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.