I Am the Observer Who is Observing*

Some people tend to be life’s observers. They’re not necessarily nosey – in fact, many aren’t – but they’re more likely to stay in the background and watch what’s going on, so to speak, rather than get involved themselves. Observers often have a very interesting perspective, because they stand back and notice everything.

They can also be very useful to police and other professionals who investigate crime. Observers can give valuable information on what they’ve seen. And their perspectives can give the detective a sense of what a group of people is like So, it’s little wonder that we see them so often in crime fiction.

Many writers are observers. And that makes sense when you think about it. We see that in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy. In that novel, a group of people is invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Hercule Poirot is at this party, and he works to find out who would want to kill an inoffensive clergyman. Then, there’s another murder, this time at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Several of the same people are at this second party, and there seems no doubt that the two murders are connected. One of the guests at both parties is playwright Muriel Wills, who writes under the name Anthony Astor. In person, she’s quiet, even awkward in her way. But she is a keen observer of the people around her, and she has a sharp wit. Poirot finds her a useful resource, and she turns out to be much more observant than she lets on at first.

In Nicolas Freeling’s Double-Barrel, Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small town of Zwinderen to help solve a baffling mystery. Someone’s been sending vicious anonymous letters to several of the residents, and those letters have wreaked havoc. Two residents have committed suicide, and one has had a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out who’s responsible, so Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, go to Zwinderen to try to find out the truth. As Van der Valk gets to know the various residents, he starts narrowing down the list of possible suspects. One of them is an enigmatic man named M. Besançon. Little is known about him, except that he is a Holocaust survivor who settled in Zwinderen after World War II. He’s considered a vaguely suspicious character to begin with, because he has a wall fence around his property, and very much keeps himself to himself, as the saying goes. This is quite unlike the typical resident of Zwinderen, who knows everything about everyone, and whose life is open to everyone else’s scrutiny. Van der Valk finds that M. Besançon is an interesting character, and very much an observer. He stays out of the town’s spotlight, but he certainly looks on and sees a lot.

Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is the story of the death of Amy Wright, who lived in the village of Gunnarshaw with her husband, Alfred. At first, her death looks very much like a suicide, and that wouldn’t be out of the question. She’d had a very hard life, and it’s not impossible that she would take this way out. But Sergeant Caleb Cluff, who’s assigned to the case, isn’t so sure. He wants the truth, and he wants justice for the victim. And that means that he very much wants to talk to her husband. Cluff is convinced that, regardless of what things seem to be on the surface, Wright caused his wife’s death. The only problem is, Wright has disappeared into the moors. So, Cluff goes after his quarry, and finds out that this case has several layers. At one point, he’s looking for some background information on some of the residents of Gunnarshaw and other nearby places. So, he goes to the Black Bear, the village pub, where he has a conversation with the landlord, George, whom he knows. It turns out that George is an observer of what goes on in the area, and he’s able to give Cluff some helpful information.

In Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, we are introduced to mystery novelist Polly Praed. She lives in the village of LIttlebourne, where she observes what goes on in town. She isn’t much of a ‘joiner,’ but that doesn’t mean she’s oblivious to the other people in town. Littlebourne gets more than its share of excitement when a dog discovers the remains of a human finger. Inspector Richard Jury is assigned to the case, and he travels to Littlebourne. Soon, the rest of the body is discovered. It turns out that it’s a woman named Cora Binns, who’d come to LIttlebourne for a job interview. Now, Polly and the rest of the residents of Littlebourne are involved in a real-life criminal investigation that ends up linking Cora Binns’ death with a vicious attack on another resident, and a robbery.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, we meet Jane Neal. A beloved former school teacher, she’s a fixture in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the death, and it’s not long before they determine that this was no accident. As the team tries to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim, they learn that she was an observer. She noticed what went on in town, and she knew some of the town’s background. And that played a role in her murder.

You’ll notice that I didn’t really discuss sleuths who are observers – too easy. But even if you only look at other characters, it’s easy to see what an important role observers can play in a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Oh, the ‘photo? If you look closely (you can enlarge the ‘photo by clicking on it if you wish), you’ll see you are being observed…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Morrison’s Waiting Game.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gil North, Louise Penny, Martha Grimes, Nicolas Freeling

29 responses to “I Am the Observer Who is Observing*

  1. mudpuddle

    i saw those little beady eyes looking at me… we have some of those in our woods, also… don’t know what sort of tree it was, tho…

  2. Ah yes, it’s not always safe to be the observer! I’m in the middle of re-reading The Clocks at the moment – one I really don’t remember well at all – and one of the characters has just said something along the lines of “I wonder if I should have told the police that I saw… oh, it’s probably not important.” And now I fear for her life… 😉

    • I know exactly which character you mean, FictionFan! I don’t want to say anything more, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. But I know the scene you mean. And you’re right (that book aside) that being an observer can be very dangerous…

  3. Col

    I think the Van der Valk novel sounds most interesting from the examples cited. I might have to try another one. My first time with Freeling wasn’t especially enjoyable.

  4. Spade & Dagger

    Children & young people are often the observers in life and in books (sometimes the narrator & sometimes the one narrated about when something happens to them!). I’m thinking of Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat, but there are several others like Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble of Goats & Sheep.

    • You’e quite right about children, Spade & Dagger. And The Earth Hums… is a great example of that. Your comment’s also making me think of Flavia de Luce, in Alan Bradley’s series. I think it’s interesting, too, how children like that interpret what they see and hear.

  5. Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the use of an observer in crime fiction.

  6. Those who observe and those who are observed. Both are a great device for crime fiction authors to offer clues and information to a story, as the innocent bystander saw such and such, or is, themselves, under observation for what he or she saw. And what we see is not always the truth! 😉

    • That’s quite true, Alex. We can’t always believe our eyes or ears, can we? That, too, adds interest to a story. And that dynamic – observed and observer – can add interest to a story, too. 🙂

  7. Maybe in modern life, CCTV cameras are going to replace those careful observers. They feature more and more in modern crime stories: ‘get the footage’ is the cry, rather than ‘talk to all the neighbours…’

    • That’s quite true, Moira. And there are so many books out there where those CCTV recordings give critical information. Or, if the author wants to add a wrinkle in, they’re not working, or….or… And today’s CCTV recordings are digital, so the files tend to all be stored. You can’t even have a plot point where something’s been recorded over another recording, unless it’s a ‘retro’ book.

  8. Great post here.
    I like that you included victims as observer, like in Louise Penny’s book.
    I haven’t read it yet, but I’m curious…
    does she go back in time to when the Vic was alive for clues??
    I’m doing that in my novel in progress to some degree. Makes back story more present….

  9. Oh, just thought to mention this post today as part of a blog post on backstory craft on Ciarfella’s Fiction Corner…
    Thanks for the idea!

  10. So true, observers can know details so often missed by others. And that tree–I’ve never seen anything like that. Neat!

  11. Pingback: I Am the Observer Who is Observing* — Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… | Ciarfella's Fiction Corner

  12. I love it when someone takes the role of observer in fiction, as you say amateur sleuths are often good at this but ordinary people can see and hear things that others may have missed. It’s interesting that many of those you have featured seem to also have enigmatic or awkward characteristics – a good shout-out for the quieter folk!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. And you make a fascinating point about observers. They often aren’t the most socially-gifted extroverts. But they watch, and they see. And, as you say, they catch things that others may miss. That’s what makes their information so useful.

  13. Pingback: Monday’s Musing on Margot Kinberg’s latest post, “I Am the Observer” and writing back-story… | Ciarfella's Fiction Corner

  14. Pingback: Character Observers in Crime Fiction by Lisa Ciarfella | No Wasted Ink

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