As this is posted, it’s 63 years since the initial release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. As you’ll know, the film’s focus is L.B. Jefferies. When he’s laid up with a broken leg, Jefferies occupies himself watching the people in the other apartments surrounding the courtyard where he lives. He soon gets suspicious of one of them, a man named Thorwald, and the suspense builds as we learn the truth about Thorwald, and about some of the other characters.
But Jefferies is far from the only fictional character who witnesses something and then has suspicions that may or may not be true. In fact, it happens quite a lot in crime fiction. And it gives the author some interesting possibilities for plots. Is the suspicious character really a criminal? Is the witness reliable? All of these can add to a crime plot.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, we are introduced to Elspeth McGillicuddy. Just a few days before Christmas, she takes a train to visit her friend, Miss Marple. While she’s on the train, she happens to look out the window and into the windows of another train going in the same direction. As that other train passes, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a man strangling a woman. Or does she? Elspeth McGillicuddy is not a fanciful person, or a liar. She knows what she saw. At the same time, when she alerts the authorities, no corpse is found, and no-one has filed a missing person report on a woman matching the victim’s description. Despite this, Miss Marple believes her friend, and works out where the body probably is. With the help of her friend, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple finds out who the woman was, how she came to be on the train, and what happened to her body. She also, of course, discovers who killed the woman.
In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Kingsmarkham Police Inspector Reg Wexford and his team investigate the murder of Annette Bystock. She was found strangled in her bed, but there’s very little evidence as to who the killer might be. And there doesn’t seem to be a compelling motive (like money, fear, etc..). There is a witness, though. Elderly Percy Hammond lives next door to the victim, and spends more than his share of time looking out of his window at the goings-on around him. He doesn’t hear very well, so it’s a little difficult at first to communicate with him. In fact, he’s all but dismissed as a witness. But, as it turns out, he saw something very important. And once the police pay attention to him, they get a vital set of facts. As it turns out, this murder is connected to another case that Wexford is investigating.
Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief features the murder of semi-retired executive Aurelio Lapècora. One day, he’s murdered in the elevator of his own apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate. And of course, they look into the victim’s business matters as well as his personal life. Some interesting light is shed on both by Signora Clementina Vaile Cozzo, who has occasional insomnia, and the habit of looking out her window. She watches what goes on through the other windows on the street, one of which is the window to the dead man’s office. And what she tells Montalbano gives him some important and interesting information.
There’s a very unusual case of a witness to something suspicious in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead. Garda Ben Devlin lives and words in Lifford, close to the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In one plot thread of this novel, Devlin is asked to investigate a very strange occurrence. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor. However, she and her partner have no children. They’d bought the monitor because Christine was pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. So, why would there be baby cries on the monitor? One explanation is that Christine is still far too fragile after the stillbirth to be a reliable witness, so there may have been no cries. But Devlin doesn’t think that’s true. So, he agrees to look into the matter. As it turns out, Christine knows very well what she heard, and this phenomenon is connected to another case he’s investigating.
There’s also Yvonne Mulhern, whom we meet in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, Róisín, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important job opportunity. The move goes smoothly enough, but Yvonne doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s overwhelmed by the demands of new parenthood. To make things worse, Gerry’s not home very often to do his share. Soon enough, Yvonne finds solace in Netmammy, an online support group and forum for new mums. She soon finds herself very attached to the group members, although she’s never met them. That’s why she gets concerned when one of them seems to go ‘off the grid.’ In fact, she’s worried enough to contact the police about it. But there’s not much they can do at first. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle and her team investigate. The dead woman could be Yvonne Mulhern’s missing friend. If she is, then that has frightening implications for Netmammy. If she isn’t, then what happened to Yvonne’s friend? Among other things, this is an interesting case of an online witness, if I can put it that way.
It can be hard to avoid being curious about the other people who live and work around you. Sometimes, that curiosity can be very helpful to the police when they’re investigating. But it can also be quite risky…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Franz Waxman and Harold Rome’s Lisa. Fans of Rear Window will know why I chose this one, even if the lyrics don’t seem to quite fit.