Nobody Paid Attention*

MindYourOwnBusinessMost people get very skilled at minding their own business. It’s not always selfish self-absorption so much as it is being focused on one’s own life. If you watch people in an airport, a shop, the cinema or the lobby of a hotel, you see that most people are intent on their own concerns. And a lot of people think that minding one’s own business, especially in public, is a positive quality. It’s certainly useful if you’re a crime-fictional murderer. That human tendency to be absorbed in one’s own business means a lot of people don’t pay attention to what others are doing. And that gives a murderer very valuable anonymity.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, a group of air passengers is en route from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. During the trip, Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, but each of them is wrapped up in personal concerns and well-schooled in the unwritten rule that you don’t stare at other people or get too inquisitive about them. So no-one has noticed anything helpful. Even Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, has to confess that because of airsickness, he didn’t notice anything at all. That tendency to put proverbial blinders on gave the murderer the perfect opportunity to commit the crime. Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look into the lives of the other passengers and find that more than one of them might have wanted to kill the victim. In the end, they learn who the killer is.

Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue also shows how intent people can be about their own business. In that novel, a large group of people is waiting outside London’s Woofington Theatre to see Didn’t You Know?, starring acting sensation Ray Marcable. The doors finally open and the crowd begins to surge into the building. That’s when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell falls over, dead of a stab wound. Inspector Alan Grant is assigned to the case, and one of his biggest frustrations is the fact that no-one saw anything. Everyone was so intent on personal concerns and on getting into the theatre that nobody paid any attention to other people. Once the dead man is identified though, Grant learns about his background, his flat-mate and his other associations and he’s able to find out who killed Sorrell and why.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. Luparello had previously been a ‘behind the scenes’ political player, but had recently begun to get more public notice. One morning, his body is found in a car in a notorious area of Vigàta called The Pasture. The Pasture is a popular meeting site for local prostitutes and their clients as well as for small-time drug dealers and their customers. Montalbano is hoping that someone who was in The Pasture at the time of Luparello’s death will have seen something, but no-one has. Even with help from Gegè Gullotta, who is ‘in charge’ at The Pasture, Montalbano can’t seem to find any witnesses. In part that’s because a lot of what goes on at The Pasture is not exactly legal. But most of the reason is that everyone there was intent on personal business and not inclined to pay attention to what other people were doing.

Copenhagen police inspector Carl Mørck faces a similar kind of frustration in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). He’s recently been named to head ‘Department Q,’ which is set up to investigate crimes of ‘special interest.’ One of them is the five-year-old case of the disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She and her brother Uffe were on a ferry between Rødby and Puttgarden when she went missing. Everyone else on the ferry was minding personal business, so nobody paid attention to that particular passenger. The only thing anyone can remember is that she had an argument with her brother. Because of that, the police have always assumed that Uffe pushed his sister overboard off the ferry, although they don’t have definite evidence of that. Again, that’s mostly because people were too intent on their own concerns to pay attention. Little by little, Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad begin to find some clues that Merete Lynggaard is still alive. So very slowly, they trace her movements in the last days and weeks before she disappeared. In the end, they’re able to find out what really happened to her and why.

Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People introduces us to Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin. One night, Harry is surprised by a visit from his ex-wife Liz, whom he’s never stopped loving. At first he’s hoping that this will mean Liz wants to patch things up. But instead, she asks his help. She tells Harry that she’s run away from her current lover Mick Coghlin and needs a place to stay. Harry agrees and Liz settles in. The next night, Liz is found stabbed in an alley. Because of their history, Harry becomes a suspect in her murder. He knows he’s not guilty so for that reason and because he still loves Liz and wants to know what happened to her, Harry begins to investigate. He starts with The Ferry Club, a pub that was the last place Liz was reliably seen alive. The only problem is that the regular patrons were intent on personal business and didn’t pay much attention to what Liz did and where she might have gone. And people who might have seen something aren’t exactly interested in telling a stranger. But Devlin slowly pieces his wife’s recent life together and is able to find out what happened to her.

The murder of Marko Meixner is the main focus of Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. We first meet Meixner when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a motor accident in which Meixner is the driver. He’s not hurt, but the paramedics insist on getting him evaluated at the hospital. Meixner warns them that he’s in danger and so will they be if they spend any time with him. At first they blame his paranoia on psychological problems and in fact, they want him to have a psych evaluation when they get to the hospital. Meixner slips out though before anyone can really evaluate him. Later that same day, he is pushed from a train platform and killed by an oncoming train. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene and begin to investigate. At first it looks very much like Meixner has committed suicide. A few witnesses remember him mumbling to himself and acting a little strangely. But when Marconi and Shakespeare learn about the earlier accident, things seem less clear-cut. There’s now every possibility that Marko Meixner was murdered. The only problem is that nobody saw very much. All of the other people on the platform were busy minding their own business, and no-one noticed one perfectly normal-looking person. Even the video recordings of the activity on the platform don’t show much. It’s not until the detectives learn more about Meixner’s history that they learn what the motive for the murder was and who committed it.

It’s possibly human nature and definitely social custom in a lot of places to mind one’s own business and focus on one’s own concerns. But it’s that very custom that allows murders to be committed in public places. On the other hand of course, it can be dangerous to mind other people’s business too…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Reich’s Century Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards

18 responses to “Nobody Paid Attention*

  1. Then there is that classic Fr Brown story – ‘no-one’ went into or out of the house, so who could have committed the murderer? Shan’t spoil, but a lot of detective story writers worked on the trope that people just don’t look at the servants and workers – governesses, chambermaids etc.

    • Moira – You are quite right about that. I can think of two Agatha Christie novels where that tendency not to notice the staff plays an important role in what happens in the novel. And yes, there is that Father Brown story. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I just recently got Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes. And I have just ordered Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People which I have been wanting to read for a long, long time. So I will be reading those sometime soon.

  3. Margot: In Rob Kitchin’s mystery, The Rule Book, the killer uses the crowds around Nelson’s Pillar in the very heart of Dublin to commit murder with the police watching the area.

    Michael Connelly, in Bloodwork, brilliantly creates a character whose last name, Noone, is the character’s clue to a killer but no one, especially me, recognizes the clue until Terry McCaleb determines the meaning.

    • Bill – Thanks for those terrific examples. It is indeed clever the way that the killer operates in The Rule Book. And I’m glad you’ve brought up other kinds of clues, such as names, that are right in plain sight so to speak, but that we simply don’t see.

  4. Col

    Adler-Olsen is on my pile to get to. Thanks for reminding, how much I have to get to!

  5. Great examples, Margot. I think the murderers count on people minding their own business…and not really paying attention. This would be even easier now with everyone so distracted by their smart phones…

    • Elizabeth – Thanks – And you’re right about smartphones. Everyone is so busy with those that a lot of times they barely look up. I’ve even seen people who were having a cup of coffee together sitting quietly working on their smartphones instead of talking. And it’s true; killers count on people minding their own business and not noticing what’s going on.

  6. I’m with Tracy. I’d like to read “All the Lonely People” by Martin Edwards. It sounds like a really good story to read. Besides, I’m curious to know what happened to Harry Devlin’s ex-wife.

  7. In Le Carre’s ‘Call for the Dead’, a key witness is killed in a theatre and no-one realises until after the performance. AN excellent place for a murder in my opinion!

    • Sarah – Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Everyone’s watching the performance, so nobody pays any attention to the other theatregoers. Little wonder it’s possible to kill someone without being seen…

  8. This is a tool used in lots of cop stories—-people all around but no one saw or heard anything. I try to be an observer in places like airports and planes, but it’s very tempting to hide behind a book instead.

  9. Peter Reynard

    Margot, excellent topic. I think it is very common too, in Western culture at least, to not stare at people. On the other hand, in many parts of the world, it is common to stare and be stared at. A little unnerving if one is not used to that behavior. 🙂

    • Peter – You’are quite right. There are plenty of cultures where staring is considered appropriate behaviour. It takes getting used to, just as anything does that’s culturally different. Now you’re making me wonder about that in terms of people witnessing things such as suspicious activity. Hmmm….

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