You Were Just a Face in the Crowd*

CrowdsThe conventional wisdom is that most murders take place in deserted areas, where’s there’s not much of a crowd around. And that makes sense: the fewer witnesses to a murder, the easier it is on the killer. And there are many, many crime novels where a killer takes advantage of the fact that someone’s alone. But a crowd can actually provide a good ‘cover’ for a murderer too. That’s especially true if it’s an anonymous sort of a crowd, where it’s hard to tell exactly who’s in the group. Of course, for that kind of murder, the killer needs a weapon that’s not obvious. But if you have that, and you don’t have a distinctive appearance, a crowd can give quite a good alibi if I can put it that way. Let me show you just a few examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean (well, you probably do already).

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and local police to find out who’s committed a series of killings. The only apparent things that link the deaths is that Poirot gets a cryptic warning note before each murder, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the things that make this case difficult is that the murderer takes advantage of crowds. One of the murders, for example, takes place at a cinema. A lot of people come and go, and don’t give their names to the ticket seller. It’s a perfect setting if you think about it for a murder. Another victim, a young woman, is killed on the beach. In that instance, the killer takes advantage of the fact that a lot of young women are out that evening walking with their dates. No-one pays much attention to the individual people, so the killer finds it easy to hide.

There’s a very clever use of a crowd in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue. One evening, a large group of people is waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see a performance of Didn’t You Know?, starring the sensation of the moment Ray Marcable. The doors open and the crowd surges forward, and that’s when someone stabs small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell, who was waiting with the others. Inspector Alan Grant takes charge of the investigation, and starts by trying to find out who was near the victim at the time of the murder. As you can imagine, that’s not easy. And matters are made even more difficult since the people near Sorrell claim that they’d never seen him before – he was just another person waiting for the show. In the end, Grant finds out who killed Sorrell and why, but his job is not made any easier by the fact that the murder happened in a large crowd of people.

Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro finds that being in a crowd doesn’t help her very much in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct police station and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s busy, she says that she’ll come back later and leaves. A short time afterwards she’s waiting with a group of people at a bus stop. Many other people are walking by on the street. Then a bus arrives and Dona Laura falls, or is pushed, under it. There were a lot of people nearby, and no reason for anyone to provide identification or a reason for being at that place at that time. So it’s very difficult at first to figure out who would have had the opportunity to commit this murder. Too many anonymous people did. In the end, Espinosa finds out who killed Dona Laura, and how it connects with another death that occurs in the novel. But it’s not an easy task.

A similar thing happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene of a tragic death at a train station. A man has been pushed into the path of an oncoming train. Also arriving at the scene are paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill. To their shock, they discover that they’ve already met the victim. He is Marko Meixner, a man they took to a nearby hospital earlier that day after a car accident. At the time he said that he was in danger, and they would be too if they spent any time with him. They didn’t pay a lot of attention to Meixner’s words, since he seemed to have mental problems. But now it’s clear that he really was in danger. One major problem that Marconi and Shakespeare face is that it’s very difficult to tell who could have killed the victim. There was a large crowd near the platform, and even with CCTV footage, there’s no clear picture of the person who committed the crime. And the presence of the crowd meant that the killer was able to fade away without calling attention to him or herself.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Black Box. The verdict in the 1992 Rodney King case has ignited Los Angeles, and there are crowds and riots everywhere. The police do their best to keep order but it’s impossible to track down every criminal and solve every case. This means there are several cases left unsolved. Twenty years later, the chief of police orders the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit to go back over the unsolved murders from the 1992 riots. Harry Bosch, who’s now in that unit, takes the case of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish freelance journalist/war correspondent who was covering the riots. Bosch was one of the two cops who discovered her body in the first place, and now he wants to find out who killed her and why. At first the case seems hopeless. There were so many crowds surging through the city and so much looting and killing that tracing one death to one murderer seems impossible. But bit by bit, Bosch finds out about the weapon that was used. That puts him on the trail of the person who used it. And that pits him against some people who used the riots to cover up something much bigger than just a journalist who was killed because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who killed his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Gupta tells Quant that his son was in Dubai as a part of a larger trip to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures. He was also researching antique carpets and making some selections of carpet to be placed on display at the University of Saskatchewan. Shortly before his return to Saskatchewan, Neil Gupta was in an open-air market at an impromptu party when he was attacked and killed. The official police report is that he was killed by thugs – a tragic but not targeted murder. But Neil’s father doesn’t believe that’s the case. He thinks his son was murdered because he was gay. So he wants Quant to travel to Dubai and find out the truth. It’s not an easy task. Not only is Quant unfamiliar with Dubai, but also, there’s not at first a lot of helpful evidence bearing on the case. Open-air markets are crowded, with many entrances and exits. And they have lots of little narrow passages where it’s easy to waylay someone and then disappear without being noticed. So it’s no wonder that this murderer wasn’t caught at first.

And that’s the thing about crowded places. You might think that with all those people around, there’d be less chance of a murder. But that’s not always how it happens. Which ‘murder in a crowd’ novels have you enjoyed?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s A Face in the Crowd.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly

37 responses to “You Were Just a Face in the Crowd*

  1. Game of Thrones uses this tool too. *Spoiler alert* A young king is poisoned at his marriage feast in full view of everyone. Who did it? We are glued to the myriad possibilities.

  2. kathy d.

    I agree with Howell’s and Garcia-Roza’s and Connelly’s examples. I’d like to add a terrific British TV thriller, starring Bill Nighy and a slew of great actors; an excellent ensemble. It’s State of Play. It was made here afterwards, but the U.S. version doesn’t hold a candle to the British series.
    It starts out with the death of a young woman who fell or was pushed under a train during rush hour with hundreds of people around.
    Journalists go about finding out what happened. This production has every element we crime readers and viewers want.

  3. I know I read a a novel where a murder took place during Mardi Gras but the name eludes me. ORPHAN BLACK begins with a woman pushed from a train platform.

    • Patti – Oh, I’ve heard such good things about Orphan Black. I admit I haven’t had the chance to see it, but it certainly sounds intriguing. And now I’ll have to think about the crime novel with the Mardi Gras murder and see if I can figure out what it might be. Hmmm…..thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  4. I’ve always felt that shoving someone under a bus or train would be the easiest murder method and one of the hardest to detect. In a fictional sense of course – it’s not something I’m planning… 😉

    • FictionFan – I couldn’t agree more about how easy a murder method a shove under a bus or train would be. And for a writer, it means your murderer doesn’t need to have a great deal of technical or professional knowledge. Of course, then you have to have a plausible way for the sleuth to find out that the death is a murder because as you say, it’s hard to detect. You know, I think I’ll stay well back of platforms and bus waiting areas… 😉

  5. Committing a murder in a crowd is both risky and a great way to hide. It reminds me of a story I read where someone used the tip of an umbrella to kill someone in a crowd.

    • Mason – Oh, I’ve read stories like that too, where the murder weapon is the tip of an umbrella. Nobody notices a little umbrella jab, especially in a crowd…

  6. Funnily enough I watched a tv adaptation only last night with exactly this as the main murder plot element. It was adapted from one of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope novels – the name passed by in a blur of credits but might have been Hawthorne Road?

    • Tess – Might that have been On Harbour Street? I admit I’ve not seen that one yet, but I did hear of the basic plot – pensioner stabbed on a train at rush hour. And that’s a perfect example of the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. When everyone’s crowding aboard a train, who pays attention to just one person?

  7. ps forgot to say – again, someone was murdered either just on or just before getting on a train…

  8. kathy d.

    State of Play British-made is superb. I could not take my eyes off the TV set until the last episode ended.
    Now that I think of it, I should rewatch it just to enjoy the ensemble cast.

  9. I haven’t read any of the other books but I absolutely love the ABC murders and I could read it time and time again. I particular like the fact that there is a plot within. Plot and not everything is as it seems.

    • Sarah – I think The ABC Murders is brilliantly done too. As you say, things aren’t what they seem, and there some enticing ‘red herrings.’ And you’re right; Christie folded more than one plot within the larger plot.

  10. Col

    Connelly’s book sits on the pile – to be read sometime soon.
    With this post, I was reminded on the KGB’s killing of a dissident – Markov is 1978 on the London’s street with a poisoned umbrella – not sure if it was a crowded street or not.

    • Col – And that’s a perfect example of the kind of murder I had in mind with this post. On the one hand, anyone might see someone walk by with an umbrella. On the other, who notices? It’s a very clever setup.And I hope you’ll enjoy the Connelly; Harry Bosch is, in my opinion, an excellent fictional sleuth.

  11. I immediately thought of Man In the Queue, so was glad you featured it. Also, Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide (different title in the USA?) – not death in a huge crowd, but a murder in full view of a group of people round a table in a nightclub – and it happens twice!

    • Moira – Nope – not a different title in the US. And Sparkling Cyanide is a perfect example of the way having a group of people around can ‘cover’ a murder. Nobody can pay attention to everyone in a group. You probably know this, but that novel was based on one of Christie’s short stories The Yellow Iris. Some differences, but basically the same premise. Two murders, the same group of people (less the first victim of course) the second time, the whole thing.

      • Oh that short story is probably what I was thinking of when I thought it had a different name…

        • Moira – What I think is interesting about both stories is that it seemed Christie tinkered with the story. For instance, Colonel Race features in the novel, but Poirot features in the short story. You could see her mind at work, shaping up the story if I can put it that way.

  12. Col and Mason I recall the poisoned umbrella murder in London by the KGB (well they denied it of course) and I think there was a crowd. Then it brings to mind the Russian (cannot spell or pronounce his name so won’t try) who was murdered in full view of a restaurant of people – thought he took a couple of weeks to actually die – having been poisoned with some sort of plutonium. This was a hard case to solve, politics involved and of course Russia denied it all and so it was East against the West all over again. In fact diplomatic relations with Russia cooled as a result as it is a widely held belief that Pres. Putin himself ordered the hit. London being the home of many Russian Oligarchs these days; money, politics and murder….a great combination and a great motive for murder. You couldn’t make it up!

  13. Oh I should add the poison was administered in a pot of tea or coffee and drunk in full view of everyone – how about that for a cheeky hit and it took ages for the police to track down the murder scene and actual method of delivery of the poison. Every place the victim visited following the drink registered on a Geiger counter and so he contaminated everywhere he went. Ingenious.

  14. I’m a little late for the party on the comments this time, but … very much agree with Kathy’s comments about State of Play (British version). In fact her mentioning it inspired me to watch the DVD again and it’s terrific, far superior IMO to the American remake. Another film with a similar plot line and feeling is Page 8, also with Bill Nighy.

    • Bryan – You’re welcome here any time. There is no such thing as ‘late’ here. And thanks for the extra kick in the pants to see State of Play. It goes on my list.

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