In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train, en route to visit her friend Miss Marple. At one point, she’s looking out her window just as another train going in the same direction happens to go by. Mrs. McGillicuddy takes a casual glance into the window of the other train, and is shocked to see a man strangling a woman. She tries to sound the alarm, but no deaths or missing persons have been reported, so there’s no evidence to support her. Miss Marple believes her, though, and starts to look into the matter. She finds that her friend saw exactly what she thought she saw.
That plot point – where a bystander happens to witness a murder – happens frequently in crime fiction. Murderers take pains to be sure they’re not seen, but it isn’t always possible to know who might be looking out of a window, or who might be somewhere close by, but out of sight. It does happen.
In C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven, for instance, twelve-year-old Annie Taylor takes her ten-year-old brother, William, fishing at Sand Creek near Kootenai Bay, Idaho. While there, they witness four men committing a murder. Worse, the murderers have seen them and know who they (and their mother, Monica) are. The killers are four retired LAPD officers with dark secrets in their pasts, and both Annie and William know that they’re in deep trouble. They go on the run and end up taking shelter in a barn owned by struggling rancher Jess Rawlins. He determines to do what he can to hep the children, but these are four determined men who will do whatever it takes to keep their crime hidden.
One plot thread of Belinda Baur’s Rubberneckers concerns Sam Galen. He is in a coma as a result of a car accident, but he is aware of what is going on around him. He remembers the accident, and he knows where he is. One day, he witnesses the murder of another coma patient. He’s not able to do anything about it, but he knows what happened. Now, he starts to fear that he will be a victim, too. His story is integrated with the story of Patrick Fort, a young man who has Asperger Syndrome. He is obsessed with death since the death of his own father, and he has taken a course in anatomy at the University of Cardiff. As a part of this course, he and some fellow students dissect a corpse. Patrick slowly begins to believe that this person was the victim of murder, but he can’t really communicate what he suspects. But that doesn’t mean he’s not in danger…
There’s also Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues. High diver Dennis Lenahan has gotten a gig performing at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. One day, Lenahan witnesses a murder – an execution-style Dixie Mafia job – from the top of his diving tower. There is, quite possibly, another witness, a mysterious Detroit con man named Robert Johnson. Johnson wants to get in on the Dixie Mafia’s territory, and he wants Lenahan to be a part of it. But that could be a very dangerous choice, since Johnson hasn’t told Lenahan everything he has in mind…
There are plenty of other stories, too, that use this plot point. In fact, I’m writing one myself. It’s the novella-length story of Staci McKinney, a fifteen-year-old homeless girl who witnesses the aftermath of a murder. I’m hoping it will be finished by the end of the year, and ready for publication early next year. In the meantime, here’s just a bit:
The sound of voices nearby woke Staci up. She had no idea how long she’d slept, but she could tell that the sky was lightening. It must be close to dawn. She didn’t dare get up, in case whoever it was saw her. But by turning her head just a bit, she could see out from beneath the plastic bag. In a moment, the men whose voices she’d heard came into view.
“Here’s good,” one of them said. He was tall and had a dark coat.
The man with him grunted, “About time.” He was a little shorter, and it looked like he was wearing a parka. Together they were carrying a bunch of rolled-up blankets. Now, they put the blankets down. Tall Guy looked around. Staci didn’t even breathe as he glanced at the plastic bag. After a minute, he said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. It’s cold as a witch’s.”
Parka Guy nodded. “Got that right.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. At least he had gloves on. Staci’s own hands grew even colder as she thought about how warm those gloves must be. The two men took one more look around, then turned away and headed back where they’d come from.
As soon as she dared, Staci stuck her head out from under the plastic bag and looked in both directions. No sign of Tall Guy or Parka Guy. As quickly as she could, she went over to the rolled-up pile of blankets. She touched the pile with one finger. They were dry! Finally, she might get warm. She was going to have to move quickly, though. Blankets like this wouldn’t stay around long on a day like this. She’d seen fights over less than a blanket.
Staci started to pull the top one, but it was caught in with the others. She couldn’t carry them all, so she was going to have to unroll the pile. Starting slowly, she gently pushed the blankets. Wait! No pile of blankets was that heavy. There was something in them. She pushed again and the pile started to unroll. That was when she saw the shoe. A man’s leather shoe, on a real foot. And there was the other one. As though she’d been stung, Staci dropped the blankets and backed up. A body! And she’d nearly touched it! There was blood, too, smeared on the blankets on the body. She gulped a few times to keep her stomach from heaving and checked her hands. They were white and cold, but she hadn’t gotten blood on them. Then she lifted her head and looked around.
“Hey, kid! What the hell are you doing?” barked a voice behind her. Staci looked up. Tall Guy and Parka Guy had come back. They started to move towards her and that was all the encouragement she needed. She turned and ran.
Watch this space!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s 1951/What About the Boy.