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

12 responses to “How Can You Just Walk Away From Me*

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Margot. Your post raises a lot of good points. Very often, a situation seems very clearly delineated – “right” vs. “wrong,” “black” vs. “white,” but on closer examination those sharp lines are really blurred. Would I have the courage, if I felt my life would be at risk, to go help a stranger? I’d like to think that I would, but I certainly can’t be sure of it; self-preservation remains a powerful and necessary force for all of us. I’m glad you pointed out how often that’s the case in mystery fiction as well.

    • Les – Oh, my pleasure – your blog is an excellent resource and it’s well-written. It’s synergy isn’t it that we decided to address the same topic today. You’re right too. Much as we want to think we would do whatever it took to save someone in dire need, it’s hard to say exactly what we’d do with real certainty. The best I can do is hope I’d step up to help. As you say self-preservation is a powerful force. That’s what makes this a real question and that’s part of what makes it really interesting in crime fiction – at least to me.

  2. Great post Margot, such moral quandries are the thing of great fiction and in real life truly sleepless nights – and thanks for the link to Les’ post. I have always been interested in that notorious case ever since reading Harlan Ellison fabulous story on the same theme, ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. You’re quite right that this kind of quandary is the sort of thing that makes for excellent fiction but those gut-wrenching moments too. Thanks also for pointing me to the Ellison story. I must read that. And if you aren’t already familiar with Les’ blog, I’m sure you’ll find lots to like there, including today’s post.

  3. I’ve often wondered what I would do myself in such a situation. I think I would have been braver when I was younger and didn’t have children, now I feel I have to survive for their sake. Or is that just a convenient excuse?
    One other example that comes to mind is Maria Wern in Anna Jansson’s ‘Killer Island’, who intervenes to rescue a boy being beaten up by a gang (she is a policewoman, after all, although this is on her night off). She ends up being stabbed with a blood-filled syringe for her efforts.

    • Marina Sofia – That’s a really interesting question you ask: are people more likely to step in to help when they are younger and don’t have families? I’d have to think about whether that would have been true of me. I want to think I would help, but I can’t be 100% sure I would. And your example of Killer Island is exactly the sort of thing one reads of in a novel or the newspaper that makes people hesitate to help. It’s not an easy question.

  4. kathy d.

    This is a tough topic. I remember the Kitty Genovese case, didn’t live too far from where that horrific attack happened. Why no one did anything is beyond me, even calling the police.
    I’ve seen people try to intervene and stop assaults, or walk people home when something not-too-safe may be starting nearby.
    I see on the blogosphere reviews of Cath Staincliffe’s new book Split Second, which deals with these issues. I will get this book somehow!

    • Kathy – It is a difficult topic isn’t it? We’d all like to think we’d step in if someone desperately needed help, and as you point out, there are people who do just that. But sometimes it’s not so easy. I don’t know either why nobody did anything when Kitty Genovese was murdered. I’ve heard that in fact a few people did try to do something. I don’t know how true any of that is, honestly. And I’m glad you mentioned Split Second; I’d like to give that a try, too.

  5. I suppose we all like to think that someone else will step in so we don’t have to. I recently heard John Banville speak at an event (who writes crime fic as Benjamin Black) who said that growing up in Ireland everyone knew about the sexual abuse of children by priests but no-one did anything about it. It’s almost a collective turning away of something everyone knows about.

    • Sarah – Oh, that must have been a very interesting talk Banville gave. And that’s a horrifying but very well-chosen example of exactly the kind of thing I mean. People know that terrible abuse went on but as you say, no-one did anything. I hope those who became victims and then survivors will find some peace now that it’s all out.

  6. There are more good Samaritans in fiction than in real life. For instance, In Bombay, people are willing to rush to another’s aid, say, during a mishap on the street, but what most often holds them back is assisting the police later on which is considered as a mild form of harassment, since you then have to give a statement to the cops, visit the police station often, and generally be available as a witness that people just don’t have time for.

    • Prashant – That’s a very interesting point – people may in fact be willing to help others in trouble. But it’s the concern about being harassed by the police that may hold them back. And I’m sure that’s not just limited to Bombay…

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