I cannot Tell a Lie


Her chest constrained in broad straps, one arm bound in a tight black band, the other tied by the hand, the crime victim sits in the windowless basement, looks at the man and tries to remember to breathe normally.

Her heartbeat spurts out in jagged red…

But this is not the scene of the crime.

This is the interview afterwards.

Welcome to the next stage of our efforts to get the truth straight from people’s minds: the first in which Science takes a hand.

Around the turn of last century, just as our man Byrnes was on the wane, several advances in tehnology conspired to enable monitoring of the inner workings of our bodies in real time. Investigators – scientific and otherwise – couldn’t resist the chance to take a peek at how, exactly, our involuntary metabolism reacted to the various emotions and stresses of real life.

Early Heath-Robinson (or to use the more local, American term – Rube Goldberg) attempts led to the ‘cardio-pneumo psychograph’ developed by John Augustus Larson, the first individual in American law-enforcement to hold a Ph.D.

His guinea-pigs, in the spring of 1921, were a cohort of young college girls accused of petty theft.  The case became a media sensation.

Thus the concept of the ‘Lie Detector’ was born.

The device used in the USA today monitors breathing rate using bands round the chest and stomach (top two lines in the illustration), skin conductance (dampness of skin –  smooth green line) and instantaneous blood pressure, hence also heart rate – red jagged line.

Stress ‘tells’ in the person being monitored include raised blood pressure and heart rate, raised skin conductance, and irregularity in breathing. Certain kinds of stress ‘tells’ – but not all – are taken to be signs that the subject is grappling with the process of telling a lie: a more complex business, the polygraph’s underlying philosophy assumes, than simply allowing the truth to come out.

Two ‘pre-tests’ are carried out before any serious questions are asked.

First, the interviewer chats with the subject about their past. From this, information is gleaned that can be used to devise ‘Control’ questions – questions which any normal person would like to lie about. For example, “Have you ever stolen anything from your workplace?”

Second, once the pick-ups are in place, the interviewee is asked to tell a deliberate lie. This usually involves them writing down a number and then having to conceal which number it is in the face of simple yes-no questions.

Most people think the questions in the main session come in two types: Relevant, and ‘Control’.

But there’s more.

Both Relevant and ‘Control’ questions are designed to put our subject on the spot, but in different ways. The Relevant questions refer to the particular crime being investigated and are assumed more stressful if the subject is lying, whereas the ‘Control’ questions are assumed just plain stressful regardless – the subject either has to lie, or to admit some misdeed in their past.

A third type of question, ‘Irrelevant’ – the type most people believe to be ‘Control’ questions – are those which are easily answered without lying. For example: ‘Are the lights on in here?’

So far so good. Under these conditions a guilty interviewee will generally, short of having mastered some arcane technique of body self-control, not be mistaken for innocent.

But here are you: you’re innocent, and you never lie – or at least, not about anything that matters. You’ve been picked up in error and you’re telling the truth without much sign of nerves. The lie-detector works, right? Else they wouldn’t use it.

Then this happens:

‘Did you hide the blood-stained dagger in the shrubbery?’


(after a long silence)

‘The polygraph says that you are lying.’

Your stress-levels go through the roof. And you know full well they’ll be showing on the traces behind you – the traces you, as an American citizen, have been brought up to believe never make mistakes.

What are you to do, now?

Do you cave and change your answer? Lie, and say you’re guilty?

Or do you double down on what you originally said, thus betraying a lack of faith in your country, its technology and its fairness?

Your thoughts twist in knots. A term whose origin is an old word for ‘twisting’ might come to mind. It may occur to you that no other country uses polygraphs – why does yours? You might even happen to know that the guilty party among those college girls was never found, the intense questioning into her personal life precipitated a nervous breakdown in one of the ‘suspects’, and that Dr. Larson, horrified by what his invention had spawned, went on to refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.

You might not believe it, but this last way of using the Polygraph – making false statements to the interviewee – forms part of the next ‘step’ in the erratic progress towards Portsmouth, and Kate.

Early chapters


The lyrics, over the rock anthem’s pounding heartbeat, are gruesome – and likely horribly familiar to anyone who has ever worked with victims of domestic violence.

She won’t give him what he wants. So he’s tied her to the railway in the path of an oncoming train. And so on. The night of crime only comes to an end when he throws her off a cliff.

You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a moral tale – almost a ballad. The man is eventually hauled in and ‘given the third degree’-

How many times have I, or anyone else, used the expression ‘third degree’ at someone who’s asking too many questions and sort-of wondered what it meant, but not thought any more of it?

The tale, of course, is fascinating. And particularly topical given this week’s Supreme Court situation

‘Third degree’, meaning the extreme of something, is a term with a long pedigree. It turns up in places as varied as Shakespeare’s plays and old medical manuals – ‘Rue is hot and dry in the third degree…’ (1578). It’s also a term in Masonic ceremonies, and in the Spanish Inquisition.

Aha: now we’re getting closer.

Of all the theories about how the phrase came to be used about asking questions, this one has to be my favourite:

New York at the turn of last century was a brutal place. Crime rates in the USA at the time were said to be anything from four to ten times those in Europe. Into this den of iniquity strode the impressive figure of one Thomas F. Byrnes. A former engineer and firefighter, he became notorious for beating suspects in order to extract confessions from them. His colleagues – or possibly himself – awarded him the nickname ‘third degree’ as a pun on his surname. All right, officer I confess: I can’t resist a story with a pun.

With such an impressive record of finding and putting-away the guilty he rose rapidly through the ranks.

As Inspector, he faced a case not unlike that of London’s ‘Jack the Ripper’.  Unlike his counterparts across the Pond, though, he caught his man.

Except he didn’t.

Eleven years later, the evidence against him being his confession and hardly anything else, Ameer ‘Frenchie’ Ben Ali was pardoned. Meanwhile Byrnes had been forced to resign. Better ways of catching criminals – ones which would not also indiscriminately sweep-up witnesses and other innocents – were needed.

Sad to say that incidents like the one that opened this story are still with us and so – and not always in the metaphorical sense, either – is the ‘third degree’.

But we’re one step nearer to Portsmouth – and to Kate.

(Oh and, bonus points if you know the ‘ballad’.)


Inciting incident


Burnaby Road, Portsmouth, was supposed to be well lit. It was a broad, quiet, back town street with pavement slabs, as opposed to tarmac, all the way across its width: if you drove through between its smart houses – formerly Officers’ Quarters for the Navy – you were supposed to do so at a respectful, slow pace.

But Burnaby Road – at that time student accommodation for the University of Portsmouth – had a design flaw: the siting of its lamp-posts and its street trees coincided, leaving most of the ground in darkness for the nights between mid-May and the end of October.

And that may – or may not – have contributed to_

“Have you got the time on you?”

I pushed up a sleeve and looked at my watch. “About five past ten.”

Normally people just walk off after such an exchange, but this one didn’t: he followed me from the brightly-lit High Street into Burnaby Road.

“D’you live round here?”

“No.” Thank God – otherwise I’d have the type of bloke who follows you into a dark street knowing where I live. As it was, I was on the way to my then-boyfriend’s house – past a second house in the street where I had, in fact, been living the previous year.

More questions followed. The darkness hid my blushes at the abject lies I concocted. At the age of 24 I just wasn’t practiced at this stuff.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a student.”

I thought I heard the words “I’ve always wanted a student…” as my feet went from under me and I started to fall…

By now the sharp-eyed among you may have recognised the incident: it’s the one Verity recounts in ‘The Price of Time’ as part of her answer to Mills’ question about life without constant fear. It is also a vignette of real life: it happened to me in the late spring of 1987. As you can imagine it left a bit of an impression, even though I scared the man off with a scream before anything worse happened.

But the most interesting part of the night was yet to come.

My boyfriend had gone out, leaving the house deserted. Desperate, I banged on the door of my former place. The tall redheaded lad who answered_

Geordie-Man, one of my old housemates!


“I’ve been mugged. Can I come in?”

We went through to the kitchen. The rest of the lads, all of whom I remembered, were there. I was the only other northerner – the only one who didn’t think Geordie-Man needed subtitles when he talked.

“Sh’a get y’a cuppatea?”

“Oh yes please, that’d be great!”

I watched, puzzled, as Geordie-Man walked out of the front door and away. Perhaps he’d seen they didn’t have any milk. I didn’t notice the four-foot-high poster of Karl Marx in the next room until someone carefully detached him from the wall, rolled him up and stashed him in the cupboard under the stairs. Perhaps they were having a bit of a tidy-up.

Geordie-Man returned.

For a while nothing happened_

Someone banged on the front door fit to break it, and a commotion broke out in the hall. A split-second later four burly Police walked in the room. They all looked at me, the only woman.

“…been assaulted?”

My wits came to. That was the question Geordie-Man had asked me: the Police. Not tea.  I’d misheard.

I stood up. You needed something to show for it in these types of cases, or nobody would believe you.

“Yes. I can show you the bruises if you like.” I could feel them where I sat: they must be belters.

Nobody wanted to see the bruises.

They wanted a statement instead.

No note-pads appeared.

A statement meant going to the cop-shop with the four burly officers. As we got into the car the chap in the passenger seat leaned to his colleague sitting next to me in the back and said, “We’ll get Kate.” My seat-mate warmed to the idea, “Oh yes: Kate can interview you. She’s been on a course!”

There’d been cases in the papers. Genuine rape victims being given a gruelling time of it, giving their statements: having to put up with snide remarks implying they were at fault.

Kate didn’t do any of that. My respect for her hasn’t dimmed over time. She got 3 solid hours’-worth of detailed information out of a shocked civilian with famously poor visual memory, about a 20 second incident that took place in almost total darkness.

How she did it, why I happen to be recalling it right now, and the implications for the history of one country and the future of another, are for the posts to follow.