Some People Say Some of Us Don’t Count*

One of the things crime fiction shows us is what (and whom) society values. If you read enough crime fiction, you see that some deaths get a lot of attention, and a lot of resources are devoted to their investigations. Other deaths, on the other hand, don’t get as much attention or resources, and may go unsolved for that reason. It may not be something to be proud of, because in an ideal world, every murder would be investigated thoroughly. But in real life, and in crime fiction, that’s just not what happens.

We see that fact play out starkly in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. In it, Crown Minister Paul Berowne is found murdered in a church. Since his death is likely to attract a lot of media attention, a special team is put in the case: Commander Adam Dalgliesh, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Massingham, and Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Miskin. It’s hoped that they’ll be able to solve the case quickly and with a minimum of media hype. Before long, they’ve begun to gather evidence and determine who had a motive for murder. It’s a complex case, but the team does get to the truth. What a lot of the public don’t know is that a tramp named Harry Mack is also found at the church, also murdered. There’s not a lot of attention given to his death; and, although the team does find out who the killer is, we see in the novel that Mack’s death doesn’t get nearly the attention that Berowne’s does.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has a personal rule: Everybody counts or nobody counts. His view is that every murder deserves the same dedicated investigation. He lives out his creed in more than one book, including The Last Coyote. When he is temporarily suspended for a dangerous, angry outburst, Bosch is assigned to psychological counseling. He goes through with it, but he’s also feeling the lack of purposeful work. So, he uses the time to look into the murder of a prostitute, Marjorie Lowe. She was killed years earlier, but there’s never been a serious investigation into her death. So, Bosch takes the case up. It’s got special meaning for him because the dead woman was his mother…

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross also shows that society often doesn’t pay much attention to the death of a sex worker. It’s a fictional account of the 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf sex worker. At the time, a man named Peter Kürten was arrested and charged in connection with the crime; in fact, he confessed. Later, though, he recanted his confession. Interestingly he did admit to other murders, but he claimed that Emma Gross’ was not one of them. No-one else was ever successfully prosecuted, and the investigation wasn’t pursued. In this retelling, Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein has been working on a set of killings that he believes Kürten committed, and he’s certain that Kürten will be arrested and tried for those murders. But there are some aspects of Emma Gross’ murder that lead Klein to suspect that someone else was responsible. So, he decides to look into the case a little more deeply. One of the challenges he faces is that no-one is particularly interested in solving the murder of ‘just a prostitute.’ It’s hard to get people to remember, to share what they know, and so on. In the end, though, he finds out the truth.

In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, we meet Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a police detective in late-1970s Buenos Aires – a very dangerous time to be in that city. Anyone suspected of disagreeing with the ruling junta is likely to ‘disappear,’ and people have to be very careful of everything they say. In this context, Lescano tries to do his job the best he can. One morning, he’s called to a riverbank where three bodies have been found. Two bear all the signs of an army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to question those deaths. The other, though, is just different enough that it might be a separate murder. The dead man turns out to be Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender. Lescano has to work very carefully on this case, as there’s a lot of pressure to just let it go. After all, it’s ‘only another dead Jew.’ Besides, Biterman’s killer is being protected by some powerful people who won’t stop at killing Lescano. It’s a challenging case, but in the end, Lescano finds out the truth.

The murders of the poor and homeless are also sometimes not as thoroughly investigated as they might be. For instance, Kalpana Swamintham’s Greenlight is the story of a set of murders that take place in the Mumbai slum of Kandewadi. Some children have disappeared and later turned up murdered, and parents are terrified. But it’s a slum, and these are very poor families. They’re not famous or ‘important.’ So, almost no attention is paid to the deaths at first. But after more children go missing, Inspector Savio is finally assigned to investigation. He consults with Lalli, a retired police inspector who was actually one of his mentors, and she works with him and his team to find out what’s behind the murders. Throughout the novel, we see how, for some people, the deaths of some ‘slum kids’ just doesn’t matter the way the death of someone ‘important’ does.

It’s not always easy to admit. But if you look at crime fiction (and, sadly, real life), some deaths do get more attention, resources, and energy than others. And that itself can add an interesting plot line to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Bryant’s  A World Like That


12 thoughts on “Some People Say Some of Us Don’t Count*

  1. Fascinating, Margo. I do think some murders are more ‘sexy’ and prominent than others to be quite blunt. High profile celebrities, personalities, or sensational murders are mana to journalists both in print and in the broadcast media. We have such cases in the UK, the murder of Sarah Everade is all over the airwaves and in print, because she was kidnapped, murdered, and raped by a serving policeman who faked an arrest upon her to get her into his car. Yet, in this country every 3 days a woman is murdered by her spouse, partner, or a close relative. Often so-called ‘honour’ killings- we hear next to nothing about them. They don’t have ‘legs’ in the media which must be terrible for their loved-ones to whom the victim is their one and only person of concern/importance. They pass under the radar unless someone takes up their cause or makes a stink about it. Sad fact of life.


    1. It is, indeed, a sad fact of life, Jane. I’ve been following the Sarah Everade case, and it’s awful – terrible! My heart goes out to her family. Here, the media have been all over the case of Gabby Petito, who disappeared during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend (who has since gone missing). Her death has been ruled a homicide, and everyone’s looking for the boyfriend, and that’s been a big story for a while now. But in the meantime, thousands of women are, as you say, attacked and killed by someone in their lives, and those cases are just as terrible. Yet we really don’t hear/read about them. Not to take anything from the pain that Sarah Everard’s and Gabby Petito’s families are suffering – it’s unimaginable. But so is the pain that those thousands of other families face. As you say, though, some stories have ‘legs,’ and some don’t.

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      1. It is sad and must be awful for the families involved, seeing some get lots of publicity and an out pouring of ‘grief’ and their personal tragedy is lost in it all. the case you mention is very odd too, wonder if the boyfriend is alive and the killer, or dead and another victim? Horrid for them all. x


  2. With the reporting of some cases and not others – or not to the same extent, it does make you wonder if there is a level of arbitrary value attributed to people’s lives and if some are deemed less worthy than others.


    1. I wonder that, too, Col. If you look at the cases that get public\media\police attention, it does seem as though some lives are deemed ‘more important,’ and that’s sad, even tragic.


  3. You provide apt examples from fiction. The real life examples from comments illustrate nothing has changed in the past 100 years. A photogenic young white woman will be the focus of tabloid media and often mainstream media. Second choice is a celebrity. Third choice a wealthy victim. The last two categories are less gender specific. On how much different police approach media prominent cases I am less certain for I have a greater confidence in police pursuing all murder investigations than the cynical of the world.


    1. I think you have a very well-taken point about the way the media focus on different sorts of victims, Bill. And you’re right that things haven’t changed in the past 100 years. Thanks, too, for mentioning the way you feel about the police pursuing murder investigations. I would like to think that you’re right, and what I know about the police suggests that you are. A lot of what the police do goes on behind the scenes, and consists of the slow, day-to-day work that doesn’t make the news or attract attention, but that does solve cases.


  4. We’re seeing that play out in real life currently, when the murder of a young, attractive white woman got blanket coverage while other murders, even similar ones but of less attractive or less white women, went almost unreported, and I know there’s a similar story just now happening in the US. In fiction, Denise Mina’s excellent The Less Dead is specifically about this – the title referring to the lower priority given to the murders of street prostitutes, by both the police and the public. (I feel sure I mentioned this one on your blog just a couple of posts ago – sorry for the repetition!)


    1. You’re quite right, FictionFan. Those two cases are textbook examples of the way the media and the public get fixated on certain victims, and others – in equally tragic cases – get ignored. It seems to show society’s priorities, unfortunately. And no apologies needed for mentioning the Mina again. She’s an extremely talented writer with a gift for addressing issues like this one. I’m glad you brought it up again.

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