You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan

35 responses to “You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

  1. Very informative post, Margot. I especially enjoyed the examples you used showing the varying degrees of anonymity. Well done!

  2. I enjoyed this post! Agatha Christie used this reasoning in Death In The Clouds and After The Funeral as well. 🙂

    • She did, indeed, Regulus98! I like those examples very much, and was actually trying to decide between them and Mr. Goby. So I’m glad you filled in the blank. And thanks for the kind words.

  3. kathyd

    Now this is the stuff of which serial killers are made. Just being regular, nondescript people lets them get away with murder.
    Years go, there was a real serial killer in the Midwest. He was a postal delivery worker, went house to house, with a murderous hobby.
    Now, this is the theme of a recently awarded Scandinavian mystery.
    And in some cases, “the butler really did do it.”

    • You’re right, Kathy, that there are cases where the butler really is the ‘bad guy.’ And because butlers are supposed to fade into the background, we don’t really notice them. So they can, quite literally, get away with murder (at least in fiction)… And I’m not surprised about the postal worker. Unless you live in a very small town, or you’re very observant, you don’t notice them.

  4. Margot: I thought of Saul Panzer in the Nero Wolfe mysteries famed for his ability to melt into any crowd and inconspicuously follow people.

    • Saul is a great example, Bill. Thanks for adding him to the conversation. He can ‘fade into the background,’ and no-one really notices him. It’s part of what makes him good at his job.

  5. What interesting and diverse examples – yes, so many people in the ‘invisible’ industries who can see and hear us and plan all sorts of nefarious things. I know there seems to be a general fear of cleaners, decorators and babysitters/au pairs in the expat community… hmmm, wonder what they all have to hide?

    • Oh, that is a good question, Marina Sofia! Now that would be an interesting topic for a novel, wouldn’t it? And you’re right; so many people can hear us and see us, and we may not even notice them. And thanks for the kind words.

  6. Pingback: You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him* — Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… | sweatingthewriting

  7. Good one! I always remember Christie’s THREE ACT TRAGEDY as a great example of this, as is Queen’s THE TRAGEDY OF X, though the Chesterton will always be the best I suspect.

    • Yes, indeed, Sergio, but your other examples are terrific, too. I think they’re both really cleverly done. Thanks for filling in the gap, and for your kind words.

  8. With the Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series I find Ruth is often overlooked as a slightly overweight archeologist rather than a police officer and people will say and do things around her that they wouldn’t around the investigation team which is why I really like the series.

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Rebecca. People do tend to be freer with what they say, don’t they, around her. And she does hear things that way. I hadn’t thought about that when I was preparing this post, so thank.

  9. Margot, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s “Presumption of Death,” there is an eccentric cat lady who adopts stray cats and lives out of a car. People talk about her but leave her alone till one day she ends up dead. Before she died, however, she identified the person suspected of having killed his friend in a wildfire. A nobody is suddenly transformed into somebody. The importance of non-leading characters can’t be underestimated. I guess they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have something to add to the story.

    • That’s quite true, Prashant. It’s often those characters, like the one you mention, who we think won’t be of any consequence who turn out to have key information. You might not notice them at first, but they may be noticing you.

  10. Simpleminded and distracted, as I am once again, I was reminded of ‘Sherlock – The Abominable Bride’ due this splendid work of you, Margot. And while back in history, the notion that women once were such an overlooked faction in a patriarchal society, especially that of our own ancestry, is not off course.

  11. Another fascinating post Margot – thinking about it so many people in our lives are ‘invisible’ Personally I’m surprised more crimes aren’t solved in coffee shops by the baristas – they must hear all sorts of interesting conversations or one-sided telephone conversations.

    • Oh, you’re so right about baristas, Cleo! They certainly do see and hear it all, don’t they? And really, there are a lot of ‘invisible’ people that we don’t really even think about most of the time. I think they can make interesting characters. Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Excellent examples as usual, Margot. We do need to pay more attention to the ones around us, because you never know…especially in crime fiction. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sue. And you’re right about paying more attention to what’s going on around us. At the same time, for the crime writer, such people can be a gold mine… 😉

  13. kathyd

    Hairdressers, another group of people that seems harmless. But they are confided in about everything by clients. And they have tools within reach that could do harm.
    I wonder if there are murders committed by fictional hairdressers or “hairstylists” as they’re now called.

    • Oh, there are, Kathy. And you’re right; they do hear everything, don’t they? They learn all kinds of stories, and they could have any number of reasons for wanting to commit murder.

  14. Col

    Great post Margot. I have a Neely – Blanche book to try at some point. Hogan’s book was very good.

    • Thanks, Col. And I agree that the Hogan is a good ‘un. I’ll be interested in what you think of the Neely when you get to it. I happen to like her Blanche White character quite a lot.

  15. And then there are those older folks who tend to be overlooked, especially in a crowd. They don’t look or act suspicious so they fade into the background while getting away with murder. 😀

    • Well, that’s certainly true, Pat! Most people don’t pay attention to those seemingly inoffensive older people sitting on park benches, shopping, or simply walking their dogs. But you never know…. 🙂

  16. More Christie – Sparkling Cyanide & in an odd way, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – the clue is in the title….

    • Absolutely, Moira! In fact, I almost mentioned Sparking Cyanide, but didn’t. So I’m glad that you did. And I see your point about Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, too.

  17. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…5/31/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  18. I actually do usually pay attention to people who wait on me at a restaurant, but less so people like tellers or shelf stockers. I can certainly see how people in jobs like hairdressers could learn a lot about people and use it nefariously.

    • That’s a really well-taken point, Tracy. People such as hairstylists do hear an awful lot. And they could certainly use it for all sorts of purposes, couldn’t they?

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