Most 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.