One 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).