Dixon Steele: Well, I grant you, the jokes could've been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you — that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of empathy.
Someone you love has just died in a terrible and, honestly, kind of suspicious way. Better start crying your eyes out right now.
Wait, you say you have a sense of personal dignity and prefer to mourn in private, and wouldn't dream of sullying your loved one's memory by breaking down just in time for the ten o'clock news team to catch it? Or that you're in shock and too bewildered and horrified to do anything but stare blankly?
Look, you're just asking for trouble, pal. We said cry, so you'd better turn on the gushers. Because if you don't then you're the killer! And when the case comes to trial six months later you had better still be crying, or the reporters are going to be jabbering about how you sat there "emotionless" during the "most brutal part of the testimony," which is guaranteed to make you look bad even if you aren't actually the one on trial.
This trope has been around on television so long that these days the subversion is at least as common as the trope: the "non emotional" person at the scene makes for an excellent red herring for the first half hour of a crime procedural, but is rarely the true killer because that would be too easy. You can expect the truly guilty person to have had the waterworks on full blast, just as expected, if only to throw off suspicion.
Sadly, this trope in its unsubverted form is still commonly seen in Real Life crime, where not grieving enough in public, not being sad enough, or engaging in necessary unpleasant tasks such as checking on a spouse's life insurance too soon after the death, is seen as evidence of an evil or heartless nature, and therefore guilt.
Shares some similarities with Loners Are Freaks: failure to conform to expected social norms makes you a monster. Characters who may get into trouble include The Stoic, The Quiet One, the Emotionless Girl, and those with a Sugar-and-Ice Personality.
- Light in Death Note agonizes over whether or not it would be wise to visibly grieve when his father nearly dies. He ends up being a bit hammy.
- In a case in volume 16 of Detective Conan, one of the sisters comments on the fact her brother's fiancée (who she dislikes) has barely reacted to his death, insinuating that she was a Gold Digger. Ran runs after the fiancée to give her something she'd dropped, only to find her crying about her fiancée's death alone. It turns out she is the culprit, but it's a lot more complicated than they realized.
- Fire in the Sky: This is the main reason why Allan Dallas was suspected of murdering Travis Walton. The fact that Travis Walton showed up five days later after having been abducted by aliens cleared Allan's name but did not stop the police from having a grudge against Allan.
- In the start of The Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist is charged with the murder of his wife. Though there is other evidence that points towards him, what seems to really cinch the case was that he showed no grief, described by the judge as "an icy and remorseless" individual. The fact that his wife was killed along with her lover and that this might confuse his grieving process is never addressed. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, we find out that he really was innocent. The rest of the film makes it clear the protagonist just has a calm, quiet, emotionally-reserved personality.
- Subverted in Star Trek VI. Scotty notes that the murdered Klingon Chancellor's daughter didn't shed "one bloody tear" and so she must have been the culprit. Spock points out that that in itself is not conclusive, since Klingons have no tear ducts. Whether Scotty was intending for this turn of phrase be taken literally is not clear, but it's academic in the end: Not only is she innocent, but the same plotters who arranged for her father to be murdered and for Kirk and McCoy to take the fall target her at the climax.
- The Deadly Bees: During an inquiry into the death of his wife (by bee swarm), Mr. Hargrove displays less emotion towards his wife's death than protagonist Vicki, who was only a guest and knew them both less than a couple of weeks. This only strengthens the theory that Hargrove set his bees on his wife, whom he openly hated.note
- In a Lonely Place: The police suspect the main character, Dixon Steele, for the murder of a woman who visited him on the night of her death, due to the fact that he barely reacts to the news and even makes a few sarcastic quips about it.note
Capt. Lochner: You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No — just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.
Dixion Steele: Well, I grant you, the jokes could've been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you — that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion.
- Reversal of Fortune. Claus von Bülow doesn't make his legal defense team comfortable with his aristocratic Dissonant Serenity and Gallows Humor.
Claus von Bülow: Well, so much for the first coma. The second, of course, was much more theatrical.
Alan Dershowitz: Theatrical? What is this, a fucking game? This is life and death; your wife is lying in a coma. You, you don't even make a pretense of caring, do you?
Claus von Bülow: 'Course I care, Alan. It's just, I don't wear my heart on my sleeve.
- In Crooked House, Charles notes that no one in Aristide Leonides' family (except his second wife) seems at all distressed by his murder. Reactions range from crocodile tears, to a grudging admittance that they'll miss him, to outright admission that they hated him. As Charles notes, this makes everyone look like a viable suspect.
- Camus' The Stranger sort of messes with this. Meursault's murder trial paints him as an inhuman monster because he didn't act sad at his mother's funeral. It's a bit of a subversion, as he didn't cry because he didn't really care, and he claimed he killed the man because the sun was in his eyes, but his treatment at the trial still fits this trope.
- Inverted in the Sherlock Holmes story when a man is arrested for the murder of his father. The fact that he accepts arrest so calmly and he expected it is used as evidence by the police of his guilt. Holmes however points out that it simply shows he was aware of the overwhelming evidence against him and that it was futile to protest; only a guilty man would try and cause a scene.
- Lampshaded (of course) in the novel Night Watch, when Vimes realizes a little too late that not reacting at all to Coates saying he isn't the real John Keel is a dead giveaway.
- Played straight in Maskerade, where the murderer is the Deadpan Snarker who makes insensitive but amusing quips about the deceased. It can actually be a bit surprising in a humorous novel where most characters are Deadpan Snarkers at one point or another, but Terry Pratchett has repeatedly commented in his novels how making jokes about killing people, even bad ones, is a telltale sign of twisted morals.
- Averted in Stephen King's novel The Dark Half. The protagonist is suspected of murder, and the Sheriff is so certain he's guilty by the ton of evidence that he's not noticing the protagonist's genuine reaction of surprise and shock after being told of the murder. (The murders are actually being committed by a supernatural doppelganger of the protagonist.) The two state troopers with the Sheriff finally have to pull the Sheriff aside and say that the reactions of the suspect are that of an innocent man. The Sheriff calms down enough to realize something very strange is going on, and that his first impressions may be wrong.
- An extreme example can be found in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: no matter how well replicants can simulate feelings and hide their Lack of Empathy, when submitted to the Voight-Kampff test, a minimal delay in emotional response is enough to incriminate them.
- A variation in Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Zillah, a Native American woman, doesn't cry or scream while giving birth, due to her culture. The suspicious Puritan townspeople (who already blame her for the current drought) use this as evidence that she's a witch.
- Invoked in the Miss Marple short story, "Tape Measure Murder": the victim's husband is a believer in the Stoic philosophy and takes pride in showing no emotion at the news of his wife's murder. Naturally, everyone else is less impressed and more suspicious about this. Miss Marple is the only one who believes him innocent, because he reminds her of an uncle who was also a Stoic.
- This is one of the reasons why Nick looks more and more guilty of Amy's disappearance in Gone Girl. He is quite innocent, but he is not only uncomfortable with showing his feelings, but also has trouble feeling entirely sorry that Amy is gone due to how unhappy their marriage had become. Amy, who knows Nick better than anyone, was counting on those two things helping to incriminate him.
- Boston Legal:
- The victim's girlfriend didn't show any emotion when she saw her hanged, saying only "goodbye". She was considered a suspect by the main characters. It turns out she was only interested in the victim's money, but the act itself was a suicide.
- This was part of the "evidence" against a suspected Black Widow in the first episodes of season two.
- In a CSI: Miami episode they came down hard on the husband of the victim as despite seeming genuinely shattered he had returned to work immediately. This was because he worked in a family business and it was helping him cope with his grief but the CSI's still remarked it pointed toward him being responsible, despite his actions mirroring practically every detective and CSI on TV, including in their show, who has suffered a bereavement without the added reasoning of family being present at the work as well.
- CSI in general loves this trope and have played it both straight and as a red herring.
- Cameron in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has a problem convincing anyone that she didn't kill Riley due to her inability to show anything close to grieving. Well, that and the fact that she's the only one with motive.
- Leonard Nimoy does it in the Columbo movie "A Stitch in Crime" (1973). Both Nimoy and Peter Falk (Columbo) act outside their typecast personas in a scene where Nimoy's character pretends to burst into laughter over the ridiculous idea that he murdered a colleague. Columbo, unusually for him, drops his bumbling policeman act and angrily announces his intent to prove his accusation.
- Criminal Minds:
- Inverted when the team is investigating a series of brutal murders mimicking Native American rituals. Their first suspect is an Apache teacher/activist whom they take to the crime scene under the pretense of asking for his expert opinion. He then proceeds to analyse the grisly scene in a very detached and unemotional manner and comes to the conclusion that this wasn't done by Native Americans. Hotchner then claims his behavior proves he's innocent: a guilty person would have feigned shock and disgust, as the activist himself points out when Hotch tells him that he's not a suspect.
- Also played straight in a later episode; A man notices that his daughters have gone missing, about a year after his wife died. Over the course of the episode, we found out that he has a split personality, and is an alcoholic. When one of his two daughters is found dead, he is immediately considered the killer due to his alcoholism causing him some serious anger issues. The other girl is later found crying from a nearby forest. As it turns out, the surviving girl displays no emotion of any kind when she returns to her empty house. J.J feels that something is wrong and calls the other agents. J.J finds her in the basement and realizes that the daughter killed half of her family and tried to shift the blame on her troubled dad, and the two end up pointing guns at each other. Once the others arrive, the daughter claims that J.J tried to kill her, but nobody is fooled by her act anymore.
- Discussed in Lie to Me: "Pied Piper":
- The Pretender has a variation in an episode when five crooks suspected of killing a young girl (plus Jarod) wind up Locked in a Warehouse after a failed heist. One freaks out when he finds a child bed with a photograph, but another tells them to pull yourself together and points out it's not the girl in question.
- One episode of NUMB3RS has Liz become suspicious when a woman wishes to stay at the FBI office after being told her husband died. This leads to them realizing he was not actually dead.
- After Rita's murder, Dexter initially comes off as emotionally detached (particularly in his clinical police call). Quinn (who has a grudge) is alone in finding it suspicious; most of the other people at the precinct think he's just in shock, and Debra worries that he isn't allowing himself to grieve.
- The subversion was lampshaded in an episode of Bones in which they interviewed friends of the victim at a fraternity. The frat members who knew more than they were letting on were pointed out by Dr. Sweets because they were too consistent in how sad they appeared (genuine grief varying in intensity and nature from moment to moment) which indicated that they were concentrating on appearing sad rather than actually being sad.
- In Home Improvement, Tim's boss and friend Mr. Binford passes away, and when he doesn't seem to be sad enough both Jill and Al get on his case about it. He doesn't see what the problem is if he doesn't get all weepy, but it then bothers him when his son seems to be learning the lesson that Men Don't Cry. For the record, Tim does eventually break down at the funeral. They also explain that the reason why Tim handles grief so well is that his dad died when he was pretty young and he knows how to cope.
- In Two and a Half Men, Evelyn's new husband Teddy dies before the wedding reception is even over. When she finds him lying dead in a bed (with his pants down and lipstick on his crotch), she picks up the phone... and calls the airline to trade her two plane tickets for a single first-class ticket. The police didn't look too fondly on that.
- On Murder, She Wrote Jessica becomes suspicious of a murdered actress's fiance because he does not seem broken up about the death and does not seem very concerned about what happens to the body. When Jessica confronts him about it, he gives her a philosophical spiel about the body being just an empty husk that does not mean anything to him. It turns out that the two were only pretending to be engaged so he would have a reason to hang around the theater where the actress worked. The man is writing a book about a famous star actress performing at the theater and the victim agreed to help him in return for him providing her with blackmail material she could use to get the role she wanted. He did not kill her.
- In Poirot's adaptation of Sad Cypress, one of the reason why the jury was quick to declare Elinor as guilty is because she showed no remorse to the death of Mary Gerrard. Mary was loved by practically everyone, including Elinor's fiance Roddy, and Elinor is the only one who could have the motive to murder the other girl. As it turns out, Elinor did want Mary to die, but did not commit the murder.
- Homicide Hunter: A cop working with Lt. Joe Kenda (the "hunter" in question) notes this as the reason why he's suspicious of a missing woman's husband—aside from the man's detached demeanor, the man hasn't followed up with the police once since reporting his wife missing several days ago—something highly unlikely for a concerned spouse.
- Cited on many crime shows, both fictional and real, as the reason why cops get suspicious of supposedly grieving loved ones.
- Inverted too—they get just as suspicious of people acting too upset, suspecting that they're putting on an act.
- Law & Order: UK. Prosecutor Alesha Philips becomes suspicious of the young woman they've charged with murder, who is claiming to have acted in self-defense after the victim raped her, noting that she's completely blase about having to testify, citing that most rape victims are usually terrified at the prospect—as she herself was.
- Imported from the Mother Ship from an episode in which Van Buren and the detectives suspect a girl claiming self-defense of being too calm in describing the alleged assault in front of her parents. An actual victim would be far too uncomfortable to recount it, especially in front of her father.
- In True Crime Files, a docu-series, there was an episode that dramatized the real life murder of Sylvia "Maggie" Locascio. When police were investigating the crime scene after the discovery of her body in her Florida mansion, her son Eddie Jr. came home and was stopped by police, who became suspicious by his seeming lack of surprise upon being informed of his mother's death. It was a Red Herring: Eddie was innocent, and the real killer was a hitman hired by his father who wanted to kill her over their very messy divorce proceedings.
- In Persona 4, Naoki Konishi deals with a variation of this, as the local gossips criticize him for not seeming 'sad enough' about his sister's murder. Reversing this, he criticizes them for acting like they really care about what happened when it's pretty clear they're just more interested in gossiping about it. The climax of his social link involves helping him mourn his loss by providing a truly sympathetic ear rather than acting judgmental and high-and-mighty while offering transparently fake comfort like the gossips.
- In Lunar: The Silver Star, Lemia Ausa accuses Alex of planning to overthrow the Magic Guild and Althena with absolutely nothing to back her claim, other than to point out how his lack of response afterward is proof that he cannot deny what he knows is true. She then promptly has him locked up and sentenced to death without even giving him a trial. Turns out she was Xenobia in disguise. She knew Alex had no plans to do anything of the sort, she was just using her position to get rid of a possible threat to Ghaleon and stir up unrest in Vane.
- Played with on Daria: in "The Misery Chick", when ace football star Tommy Sherman is killed when a goal post dedicated to him falls on him, at least four characters (Kevin, Britney, Mr. O'Neill, and Sandy) come to Daria asking for advice on how to cope, since she is reacting to the tragedy with such relative indifference.
- Parodied on a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons when the family hits Flanders with their car and apparently kill him. At the funeral Homer cautions that if they look too sad they'll draw suspicion. So they walk in with wide smiles.
- Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly accused and convicted of murdering her baby daughter, and the media made hay of the fact that she didn't act the way they thought was right. She was probably dazed or numb with grief, but to them, the fact that she wasn't bawling her eyes out made her guilty. She was eventually released... but all up, it was not one of the Australian legal system or media's proudest moments.
- This accusation was also leveled at the McCann parents about the still-unsolved disappearance of their child Madeleine in Portugal in 2007.
- While never accused of the crime (in fact she was one of the victims) something very close to this happened to Emma Jangestig in Sweden 2005. Jangestig and her two small children were assaulted by Christine Schürrer, an ex-girlfriend of the children's father. Schürrer bludgeoned Jangestig and her children with a hammer, killing the children and leaving the mother in a serious condition. In the aftermath of the crimes Jangestig was never seen crying in public and often smiled for the cameras when being interviewed, which sparked a large debate on whether she really cared about her children's deaths at all. Eventually Jangestig wrote a book titled "Varför gråter inte Emma?" ("Why Doesn't Emma Cry?") about the murders, her recovery in the hospital and the aftermath. As the title suggests, the book also deals with why she didn't cry in public and makes it clear that the loss of her children is the biggest tragedy of her life.
- This trope was in full effect and immediately noted by the police officers who responded to Scott Peterson's house when he reported his wife Laci missing, who was also pregnant with his unborn child. They both noted his calm demeanor, and when they went to check the garage, Peterson was more concerned with making certain they didn't scratch the paint on one of his cars then seeing if Laci had been in there.
- Josh Powell couldn't even be bothered to act concerned about his missing wife Susan, offering the cops vague, ridiculous answers as to what could have happened to her and even saying he wanted to "wait a few days" before coming to the police station and speaking with them some more.
- The controversial case of Amanda Knox largely revolves around this concept - Amanda's roommate Meredith was found murdered in her room, and Amanda and her boyfriend were suspected of being involved, even after another man confessed to being responsible for the killing and was convicted. Knox and her boyfriend were originally found guilty and imprisoned, then acquitted, but the Italian police still insist they are guilty. Their main reason for believing this? Knox was not seen to be truly grieving over the murder, as she was seen the day after hugging and kissing her boyfriend in public, and doing jumping jacks in the police station between interviews. Because no one who had just had a person close to them horribly killed would ever want to seek some comfort in someone they felt safe with, or gotten bored sitting around having nothing to do.
- The DA who prosecuted Susan Smith for murdering her sons claims to have known she was guilty from the very night she was claiming they'd been kidnapped when he watched the interview they gave to the news. While her estranged husband David looked legitimately terrified, she could be seen smiling and giggling "We're going to be on TV!"
- She had a similar reaction when the detective questioning her asked her if the alleged carjacker had sexually assaulted her, piquing his suspicions as well.
- The same DA also doubted that she had any remorse for her actions as she claimed, noting during her trial, while a tape simulating how her children drowned was played, she played tic-tac-toe.
- Truth in Television. This has been cited on many crime shows as the reason why cops get suspicious of supposedly grieving loved ones. Conversely, cops have also gotten leery of those who are overly upset, feeling that they are putting on an act.
- The murder of Kristine Fitzhugh is an inversion. Her husband, Kenneth, staged the scene to look like she'd fallen on the basement stairs due to unstable shoes he said he'd warned her about. His performance in the interview room trying to sell the story was an over-the-top scenery-chewing performance (including Milking the Giant Cow) that has to be seen to be believed. Needless to say, no one believed it.
- In reality, if you're going to be murdered, chances are it's going to be by someone close to you, so the cops have to suspect them in any case, regardless of emotional reaction. Though they might feel bad about having to do it if they show just the right kind of reaction.
- Lowell Lee Andrews had a completely apathetic reaction to the death of his family, telling the cop "look inside" and saying he didn't care how his family was buried. The family minister was able to get him to confess and he was later hanged for the crime.