Category Archives: Kate Atkinson

I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay

You Know Everything’s Coming Together Now*

Story PiecesSome crime novels don’t follow a strictly linear plot. Rather, the reader is given various pieces of a story and as the story goes on, sees how those pieces fit together. That sort of plot takes a deft hand, because it’s important that the story not seem chaotic. But when the plot makes sense overall, and when the reader is willing to ‘let go’ and let the pieces fall together, this kind of story can make an interesting alternative to the traditional, more linear plot.

Agatha Christie sometimes experimented with not-exactly-linear plots. For instance, Sad Cypress begins as Elinor Carlisle, on trial for murder, is asked to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of poisoning Mary Gerrard. Then, in flashback form, we learn a bit more about Elinor and about her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. In bits and pieces, we learn about Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura too, and we see how her history relates to those of Elinor and Roddy. When Aunt Laura is taken ill, both young people go to visit her and readers follow along as they renew their acquaintance with Mary, who’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter at Aunt Laura’s home. Roddy finds himself infatuated with Mary and that’s used against Elinor when she is later arrested for poisoning Mary. Dr. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. As Poiroit does, we very slowly see the bits and pieces of this story fall together. In the end, we learn how past relationships have led to both Aunt Laura’s death and Mary’s. The story isn’t really told chronologically, but it does make sense as the pieces are slowly fitted together.

That’s also true of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. The story’s focus is a car accident in which Paul Bradley, who’s driving a silver Peugeot, is hit from behind by the driver of a blue Honda. The two men get into a loud argument and the other driver soon wields a baseball bat with which he intends to kill Bradley. As one would expect, a crowd has gathered by now. One of the onlookers is mystery novelist Martin Canning, who’s never done a brave thing in his life. But almost by instinct he throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Watching all of this is former cop-turned-PI Jackson Brodie. With this background laid, Atkinson goes on to tell the story of how each character came to be at the scene of the accident, why the accident happened, and what happens to each person as a result. Atkinson doesn’t tell these stories in a linear way. Rather, each piece of the story is explored, and then we slowly see how all of the pieces fit together. And yet, the main plot – what led to the car crash and what resulted from it – isn’t ‘lost in the shuffle.’

Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi is concerned because he hasn’t been home for a few days, so she goes to the police. At first there’s not much cause for worry. There are many reasons why a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother. But when more time goes by, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into the matter. One important source of information is his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. But Zipp claims that he doesn’t know where Andreas is. Sejer is fairly certain that Zipp knows more than he’s telling and Sejer’s right. As the story unfolds, we follow the events of the last day Zipp and Andreas spent together. We also follow the lives of some of the people with whom they interacted. There’s also the thread of the ongoing interaction between Zipp and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out what really happened. Fossum doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Rather, each piece of the story slowly adds to the whole picture that we get of what happened to Andreas.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to Thea Farmer, who has left her job as a school principal and had a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Then she suffers a financial setback and has to sell her perfect home. She moves instead to the house next door which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, a new couple Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream house. Right from the start Thea doesn’t like them; in fact she refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Bit by bit though she establishes a kind of rapport with Frank. And then when  Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them, Thea forms a kind of bond with her too. It’s that bond that leads Thea to a fateful decision when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice may not be providing an appropriate home environment for Kim. This story isn’t really told in a linear way. We go back and forth and pick up bits and pieces as we learn Thea’s story. Slowly, we learn why she stopped teaching, why Kim moved in with her uncle, and what happens when Thea decides to take matters with her neighbours into her own hands. Duigan uses Thea’s responses to prompts from her writing coach to tell the story, so interspersed through the novel are also scenes from her writing class. It all comes together, but not in a linear way.

That’s also true of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. The focal point of the novel is the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family. They’ve all been poisoned and several of them stabbed as well. What’s more, a devastating fire, presumably set to cover up the murders, has destroyed much of the home. The main suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but there are also signs that she could very well have been a victim too, but just happened to survive. The major problem is that Durga hasn’t said anything about the events of that night, and without her telling what she knows, the police can’t make any progress on the case. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to work with Durga in the hopes that she’ll be able to get the girl to discuss the murders. Bit by bit, Simran does find out what happened on the night of the murders. She also finds out some very disturbing things about the Atwal family and about the local community. The story isn’t told in chronological order, although we do follow the events logically. Rather, we learn bits and pieces as Simran does.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those stories are also not always told in chronological, linear order. Rather, we meet characters and see some events from their perspectives. Then we follow along as the members of Adamsberg’s team get involved in cases. Bit by bit the pieces fall together and we learn how everything fits in. But the stories aren’t told in sequence.

It’s not easy to tell a coherent story that really falls together without using a fairly chronological approach. But when the author does it skillfully and without losing sight of the main plot, it can be a very interesting alternative to more typical storytelling approaches. What do you think? Do you like this approach to storytelling or do you prefer a more linear one? If you’re a writer, do you experiment with this kind of approach?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Anthem-Revelation.


Filed under Fred Vargas, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Kishwar Desai, Virginia Duigan

I Make Such Pretty Speeches*

SpeechesDo you feel comfortable speaking in public? No? Well if you don’t, you’re not alone. The most common fear, so we’re told, is the fear of speaking in public. But the fact is that nearly all of us have to make a presentation, give a speech or in some other way speak in public at least sometimes. You might think that sleuths, both real and fictional, wouldn’t have to do this but they do. In fact, the ability to speak comfortably in public can make a real difference in a case even if it doesn’t lead to major clues.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers for instance, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander and his team have a very difficult case on their hands. Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked on their rural farm. Johannes is dead, but Maria lives long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There’s a lot of simmering resentment against foreigners in Sweden and this lurid case will not help matters at all. In fact it leads to another death. So Wallander has to do the best he can to put out the proverbial flames in all of his public comments. He doesn’t relish the prospect of making public speeches; he’d rather be solving the case. But if he doesn’t talk to the press, the anti-immigration hysteria will only get worse, and so will the perception that the police aren’t doing anything to solve the murders. So a couple of  times in this novel, Wallander has to update the media on what the team is doing and at the same time discount the theory that the only solution to the case is to go after foreigners and immigrants.

We see a similar use of public speaking skill in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs.  When the gruesome discovery of a left foot clad in a training shoe is made near the Norwegian town of Stavern, Inspector William Wisting and his team are put on the case. Soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then there’s another discovery. Soon, there are several theories about the deaths. One is that a twisted kind of killer is at loose, and that of course makes the locals very uneasy. So one of the jobs that the police have to accomplish is to reassure everyone that people are safe, and that the police are doing everything possible to find out what happened to the victims To that end, Wisting has to give more than one public speech to the press. He’s hardly frightened of doing so, but he is concerned about giving the right impression. So he thinks carefully about what he’s going to tell the media, and he considers his presentations before he gives them. In order to try to find out whom the feet might belong to, Wisting’s team looks at all of the people reported missing in the last year. As it turns out, most of them come from the same elder care home, so the team starts to focus its investigation there. What’s more, most of the people have a connection that goes back to the days of World War II, so there is a possibility that these deaths are connected to some long-ago events. Wisting’s public speaking doesn’t solve the crimes, but it does keep people calm enough to let the police do their jobs.

There’s quite a lot of public speaking in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political science expert and an academician. So of course as a professor she does her share of public speaking in class, at conferences and so on. But it goes further than that. As the series featuring her goes on, she gets a position at NationTV on a political discussion show. And in A Killing Spring, it’s that forum that allows her to unsettle the killer of a colleague Reed Gallagher enough for that person to admit guilt. She arranges to make it clear to the killer that she knows what happened to Gallagher, and it’s very interesting to see how she uses the very public nature of NationTV to do so. This series also shows how dangerous public speaking can be. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in case some of you are really nervous about speaking to an audience but in Deadly Apperances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn novels, her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during an important political speech. Trust me, though; poisoning isn’t common during speeches. Really. It’s not.

One of the hardest things to do – even harder really than simply speaking in public – is to be funny in public. Standup comedians have to do ‘double duty.’ They have to be comfortable speaking in public and they have to think of material that will keep people laughing. That’s what Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes faces in Orloff’s Last Laff series. The Last Laff is a comedy club in Northern Virginia that’s co-owned by Hayes and Artie Worsham. In Killer Routine, one of the comics Heather Dempsey disappears just before she’s supposed to do her routine. At first it looks as though she got too nervous at the last moment and simply fled. But Hayes doesn’t think so. Heather is the sister of Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey, who was killed in a tragic car accident, so he feels a special need to find Heather and see that she’s all right. It turns out though that he’s not the only one looking for Heather. She’s been keeping some secrets of her own, and Hayes will have to look more closely into her life if he’s going to find out what happened to her. At the same time, he’s been battling back from that same car wreck that killed his fiancée. He’s had to deal with guilt, grief, physical wounds and more, so he’s been very uncomfortable about going on stage again. This novel gives an interesting look at what it’s like for a nervous comic to take (or re-take) the stage.

Even mystery novelists have to do their share of speaking in public. Just ask Martin Canning, whom we meet in Kate Atkinsons’s One Good Turn. He’s a crime fiction writer who’s scheduled to appear as part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning isn’t much of a one at all for public speaking. He’d rather live in the dream world he’s created with his novels than in the real one most of the time. But his agent has convinced him that he’ll benefit greatly from the publicity that comes from making public speeches. So he agrees to go. When he gets to Edinburgh, Canning witnesses a car accident between a blue Honda and silver Peugeot. Both drivers get out of their cars and within seconds they’re arguing. Then, the driver of the Honda wields a baseball bat and tries to attack Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his computer case at the Honda driver and saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound to be sure Bradley is safe, Canning accompanies him to the local hospital. That’s how Canning gets drawn into a case of murder, deception and theft. In the light of the rest of the story, joining in a panel of crime writers, even in public, is not so scary…

But many people do find public speaking quite difficult. Do you? Which novels have you read where it plays a role?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon’s I Can’t Begin to Tell You.


Filed under Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Henning Mankell, Jørn Lier Horst, Kate Atkinson

We’ll Search for Tomorrow on Every Shore*

Adventures Are you the adventurous type? Some people like to dare themselves to do new things. Other people are more cautious. And of course there are strong arguments for both ways of thinking. Being adventurous leads to what can be fantastic experiences. It can also lead to an awful lot of danger and consequences for others. On the other hand being cautious means less danger and more reflection, which can be easier on one’s stress level. Caution can also mean one misses out on some amazing experiences. And too much caution can be its own kind of trap. But either type of person can make for an interesting character in crime fiction, especially if the adventurous/cautious trait isn’t carried too far.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Beddingfeld, who has to begin life on her own after her father’s death. She’s left with very little money and no strong personal ties, so it’s not long before she decides to get out and see what the world has to offer. She’s at a tube station one day when she sees a man fall to the tracks in what looks at first like a terrible accident. When a piece of paper falls out of the victim’s pocket, Anne picks it up and by chance, figures out that the note on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse she books passage on the ship and soon gets herself mixed up in a case involving stolen diamonds and international crime. Anne’s adventurous nature makes sense given her age and her circumstances and in this story it works.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we meet Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who enjoys taking risks. He’s very much the easily bored type who’s always up for an adventure. He’s somewhat of a non-conformist and doesn’t have a lot of close friends, but he is good friends with Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Together the two of them go drinking, try new things and so on. Occasionally they get into trouble, but usually it’s nothing terribly serious. Then one day Andreas’ adventurous nature pushes him and Zipp into some dangerous adventures that go too far. Certainly they go farther than Zipp intended. At the end of that day Andreas disappears. His mother Runi worries about her son and goes to the police, but the police don’t take her concerns seriously at first. Then when more time passes and Andreas still hasn’t returned, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into what happened. Zipp is in the best position to know exactly where his friend is and what happened but he’s completely unwilling to co-operate (And no, it’s not because he killed Andreas. He didn’t). Bit by bit though, Sejer and Skarre learn about the kind of person Andreas is, and they find out the truth about his disappearance. In this case, Andreas’ adventurous personality fuels what happens in the book and makes sense.

So does Sam Bretton’s adventurousness in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Sam is the daughter of Alan ‘Tug’ Bretton, captain of Sea Mistress, a fishing trawler based in Brisbane. When Bretton is accused of murdering Ewan McKay, deckhand from another ship, Sam takes his place as skipper. She’s actually got two motives for doing that. One is that if the family boat doesn’t go out, creditors may take it. The other is that she knows her father isn’t guilty of murder and wants to find out who really killed Ewan McKay. What Sam doesn’t know at first is that Chayse Jarrett, the deckhand’s she’s just hired for this trip, is an undercover cop who’s been assigned to find out whether Bretton killed McKay and whether Sea Mistress is involved in recent drugs activity in the area. First separately and then together, Sam Bretton and Chayse Jarrett look for the murderer and go up against some fairly nasty drugs smugglers. In this novel, Sam Bretton’s adventurousness makes sense; she’s the daughter of a fishing boat captain and she’s been to sea many times. For her, risk is a part of life, and Curtis doesn’t make her completely foolhardy. So we can believe that someone like Sam Bretton could exist.

But of course not all fictional protagonists, even in murder mysteries, are that adventurous. For instance, in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we meet mystery novelist Martin Canning. He’s never been one to take risks. In fact, he’s happiest when he’s safely writing his novels that take place in a very ‘safe’ environment. Then one day he happens to be ‘on the scene’ when Paul Bradley brakes his silver Peugot in time to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The car behind Bradley’s, a blue Honda, doesn’t stop and hits the Peugot. The two men get into an argument that ends with the Honda driver brandishing a baseball bat. Now Bradley is in danger for his life and Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his laptop case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of duty, Canning accompanies Bradley to a local hospital to make sure he’s all right, and that’s how Canning gets drawn into a complicated web of fraud, theft and murder. It adds a real level of tension to this novel to see how the completely unadventurous Canning reacts to this adventure that’s been forced on him.

That happens in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move too. Science fiction writer Zach Walker moves his family from what he sees as the too-dangerous city to a newly-developed suburb called Valley Forest Estates. Walker may write about scary science fiction creatures but in his real life he’s a very cautious person who avoids risks whenever he can. In a bitter twist of irony, he gets drawn into a frightening adventure when he goes to the community’s main sales office one day to lodge a complaint. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the community’s developers and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker is the one who finds Spender’s body lying in a local creek. Now, despite his best efforts, Walker gets involved in that murder and another one, as well as a case of fraud and corruption. Walker’s cautious nature highlights the irony that adds some ‘life’ and humour to this novel.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychologist Stephanie Anderson has to face her own over-cautious self. She’s been cautious and careful – certainly not spontaneous – since her younger sister Gemma was abducted seventeen years earlier. No trace of Gemma was ever found, not even a body. Stephanie’s gone on with her life as best she could, but she’s been cautious and careful, especially about relationships. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily like her own. Elizabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted several years earlier and in that case too, no trace of the child was ever found. When she really absorbs this story, Anderson decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and look for the person responsible for both girls’ disappearances. Her choice leads her on a trip from Dunedin, where she lives and works, back to Wanaka, where she grew up. Along the way she finds the ability to let go and have an adventure, as well as the courage to face her past. In this novel there’s a clear connection between Anderson’s cautious nature and her past; her personality makes perfect sense and works for the story. So does her evolution as the story goes on.

2013 global reading challenge

What about you? Do you take on adventures? Even if you don’t in your real life, you can in the books you read. How? Let me suggest the 2013 Global Reading Challenge, being hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. This challenge invites you to read books from all over the world and gives you the chance to have some adventures without actually being in any danger. Well, unless you count the danger of missing your bus, tram or train stop because you’re caught up in a story. ;-)    Go ‘head – check it out! Find out more information and give it a go. Dare ya!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Come Sail Away.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

How Can You Just Walk Away From Me*

TurningawayMost of us would like to think we’d step in to help if someone were in danger or worse. And yet, it’s not that simple. We’ve all read of cases where bystanders do nothing to try to save someone in peril and it’s easy to say that the bystanders should have done something. In some cases it’s true that bystanders are at least partly to blame when someone is hurt or killed. In other cases though, it’s more complicated than that. It’s another example really to show that snap judgements aren’t always accurate. A quick look at crime fiction shows that that sort of thing happens in stories just as it does in real life, and the picture can be just as complex in fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to heart failure. But it’s not long before it’s proven that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, works with Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp and Scotland Yard authorities to find out who the killer is. They already know that the only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so they begin to look into each suspect’s background. And in the end, it’s that background and history that prove to be the key to the murder. What’s interesting here is that only one suspect is guilty (I think I can say that without spoiling the story). The other suspects are innocent. And yet, they do nothing to help the victim. It’s not that they’re cold or unfeeling. Several factors are at work here. First, no-one except the killer is aware that Madame Giselle, as she is known professionally, is in danger. And when she is actually poisoned, no-one can easily hear what’s going on. Air travel at the time Christie wrote this was louder than it is now, so it was harder to hear ambient noise. And the process of killing the victim doesn’t take long. So although you might wonder why in the world nobody stepped in to help, when you think about it, it wouldn’t have been easy to do so.

There’s a sort of similarity in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue (AKA Killer in the Crowd), in which Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant is given a most unusual case. Small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is one of a large group of people waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see a performance of Didn’t You Know?, a very popular play. The crowd is restless and when the doors finally open, everyone surges forward to take seats. In that rush forward, Sorrell is stabbed from behind and killed. The murder happens in front of dozens of witnesses, none of whom tries to prevent the murder or grab the killer. These people aren’t all heartless folks who refuse to help. For the most part, they’re quite absorbed in what they’re doing and not even aware that Sorrell’s been stabbed until the killer’s gotten away. And they remain self-absorbed as Grant begins to investigate. A few of them are more concerned about being dragged into an investigation than they are about finding the person who killed Sorrell. But most of them simply didn’t pay attention to what was going on until the victim was already dead. The killer chose a moment when everyone was concentrating on getting into the building.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is the story of a car accident in Edinburgh and the events that led up to it and follow from it. Paul Bradley is at the wheel of his silver Peugot when he comes close to hitting a pedestrian. He brakes suddenly to prevent that from happening and is hit from behind by a blue Honda. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. The Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and begins to attack Bradley. The accident happens on a busy street at a busy time of day, so there are plenty of witnesses to what happens. But only one person, crime writer Martin Canning, does anything about it. Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver and knocks him down, saving Bradley’s life. The police respond to the accident and the fight and Bradley is taken to hospital. Canning goes along out of a sense of obligation and thereby gets drawn into a web of theft, fraud and murder. As the novel moves on we learn about several of the witnesses to the accident and the argument. None of them is a thoroughly bad or uncaring person, so why don’t more people do something? In some cases it’s because the Honda driver looks threatening and people don’t want to be his next victim. In a few others, it’s lack of awareness of what was really going on. It’s an interesting case too of being people being ‘frozen on the spot’ and not able to act right away.

There’s a death witnessed by several people in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in a Crowd, too. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro makes a visit to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to see Inspector Espinosa. She is told he’s in a meeting and can’t be disturbed, so she agrees to come back a little later. Shortly after her visit to the police station, Dona Laura falls – or is pushed – under a bus. When Espinosa learns that the woman who wanted to talk to him has been killed, it doesn’t take much time for him to conclude that she was murdered. So he and his team trace her last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted to kill an inoffensive elderly woman. Dona Laura’s death is witnessed by people waiting for the bus and by people in the bus. So why doesn’t anybody do anything to prevent it? One reason is of course the physical danger. Most of us don’t want to be killed. Another reason is that it happens too quickly to give anyone time to react. And like most of us, the witnesses are minding their own business right before Dona Laura is killed. They aren’t paying much attention to her. So they don’t notice what happens until it’s too late.

Sometimes people don’t do anything to help someone in real danger because of the risk to themselves. They are very much afraid of what will happen if they step in. For instance, in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children have gone out to a restaurant to celebrate Dell’s birthday. They’re taking a drive afterwards when they’re ambushed. Their Volvo is sent over a ridge, killing Rosie and the children. Dell survives and tries to flag down help. Another family passing by has witnessed what happened, and Dell tries to wave them over for help. But they drive right past although they’ve seen him. Why?


‘This was South Africa where Good Samaritans were gunpointed at fake accident scenes.’


Dell manages to survive and the police investigate the ambush. Then Dell finds himself accused of the murders of his family members. He knows he’s been framed, but no-one will believe him. His father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged for years, engineers his escape from prison and the two go in search of the real killer. Throughout this novel there are other points too where witnesses see things they could have prevented – but don’t. And it’s all for a very similar reason. Getting involved like that can get you killed.

Most of us don’t want to believe that we’d turn away and do nothing if someone were in desperate need of help. And those who do step up and help are, in my mind, to be admired and respected. But sometimes the decision of whether and to what extent to get involved isn’t an easy one.

For another really interesting perspective on bystanders who witness a crime and don’t act, check out this terrific post by Les Blatt of Classic Mysteries. It deals with the 1964 real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, and the controversy her death raised. Go ‘head, check it out. Oh, and follow Les’ blog while you’re at it. It’s worthy of being on every crime fiction fan’s blog roll.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Kate Atkinson, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Roger Smith