When 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.