Nosy Pokes Will Peek Through Their Shutters and Their Eyes Will Pop*

BusybodiesWhen police investigate a crime, one of the things they spend a lot of time doing is talking to neighbours and other witnesses. And in most cases, somebody has seen something. That’s one reason why the police find so useful the kind of witness who looks out windows, pays attention to other people’s doings – in short, a busybody. There really are people in real life who notice everything going on in the block and who can let you know who comes, who goes and when. And of course, the busybody is a staple of crime fiction. I’ve only space for a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to think of far more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, special agent Colin Lamb is following up a lead on a case in the town of Crowdean. He’s especially interested in a neighbourhood called Wilbraham Crescent, which is where he is when a young woman named Sheila Webb runs out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb goes into the house to find out that she’s right. The dead man has no identification and nobody seems to know him. What’s more, none of the neighbours seems to have seen anything helpful. There are a few odd little facts about the case, so Lamb takes it to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot takes an interest in the case and puts the pieces of it together. The one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit into place at first is exactly how the dead man got into the house. Lamb gets unexpected help in that matter from ten-year-old Geraldine Brown, who lives in a flat right across the way from the crescent. She’s laid up with a broken leg and spends a lot of time looking out her window with an opera glass. It turns out that her observations are both detailed and useful…

In Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team have several cases on their hands that turn out to be related. One of them is the case of the strangling murder of Annette Bystock, who was home sick when she was killed in her bed. She worked at the local Employment Bureau, but no-one there had a grudge against her or a real motive for murder. There are very few clues as to who killed her or why, but Wexford thinks her death may related to the disappearance of twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande. Melanie disappeared shortly after a meeting with Bystock at the Bureau and hasn’t been seen since. In making the rounds of the neighbours, Wexford’s colleague Mike Burden meets retiree Percy Hammond, who lives next door to the victim and spends a lot of time looking out his window. Hammond is able to give Burden and the team some valuable information which they’re later able to put into the larger perspective of the case.

One plot thread in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief concerns the murder of retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora. He’s killed one morning in the elevator of his apartment building and of course, none of the neighbours admits to seeing anything. Little by little, Inspector Salvo Montalbano connects that murder with the case of a Tunisian sailor who was shot while working on an Italian fishing boat, and a young boy who seems to have no family and no history. One of the keys to this case is a set of things that happened at Lapècora’s office, which he visited from time to time although he was officially retired. And that’s where Clemintina Vasile Cozzo comes in handy. She’s a retired teacher who’s not in good health and doesn’t always sleep nights. And because she’s still curious about the world, she looks out her window and watches what happens. And she’s got some valuable information to share with Montalbno. 

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces us to Sven Andersson and the Violent Crimes Unit of Göteborg’s police force. The team investigates the death of financier Richard von Knecht, who jumped (or fell, or was pushed) off the balcony of his penthouse. One of the witnesses is Fru Eva Karlsson, who was standing not far from where the body landed. So Inspector Irene Huss takes the time to go and visit her. Fru Karlsson is a widow without much opportunity for socialising, so she’s delighted to have a visitor. On the one hand, the interview takes a lot of Huss’ time, and what’s more, Fru Karlsson is overgenerous with the pastries and coffee she offers (Yes, there is such a thing ;-) ). On the other, she is an observant person who spends a lot of time noticing what goes on outside her window. So she has valuable information to offer.

Sometimes busybodies can also be interesting ‘regulars’ in, especially, cosy mysteries. In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series for instance, we meet Erma Sherman. She lives next door to retired school teacher Myrtle Clover in small-town Bradley, North Carolina.  Erma means well – she really does – but she has taken it upon herself to look after Myrtle, something that the independent Myrtle does not always appreciate. Erma pays attention to everything she sees Myrtle do, mostly by peeking through her curtains. It gets very aggravating sometimes, but there are advantages to living next door to Erma. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle borrows Erma’s car as she pursues her own investigation into the murder of a successful but malicious real estate developer.

We may get annoyed by people who don’t mind their own business. But the reality is, the police depend on folks like that to give them valuable information about cases. And if you think about novels such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, where there’s a good argument that someone should have minded others’ business, you see that busybodies have an important role to play.


Wait – hold on a sec – I think I just saw my neighbour leaving. Wonder where she’s going… ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Surrey With the Fringe on Top.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Cath Staincliffe, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, Ruth Rendell

21 responses to “Nosy Pokes Will Peek Through Their Shutters and Their Eyes Will Pop*

  1. Off-topic a bit, Margot, but your song quote today corrected a mistake I’ve been making (and hearing) for a great many years. I thought the line was “nosy FOLKS will peek through the shutters.” When I saw your quote, I went and checked the printed lyrics. “Pokes.” Checked the original (78 RPM!) cast recording by Alfred Drake. “Pokes.” Checked the fine cover recording by the late Nancy Lamott. “Pokes.” After all these years, you have managed to teach me the CORRECT lyrics to a Rodgers and Hammerstein song I thought I knew very well! (On the plus side, it proves one is never too old to learn…) ;-)

    • Les – Glad you enjoyed that lyric. I checked it in a few places before I posted it because it’s not what you’d automatically think. And it sounds as though you really did your ‘homework’ checking it over too, for which thanks. And trust me, you’re not the only one who’s heard lyric differently to the way they were written.

  2. To return to the topic at hand, I suspect that there is room for both amateur and professional busybodies in detective fiction. (I wonder if that’s why British police were sometimes unflatteringly referred to as “busies” by assorted fictional crooks.) Christie’s Miss Marple is the perfect example of the amateur busybody, who keeps her finger on the community’s pulse through gossip. On the professional side, we have both Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver (a private investigator whose “little old lady” appearance allows her to eavesdrop on suspects quite neatly) and Dorothy L. Sayers’ marvelous Miss Climpson, who is put to work by Lord Peter Wimsey to collect apparent gossip and otherwise hidden facts. They are all marvelous characters!

    • Les – Oh, I like Miss Climpson very much. She’s a busybody of course, but somehow, she gets away with it. Quite skilled that way, I think, and Sayers wrote her well. And yes of course, Miss Marple is the classic sort of busybody who seems to know everything about everyone. And she gets away with it for the most part.
      And you know, I hadn’t thought about the term ‘busies’ before, but that makes sense.

  3. So good to read your posts at leisure again, now I’m back home (for a few days only, though). The classic ‘nosy parker’ that I can think of is of course the James Steward character in the Hitchcock film ‘Rear Window’. In crime fiction novels there are plenty of ‘nosy’ amateur detectives – one of the recent ones I’ve had fun with is Thea Osborne, house-sitter and meddler, in Rebecca Tope’s Cotswold Murder mysteries.

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you. Glad you are enjoying the posts. And I absolutely love both Rear Window and your use of it as an example. Yes indeed, Stewart is a busybody in that film. And it’s interesting how he manages to stir the whole situation up just because of what he notices. It’s a great example of how a busybody can do that. Oh, and thanks for mentioning the Rebecca Tope mysteries. I like the Thea Osborne character and yes, she does poke her nose in, doesn’t she??

  4. Like Marina Sofia, I immediately thought of Rear Window, the ultimate nosey neighbour movie. And also of course Miss Marple, who always knows what’s going on in the village. In the first of her books, Murder at the Vicarage, she walks around with binoculars because she is so keen on ‘bird-watching’ – but no-one is fooled for a moment, they know she uses them for spying. I don’t recall that coming up in later books, but it always makes me laugh in the first one.

    • Moira – Rear Window is such classic Hitchcock, isn’t it? It’s got a lot of layers, etc., to it, not the least of which is that whole theme of the nosey neighbour. And it’s funny you’d mention the binoculars in Murder at the Vicarage. I’ve often thought that Miss Marple comes off as more nosey and less, well, human and compassionate in that one than she did in later novels. But yes the whole ‘bird watching’ thing is funny because, as you say, no-one’s fooled at all.

  5. Although I can think of no examples, it seems like often in mysteries it is the snoopy neighbor who notices the small thing that leads to solving the case. A useful and plausible plot device. Nice examples above, and except for the one I have read (Detective Inspector Huss), all of them are books I want to read someday.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. You’re right about the nosey neighbour scenario too. It really is believable that there would be a character like that, because there are real people like that. And it is indeed a plausible way to discover a clue or a piece of evidence.

  6. The little old lady (or man) who sits at the window watching the world go by is a classic crime witness. See it all the time on TV.

    • Pat – That’s a very good point. That sort of character really is a staple, and if done well, is an interesting character too. And you do see it a lot on TV, don’t you?

  7. Margot: I am going to comment on small communities where everybody knows what is going on in everyone’s life.

    In the Chief Inspector Gamache series of Louise Penny the fictional village of Three Pines is full of individuals who are always checking out their neighbours. From Gabi and Olivier at the bistro / B & B to Clara and David to Ruth and her duck to Myrna the villagers know what is happening around them.

    In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee the street in the small Alabama town on which Scout Finch lives with her father, Atticus, and her brother, Jem, has numerous ladies of a certain age who know exactly what Scout is up to each day. I can see Scout growing up to be a woman who has to know everyone’s business.

    When I grew up in a small community I considered it natural to know everything about your neighbours. Overall I thought it was positive as it showed we cared about each other.

    • Bill – You have a very well-taken point about the way people get to know one another’s business in small communities. Your comments about both the Louise Penny series and To Kill a Mockingbird make me also think about the small community of Crooked Lake in Nelson Brunanski’s novels. People get to know each other there very well, and everyone knows each other’s business. As you say, that’s a sign of caring about one another. Of course, it means everyone knows your business, too…

  8. I love The Clocks although it often gets poor reviews. I love Geraldine Brown as a character with her dippy au pair.

    • Sarah – You’re right; The Clocks hasn’t gotten the strongest reviews in the world, but it’s got a lot to recommend it I think. And yes, Geraldine’s relationship with her au pair is very well done. I like Geraldine’s sly sense of humour too. Christie captured the ten-year-old’s view of life quite effectively I think.

  9. kathy d.

    Rear Window is so good! We all watch it over and over.
    In a big city where people don’t always know their neighbors, nor do we have extensive conversations with any of them, there are other dynamics at play. (I don’t even know who’s on the elevator half the time as so many people come in and out of my building.)
    People have strong privacy needs and boundary issues. Even in a small town, I’d imagine those are factors in addition to the nosiness. So, many people keep to themselves and like it that way. Not too many Jimmy Stewarts around in Manhattan anyway. I’d imagine in other boroughs where there are actual houses, people still sit on the porch or at windows and watch the neighbors go by.

    • Kathy – You have a good point about a lot of people wanting their privacy. I’d guess that probably does make it harder to thrive in a small town where you almost can’t help knowing everybody’s business. Maybe that’s in a lot of places in NYC, people remain anonymous when they can. And yet there are of course smaller communities (like Brighton Beach) where people do know each other. Interesting point.

  10. Col

    Kerrrigan’s The Rage springs to mind with the reluctant witness as opposed to the nosey neighbour.

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