But Everything I Know, I Keep it to Myself*

Reporting SuspicionsOne of the dilemmas people face, both in real life and in crime fiction, is whether (perhaps more accurately, at what point) to act when they suspect that something dangerous or worse is going on. On the one hand, most people don’t want to be considered fanciful or meddling. What’s more, something they consider suspicious may be perfectly innocent; reporting it thus wastes police time and thoroughly upsets and inconveniences an innocent person. That’s not a good way to build and maintain a harmonious relationship with someone.

On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve seen the same public service announcements (e.g. ‘If you see something, say something’) that I have. And there certainly are crimes that are prevented or quickly solved because someone spoke up or did something. So there’s an argument that speaking out is worthwhile. It’s a tricky dilemma, though, as crime fiction shows us.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is staying in a Jerusalem hotel. One night, he happens to be at the window of his room, preparing to shut it, when he hears these words:

‘‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’’

Poirot wonders, briefly, whether he ought to act on his natural curiosity, but quickly decides not to do so. After all, it’s probably

‘A collaboration, perhaps, over a play or a book.’

Poirot’s decision not to act comes back later, when an American visitor to the Middle East, Mrs. Boynton, is killed during a visit to Petra. You can’t really say that Poirot’s choice allows the murder to happen. But it’s an interesting example of that sort of dilemma.

In When the Bough Breaks, Jonathan Kellerman’s first Alex Delaware novel, LAPD officer Milo Sturgis gets a particularly ugly case. Psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez have been brutally murdered, and the only witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn. Not only is her testimony impacted by her youth, but also, she’s on heavy medication for attention disorders, so it’s not easy to communicate with her. Sturgis hopes that his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, will be able to work with Melody and get her to talk about what happened. It’s not easy, but eventually, Delaware and Sturgis link these murders to a residential school for children called Casa de Los Niños. Later, it’s all linked to some events in some of the characters’ pasts. As it turns out, some characters face a difficult dilemma over telling what they know about what’s going on at La Casa de Los Niños, and it’s interesting to see how they have dealt with that dilemma.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, crime writer Martin Canning is faced with a slightly different sort of ‘should I act’ dilemma. He and some other people are waiting their turn one day to buy tickets for a lunchtime radio comedy show. As they’re waiting, Canning and the others suddenly see a blue Honda hit the rear of a silver Peugeot that braked too quickly. The two drivers get out and get into an altercation that turns serious when the Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to beat Paul Bradley, who’s driving the Peugeot. No-one quite knows what to do or whether to act. Then, almost by instinct, Canning throws his laptop case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of duty, Canning accompanies Bradley to a nearby hospital to make sure that he’s all right, and promptly gets involved in a web of fraud and murder he hadn’t imagined.

The question of ‘should I have spoken up?’ becomes very important in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally gathered the courage he needs to escape his abusive father, Joe. But he’s been so locked away that he has little knowledge of the world or how to survive in it. Fortunately for him, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who is visiting the house, as he leaves. Billy helps Adam get away, and the two take off. During the next week, they stay where they can, eat what and when they can, and get to know each other. They learn that there’s more in both of their pasts than either thought, and that they are connected to a past tragedy. They also get into real danger together. One of the things that comes up is: why didn’t anyone do anything to help Adam before? Everyone knew the kind of violent person Joe Vander was, so why didn’t anyone speak up or ask the authorities to investigate?

Ilse Klein has to decide whether to speak up in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. She is a secondary school teacher in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. One of her most promising pupils is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. The girl has real academic skill and Ilse is confident she’ll do well. Then, Serena starts skipping school. And when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilse is concerned about it, and ends up speaking to the school’s counselor, who visits the girl’s home. In this case, that makes sense, since teachers and counselors are, as a rule, required to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Rebuffed by Serena’s mother, the counselor doesn’t make much headway. Then Serena disappears. She’s gone for three weeks before her mother contacts her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie.’ And one question Lynnie has is, why isn’t anyone looking for Serena? Why has so little been done? As we find out the truth about Serena, we also learn how important it can be to speak up and report things.

And then there’s Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed. World War II has just ended, and Douglas Brodie is trying to put the pieces of his life back together in London. Then, he gets a call from an old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy. He claims to be innocent, and wants Brodie to come to Glasgow, where the two grew up, and find out the truth. Brodie agrees to go, very reluctantly, and at first, he is not convinced of Donovan’s innocence. There’s certainly evidence against him; there’s even a possibility that he committed four other murders. Then, Brodie meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She believes that her client has been framed, and, slowly, Brodie comes around to her point of view. The trail in this case leads to some ugly secrets that some well-placed people have been keeping. What’s more, it raises the question of what might have happened if people who’d suspected something had not kept quiet.

And that’s the thing. Sometimes, something that seems suspicious is quite innocent. It’s a very serious matter, too, to make allegations. But at times, ‘If you see something, say something’ makes more sense.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy’s Keep it to Myself (AKA Keep it to Yourself).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gordon Ferris, Honey Brown, Jonathan Kellerman, Kate Atkinson, Paddy Richardson

24 responses to “But Everything I Know, I Keep it to Myself*

  1. Fascinating topic, Margot! Great plot point for a mystery, too.

  2. It is an endlessly fascinating topic, isn’t it, as well as the ‘would I have done the same if I’d been in that position’? The truth, most of us would rather pretend we had misunderstood or turn a blind eye.
    Cath Staincliffe has an interesting example of that in her novel ‘Split Second’. When a gang of youths attack someone on a bus, no one dares to intervene… except for one student, who then suffers some serious consequences. But the book goes further than that, exploring whether the victim that the student saved was actually ‘worth saving’… Very tricky ethical dilemma indeed!

    • Oh, it is, Marina Sofia! And I am so glad you mentioned Split Second. There you have, among other characters, one who is being bullied at work (and has been at home), and there’s this whole question of what might have happened had someone said something about it. And yes, the bus situation, and its follow-up, really raise fascinating questions about what our responsibility is to speak up when we suspect or see something. I can’t believe I didn’t mention that book! I’m very glad you filled in that gap.

  3. This is an interesting dilemma in crime fiction. Whereas in, say, romance it happens frequently. ‘Should I tell my friend her husband is cheating?’ I don’t think I’ve come across in crime yet, at least not that I recall.

    • You know, Sue, I hadn’t thought about the way this plays out in other genres (such as your excellent example from romance). But I think the ‘Should I say something/do something?’ dilemma is a very human sort of challenge people face. Doesn’t surprise me in the least that we see it in fiction.

  4. Just reading the new Rebus and at one point some undercover cops see someone being assaulted. But if they intervene or admit that they witnessed it, they will blow their cover on an operation that’s been underway for three years. And the victim is also a criminal. Malcolm Fox, who we all know is an unusually strict rule-follower, has to decide what’s the right thing to do – report the assault or let it go?

    • Oh, that’s a really interesting dilemma, FictionFan! Especially for Fox, who, as you say, is not usually one to bend the rules at all. And you make the interesting point here that the victim is a criminal. I think that changes things for a lot of people. I really hope you’re enjoying this novel, and I’ll be keen to read your review os it.

  5. Col

    Great post. Maybe time to read some more Kellerman

  6. Margot, I think, it’s a dilemma for characters as much as for anyone in the real world. For instance, in an office environment, you can actually ruin someone’s career by repeating what you heard secretly. There is a thin line between acting on what you hear and gossiping/eavesdropping.

    • You’re absolutely right, Prashant. And that’s what can make this sort of dilemma so difficult. You can indeed ruin someone’s career or worse by telling things. On the other hand, some things need to be told. It really is a dilemma.

  7. This is a topic that often crops up in real life as Prashant notes above. Should I call the cops when I hear noise coming from the house next door? Should I do something about the way that man grabbed that woman’s arm? Should I tell the usher about the use of a cellphone a few aisles up? Every intervention carries a risk.

    • It really does, Patti. And you’ve given some great, classic examples of the sorts of dilemmas that people may face. It isn’t an easy choice to make at times.

  8. As always you are spot on with this dilemma, a difficult one especially when it isn’t a clear-cut! You’ve given some great examples too.

  9. Keishon

    That is quite the dilemma to speak or not speak, Margot on something that looks suspicious or bad. Aside: I found it interesting that Queen Elizabeth I motto was “video et taceo” which says that I see and say nothing. I use to quote it to myself and liked it for a brief time but realized it’s not a good motto. I say, go with your gut. If it feels like it’s bad situation then it likely is. Like Cleo mentioned, you cite to pretty good examples. With that said, I need to read Gordon Ferris. I also find it amusing that Agatha Christie continues to be an example for your long form posts/topics. She really did cover it all huh?

    • Oh, she certainly did, Keishon. It’s one of the things I like very much about her work; she explored so many different themes, topics and ideas. I do recommend Gordon Ferris’ work; he has real talent. Thanks, too, for sharing Queen Elizabeth I’s saying. It’s one thing to be discreet and not gossip. It’s another to keep quiet when something dangerous or criminal is going on. As you say, going with the gut feeling is usually wise.

  10. Like Col, I’m thinking I need to read more Kellerman…

  11. Hi Margot, Another great topic. I immediately think of the movie rear window, regarding a crime that’s about to happen, or, maybe, did happen. There’s also the much less well-known film 23 Paces to Baker Street, based on Philip MacDonald’s novel Warrant for X. This is a story of a guy (Van Johnson) who overhears a suspicious conversation and – but I won’t spoil it!

    • I always loved the film Rear Window, Bryan. I like Hitchcock’s work, anyway, and that’s a fine example of it. I’m less familiar with Warrant for X, but it sounds like a great example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. Thanks.

  12. Jonathan Kellerman’s books have been on my mind too. (And his wife’s also.) I love the Kate Atkinson series. I wish she would write more of them.

    • I think Kate Atkinson’s work is terrific, too, Tracy. I’d love to see her do more of them, too. And the Kellermans both write high-quality novels in series that have endured for a while.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s