.”

Interviewing skills – Dreams, how to carefully approach a statement that is couched in terms suggesting it was based, in part at least, on a dream

Consider this quote from the short story, as it illustrates the typical scenario:

I am usually an extremely sound sleeper. It has been a standing jest in the family that nothing could ever wake me during the night. And yet somehow on that particular night, whether it may have been the slight excitement produced by my little adventure or not I know not, but I slept much more lightly than usual. Half in my dreams I was dimly conscious that something was going on in the room, and gradually became aware that my wife had dressed herself and was slipping on her mantle and her bonnet. My lips were parted to murmur out some sleepy words of surprise or remonstrance at this untimely preparation, when suddenly my half-opened eyes fell upon her face, illuminated by the candle-light, and astonishment held me dumb. She wore an expression such as I had never seen before—such as I should have thought her incapable of assuming. She was deadly pale and breathing fast, glancing furtively towards the bed as she fastened her mantle, to see if she had disturbed me…

The careful investigator will take pains to ask further questions to emphasize those elements of the quotation that support that though he might have been dreaming, and sleeping soundly, he was fully aware when he made the observations he provided to the detective. The best of these is what follows: “I sat up in bed and rapped my knuckles against the rail to make certain that I was truly awake.”

Interviewing skills – Facts, ascertain them at the outset

The great detective told a person who sought his advice: “Might I beg you, as time may prove to be of importance, to furnish me with the facts of your case without further delay?”

Interviewing skills – Note taking to perfection

When you are interviewing a witness, there is only the gold standard that applies: to write down each word, which is near impossible unless you can record the interview. Thus, you should delay the interview, when possible, to permit it to be recorded. I certainly think that most judges would not accept at face value the statement that follows of Holmes’ servant who reported of a visitor: “‘… I was waitin’ outside the door, sir, and I could hear him. At last he outs into the passage, and he cries, ‘Is that man never goin’ to come?’ Those were his very words, sir.’”

Interviewing skills – Speech, style of

It is important for interviewers to assess the speech pattern of the person they are interviewing, whether casual witness or main suspect, as this information is vital to evaluating the likelihood of their having provided reliable information. For example, in “The Yellow Face”, a witness is described as follows: “He spoke in little, sharp, jerky outbursts, and it seemed to me that to speak at all was very painful to him, and that his will all through was overriding his inclinations.” Later, this additional description was provided: “Holmes and I had listened with the utmost interest to this extraordinary statement, which had been delivered in the jerky, broken fashion of a man who is under the influence of extreme emotions.”

At trial, the prosecution is always concerned that a witness will suggest that what they said was not accurate, due to nerves, a misunderstanding due to language skills, challenging vocabulary, etc. If you have judged that the witness was speaking in a “painful” manner, for example, you, your supervisor, or the prosecutor, may request a further interview, if the value of the potential information risks being lost should it be said later that the situation was so intolerable that what was communicated was unreliable.

Interview skills – Time, estimates of

Consider: “… [I] rapped my knuckles against the rail to make certain that I was truly awake. Then I took my watch from under the pillow. It was three in the morning…” It is always quite useful to verify by what means the witness estimated or ascertained the precise time of the observations in questions.

Judgment in investigations

Judgement – Human nature – Absolute statements

Consider this example: “The facts are these, Mr. Holmes,” said he. “I am a married man, and have been so for three years. During that time my wife and I have loved each other as fondly and lived as happily as any two that ever were joined. We have not had a difference, not one, in thought or word or deed…” He added: “I tell you that there never was a shadow between us until this accursed affair began.”

Witnesses often state things in that categorical fashion, to then express how the situation has changed, often dramatically. Note the words that follow: “And now, since last Monday, there has suddenly sprung up a barrier between us, and I find that there is something in her life and in her thought of which I know as little as if she were the woman who brushes by me in the street. We are estranged, and I want to know why.” As an investigator, I suggest that you not judge too harshly the first words, and certainly not the later ones, for human nature is such that the subsequent problems often bring about an exaggeration of the earlier honeymoon period.

Judgment – Human nature – Reluctance in disclosing personal information

Early on, Holmes is told: “It’s a very delicate thing … One does not like to speak of one’s domestic affairs to strangers. It seems dreadful to discuss the conduct of one’s wife with two men whom I have never seen before. It’s horrible to have to do it. But I’ve got to the end of my tether, and I must have advice.”

Judgment – Surmise

Consider this exchange between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes: “It is all surmise.” “But at least it covers all the facts. When new facts come to our knowledge which cannot be covered by it, it will be time enough to reconsider it…”

Professionalism in investigations

Professionalism – Effort greatest when apparently “going nowhere”

The short story begins by pointing out that when Sherlock Holmes “… was at his wits’ end that his energy and his versatility were most admirable…” The narrator added “… when there was some professional object to be served … he was absolutely untiring and indefatigable.”

Professionalism – Mistakes, learning from one’s

At the end of the story, when it is evident that Sherlock Homes missed the mark entirely, he stated to his best friend and confidant: “‘Watson,’ said he, ‘if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper [The Yellow Face] in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.’”

Professionalism – Respect for the law

The type of passage that follows can never be followed by a Canadian police officer; it goes without saying.

“You are quite determined to do this [break-in to find evidence of a crime], in spite of your wife’s warning that it is better that you should not solve the mystery?” “Yes, I am determined.” “Well, I think that you are in the right. Any truth is better than indefinite doubt. We had better go up at once. Of course, legally, we are putting ourselves hopelessly in the wrong; but I think that it is worth it.”

Professionalism – Think about your case time and again

Consider the thoughts of a witness as set out in “The Yellow Face”: “I had sat for about twenty minutes turning the thing over in my mind and trying to find some possible explanation. The more I thought, the more extraordinary and inexplicable did it appear…” Later, Sir Arthur stated: “I should like to think over the matter a little now…” It is not the result that I am emphasizing as much as the duty you owe to the victim to apply yourself to the full extent of your abilities. That said, do not endanger your health as made plain in the passage below: “All the rest of the night I tossed and tumbled, framing theory after theory, each more unlikely than the last.”

Conclusion

This short story contains a great deal of information about demeanour evidence and human nature, and it will profit all investigators to read it for both pleasure and instruction.

References

  1. See “A List of One Hundred Legal Novel” (1922), 17 III. L. Rev. 26, at page 31.
  2. Demeanour Evidence on Trial: A Legal and Literary Criticism, Sandstone Academic Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2008.
  3. A fascinating example of this type of flawed thinking is discussed in a book entitled Our Box Was Full, by Professor R. Daly, that I have reviewed at length in the legal journal The Advocate, Vol. 65(4), July 2007, pages 563-564. I will forward it to any interested reader.

Gilles Renaud will soon retire after serving 28 years as a member of the Ontario Court of Justice. Previously, he was an Assistant Crown Attorney in Ottawa and a prosecutor with the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Section of the Federal Department of Justice. He began his legal career as a defence counsel and has written nine books on the law, including three in French.


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