I, Witness: Personal Encounters with Crime by Members of the Mystery Writers of America edited by Brian Garfield: A Review by Warren Bull
Published in 1978 to celebrate the opening of the Second International Congress of Crime Writers, I, Witness is a collection of anecdotes, personal experiences writers had with crime and how that event effected them. The original idea by Dorothy Salisbury Davis was for crime fiction writers to compose articles about real criminal cases such as Jack The Ripper and Lizzie Borden. However, each writer reported a vivid experience with some aspect of the criminal justice system that was much more influential in their lives and careers than any already-well-documented historical case. The result is more revealing about the authors and wonderfully diverse in subject matter. For me, it also elicited an incredible range of emotions.
Donald E. Westlake begins the book with a tale of how he became a receiver of stolen goods. He begins by telling about an actual crime that a group of French criminals successfully pulled off using a crime novel as a guide. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view the novel did not cover what to do after the crime is completed. By throwing money around and boasting, they quickly revealed themselves to the police. The idea of crime by the book led to a producer to request a story treatment from Westlake for a comic film. Note that the producer stole the idea. The author just received the stolen idea. Since Westlake is telling the story, as you might expect the combinations and permutations after that request are enough to make your head spin. I’ll leave further description to the venerable Westlake. Suffice it to say I’ll bet you enjoy the wild ride.
The permeable boundary between fact and fiction is illustrated by Peter Godfrey who tells of his experience as a magazine writer when he and Ben Bennett wrote a crime feature together. Bennett wrote a column titled, “Fact Crime.” Next to it Bennett wrote a column titled, ”Fiction Solution” about the facts as described in the other column. In one case Bennett was able to channel the perpetrator to such an extent that he predicted the perpetrator’s response to the column. He was correct How did he know he was right? The man wrote him and commented on his work. My description is a bare bones outline. The actual anecdote is much more detailed and interesting.
Hillary Waugh wrote a “just the facts” account of what happens when a mystery writer gets a solid dose of reality from working police detectives. After reading his piece, I now understand why real detectives rarely read crime fiction.
Madelaine Duke told about efforts to retrieve art stolen by Nazis and retained by the government of Austria. In her heartbreaking account even winning a court case did not mean the art would be returned.
Some offerings were gruesome. Others were tragic. Sometimes the police detectives were relentless and brilliant. On other cases, police authorities abused their privileges or settled for shoddy investigations.
I could go on but I will limit myself to the recommendation that you take the time to search out the book and read it. It will be a rewarding experience.