We interact, probably on a daily basis, with a number of people we don’t really even notice. Unless there’s something very distinctive about that person, do you really pay attention to your bus driver, your taxi driver, or the person who pours your coffee at the restaurant? You might if you happen to be a ‘regular,’ so that that person is familiar. But otherwise, my guess is that you usually don’t. And that makes sense if you think about it. There’s only so much stimuli that we can pay attention to at any given time.
There are several ways crime writers make use of characters like that. They may hear something that they’re not meant to overhear, just because no-one noticed them. Or, they may provide helpful evidence, since the perpetrator doesn’t think about their presence. And, since they’re so much ‘in the background, they can even be killers…
In one of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories, for instance, that’s exactly what happens. I won’t give spoilers by naming the story. But the very fact of one character’s not being noticed allows that character to quite literally get away with murder.
In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson is suspected when her husband, Lord Edgware, is stabbed one night in his study. There’s evidence against her, too, as she wanted to marry someone else. In fact, she even threatened to commit murder. But Jane says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder. And there are twelve people who are prepared to swear that she was there. Hercule Poirot had an appointment with the victim on the day he was murdered, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the killer. And they find that more than one person had a motiv. One of those people is Ronald Marsh, the victim’s nephew. Marsh was desperate for money and had quarreled with his uncle about it. But he claims he was at the opera at the time of the murder. The only problem is, there’s a taxi driver – the sort you don’t pay attention to until it comes up later – who remembers taking Marsh to his uncle’s home during the performance. That fact makes Marsh very much a ‘person of interest.’
In P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Inspector John Massingham investigate when Dr. Edwin Lorrimer is murdered. The victim was a senior doctor at Hoggett’s Laboratory in East Anglia, so Dalgliesh and Massingham concentrate their efforts on the lab’s staff, and others who may have had a reason to be on the premises at the time. The murder wasn’t committed during office hours, so of great interest is information on who might have come in or out once the laboratory’s doors were locked. Oddly enough, a piece of information comes from a group of people who were riding a public bus at the time. The bus was rounding a curve that put the lab in view of anyone looking out the window in the right direction, and the bus driver and several passengers mention having seen a woman in that area. Dalgliesh and Massingham finally track that person down; and, although that doesn’t solve the crime, the woman is still able to give them some information.
In Max Kinning’s Baptism, we meet London train driver George Wakeham. He’s getting ready to leave for work as usual one morning when a group of three people burst into his home and abduct his wife and two children. They then give Wakeham a mobile ‘phone and tell him he must follow all of their telephoned instructions if he wants his family to stay alive. Wakeham has no choice but to obey, so he goes to work and gets into the cab of his train as he always does. Before long, the train heads into a tunnel, and Wakeham is told to stop. What he doesn’t know at first is that the abductors have brought his family aboard the train, and that they’re there, too. With the train halted, and more than 400 people taken hostage, it’s a dire situation for Wakeham and everyone else on the train. DCI Ed Mallory is called in to negotiate with the hostage-takers and find out what they want. And when he finds out, he and Wakeham learn that these hostage takers want much more than money.
And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel follows Captain Sam Wyndham, as he arrives from England to take up his duties with the police in Kolkata/Calcutta. He’s no sooner started working when he’s faced with a delicate case. Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) for Bengal has been murdered, and his body discovered in an alley behind a brothel. For many reasons, Wyndham and his team, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Benarjee, will have to move carefully as they investigate. As it turns out, the case has connections to some very high and very powerful places, and this will mean a great deal of danger for Wyndham. But he makes an unlikely friend in a rickshaw driver named Salman. Ordinarily, as a white person in Bengal at the time (the novel takes place in 1919), Wyndham wouldn’t be expected to pay any attention at all to the driver. But he does. And he learns a little about the man. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Salman proves to be a useful ally.
But it’s not often that we pay very much attention to those people who drive buses or trains, deliver parcels, or pour the coffee. They often fade into the background. Still, they can be very interesting, and in crime fiction, they can also be very useful…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trust Company’s Letting Go.