Do you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.
That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.
In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.
Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.
There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.
There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.
In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.
And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.
See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.