Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXIX No. 16, December 1-15, 2019

On the fine art of detection

by S.K. Chettur, I.C.S.

This being the Music Season, it is perhaps appropriate that we bring you a story in which the name of M.S. Subbulakshmi too was unfortunately involved. A reading of this excellent summation by S.K. Chettur, ICS reveals unknown facets – 1. that it was in the Trivandrum Mail and not the Boat Mail that the murder was committed, contrary to what is often spoken and written about; 2. that investigations cleared any involvement of M.S. Subbulakshmi in it, which latter day raconteurs appear to conveniently overlook

– Editor

A prominent Chettiyar banker got into a first-class compartment of the Trivandrum Express at Madurai railway station. It was not his intention to travel by first class. Like most Chettiyars, he had intended to travel by second class. As all the second class berths were occupied, he was forced to go ‘first’. At Trichy Junction, he was seen seated in the compartment of his I Class berth and he met a friend who saw him purchase and consume some savouries from an Indian refreshment room.

The train left Trichy Junction and when it arrived at Chingleput station, it was discovered that the Chettiyar was lying dead in a pool of blood on his berth in the two berth compartment, his throat cut. Now this is the kind of murder which bristles with clues. For one thing, the time of the murder can be very accurately fixed, not just based on the fact that it took place between 10.35 p.m. when the Trivandrum Express left Trichy Junction and 5.10 a.m. when it arrived in Chingleput, but also based on the post-mortem report of the body and the contents of the stomach. Moreover, as the opposite I Class compartment (separated from the Chettiyar’s by a corridor) was occupied by 2 military officers, it was not possible for the thief to have travelled in the adjacent compartment of the train.

It is clear that he must have climbed into the corridor at some intermediate station, entered the Chettiyar’s compartment, cut his throat and either got off at a station or jumped off the moving train between stations.
There were two ways of solving this murder. One was by the usual method of tracing the person or persons who had a motive for the deed. The other was by securing objective evidence as to the actual murderer who had thus succeeded in entering a train and leaving it. The possibility of the murderer having jumped off the train had not escaped the police and orders were issued to search the railway track between fixed points to elicit news of any strangers who were found on the track. The permanent way staff found signs of blood along the track near Tindivanam station and these traces of blood led to a bush in which a severely wounded man was discovered.

He was at once arrested, conveyed to the Villupuram lock-up and put through the grill. His story was the story of an amazing coincidence. He had got into the Ceylon Boat Mail which had left Madras the same night and was travelling towards Dhanushkodi. He and two other boon companions had drunk not wisely but too well – those were pre-prohibition days – and by the time the train reached Chingleput, he was in a very happy state of drunkenness. After the train left Chingleput, he went to an outer door of the compartment thinking it was the door leading to the bathroom and stepped forward. Unfortunately for him it was not, and as the train was in motion, he fell out and was badly hurt. He crawled into the clump of bushes where he lay till he was discovered. The papers in his pocket· and the evidence of his two companions who were traced, proved the truth of his story that he was no midnight murderer but only a midnight traveller.

To return to the murder, on the motive theory, it was found that the Chettiyar had recently interested himself in politics and backed one of the two parties contesting in a District Board election. There was some evidence that the party which lost the election as a result of his support to the rival candidate was very much incensed against the deceased. This was a likely clue and I believe it was followed up, but without much result. The only other motive was based on an enquiry into the private life of the deceased which elicited the fact that he had one illicit amour but there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that anybody, whether jealous or otherwise, was interested in effecting his murder. A red herring was drawn along the trail by the presence in the train that evening of a celebrated woman singer who also travelled from Trichy to Madras and the police spent quite a lot of time enquiring into her activities on the night in question and into her knowledge of the deceased. It was found that the lady was not in any way acquainted with him and that her presence on the train was purely fortuitous. Thereby the last suggestion that the crime was a crime of passion fell to the ground. Thus, a murder which was crying out to be solved had to be referred by the police as “undetected’’ My own view is that the police in this matter did not try hard enough to solve the murder.

It strikes me that one reason why the police have it all their own way in this country in the matter of crime detection is the fact that there is no vigilant press to watch the stages of the detection of a murder. In America, on the other hand, from the moment that a murder is announced, the press are on the scene and follow every detail of the investigation. What is more, in various sensational cases, the press take a very alert interest in following up the threads of the investigation on their own in the hope of securing a scoop story. Now this kind of journalistic enterprise is completely unknown in this country. Here the reporters hang about waiting with their hands in their pockets, for the chief of police to tell them what it pleases him to say about the state of investigation of the crime. More often than not, a dubious statement is put out that “a number of suspects are being traced” or that “the police investigation is reaching a climax and some arrests are shortly to be made.” No climax is ever reached and no arrests are ever made in some of the most important murder cases. I feel that if the local journalists were to take a more alert interest in the investigation of crime, it would spur on the police and force them to adopt more dynamic methods of crime detection than they seem to have so far.
Lastly, I refer to third degree methods. There is a popular notion that most detection in our country is achieved by third degree methods by tying a possible suspect or informant to a tree or other suitable place and then beating or torturing the information out of him. I have never verified how far this is true. I hope it is not. (We are glad to inform Mr. Chettur that such ‘strong arm’ methods have long since ceased to be among the weapons in the police armoury. Ed.)

Third degree methods are not unknown in the west, where the use of a rubber bludgeon and 24-hour endless cross questioning are resorted to ruthlessly to break down the person questioned. Though these methods may be useful when dealing with gangster criminals, methods involving greater finesse and inductive reasoning from observed facts are called for when investigating crimes today. I sometimes think that more of our police detectives should read great stories of crime and detection to keep their minds open to new ideas, and adapt the methods or the techniques of detection revealed in such stories to our local conditions. This may seem like gratuitous advice but it is well worth a trial. Many of our police detectives would not have heard perhaps of Dupin, Father Brown or Dr. Freeman and if so, the greater discredit to them for not recognising in Dupin of Edgar Allan Poe the great father of modern detection; or not seeing in G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown the most original psychological detective that has ever been invented; or for not recognising in Thorndyke’s Dr. Freeman the originator of the modern method of analysing “clues” scientifically with microscopes etc. If our younger police detectives could combine the inductive reasoning of Dupin (so ably imitated by his successor Sherlock Holmes) with the psychological insight of Father Brown and the chemico-analytic methods of Dr. Freeman, the murder of the Chettiyar that I have referred to above would not perhaps have gone undetected.

(Mr. Chettur indeed demands an admirable Crichton. But it is said that truth is stranger than fiction. It is our hope that this “rara avis” will someday appear among the younger generation of our police detectives. Ed.)
Note: With all due respect to Mr. Chettur, it must be said that Mr. L.A. Bishop, the then D.I.G. C.I.D., and Railways and later I.G. of Madras was a very able and experienced officer who personally investigated the case, and spared no effort to solve this crime. Both lines of investigation suggested in this article were pursued with great tenacity but the element of luck, which, as every police officer knows, often plays a very important part in bringing a murderer to justice, was totally absent in this case. The discovery of the ‘Midnight Reveller’ and the considerable time which Mr. Chettur admits, they spent in checking on the antecedents of the ‘celebrated woman singer’ afford positive proof that the police neglected neither attempt to secure objective evidence, nor discover a possible motive on the principle of “cherchez la femme’, which is the first resort of the baffled investigator. – (The Madras Police Journal, Jan-March 1955).

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