If someone committed a crime against you, would you report it to the police? Really? Of course, a lot of people would, but it’s not always that simple. Many people don’t report crimes to the police, even though you’d think they should. There are a number of reasons people don’t report crimes, both in real life and in crime fiction. Here are just a few of them.
One unfortunate, stark reason is that a police officer (or officers) committed the crime. How can you call the cops when it’s a cop who’s guilty? That happens, for instance, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. The book begins on Christmas Day in 1951. On that day, seven civilians were killed by members of the LAPD. The novel tells the fictional story of three cops who were there that day, and weaves their stories together with some of the events that followed what was called ‘Bloody Christmas.’ The police tried to keep the incident covered up, but activists insisted that it be investigated. There were, though, plenty of civilians who chose not to report what happened. They believed that they wouldn’t get justice – that because the police were responsible, they wouldn’t do anything about the crimes.
We see a similar attitude in Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat. A series of child rapes and then a murder leave New York’s Chinatown shaken. Detective Jack Yu, who grew up in Chinatown, is faced with trying to solve these crimes. But he runs up against several roadblocks. One of them is that ordinary citizens don’t trust the police. They’ve seen firsthand how the police can treat members of minority groups, and they have no hope that the police will take what’s going on seriously. What’s more, it takes time to follow up on a police case. Everyone in Chinatown knows that if you want to get justice, and quickly, the thing to do is go to the tongs that run the place. And that’s exactly what happens in this case; people go to the tongs, who will have no problem dispensing justice in their own way. So, Yu has to catch the rapist and the murderer before the tongs do.
Sometimes, people feel embarrassed to admit that they’ve been the victims of crime. That’s what makes con artists so hard to catch. People who’ve been scammed simply don’t want to confess that someone took advantage of them; it makes them feel foolish. We see that in Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secret. In one thread of the novel, Detective Inspector (DI) Tom Thorne investigates the suicide of Philippa Goodwin. As he gets information about her life and death, he learns that she’d been scammed out of her money by a man named Conrad Simkin. As he and DI Nicola Tanner search for Simkin, they find out that he’s taken advantage of other women, too. They haven’t gone to the police – at least at first – because they’re embarrassed to have been tricked. It is a humiliating experience, and it’s not hard to see how someone might not want to admit that it’s happened.
There are also people who don’t go to the police because they believe a crime has been committed by a family member. That, too, can cause embarrassment and shame, so it’s understandable that someone might not want to report this sort of crime. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poirot receives a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, in which she asks for his help on a ‘delicate matter.’ She won’t be clear about the problem, though, so it’s hard to tell much from the letter. Still, it intrigues Poirot. So, he and Captain Hastings travel to Market Basing, where Miss Arundell lives. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died of what is put down as liver failure. As it turns out, though, she was poisoned. Even though she’s dead, Poirot determines to meet his obligation to his client, So, he and Hastings investigate. They find that the victim had previously had a narrow escape from being killed, and believed that one of her family was responsible. There was good reason, too; she had a large fortune to leave, and relatives in great need of money. But she didn’t want to go to the police because a family member was involved. Now, Poirot and Hastings have to find out which family member committed the murder.
Sometimes, a crime isn’t reported because people aren’t sure there was a crime. Someone might be reported as missing, but, especially for adults, going missing isn’t considered a crime. People disappear because they want to. It’s only later, when a body is discovered, that anyone really knows there was a crime. That’s what happens in Nalini Singh’s Quiet in Her Bones. Wealthy Ishaam Rai and his family live in an exclusive cul-de-sac in a suburb of Auckland. One night, Ishaam’s wife, Nina, goes missing. They’d had an argument, so at first, it seems that she just went off to cool down, and that she’ll be back. That doesn’t happen. Ten years later, Ishaam has remarried and lives with his wife and stepdaughter. His son, Aarav ‘Ari’ comes to stay with his family after an accident has left him injured. It’s not a happy family, but there is an uneasy peace. Then, Nina’s body is discovered, and it soon becomes clear that she was murdered. The question now is, by whom? As the story goes on, we learn that, when Nina went missing, the police didn’t really count it as a murder. And even if they had suspected that it was, there wasn’t really evidence to support that theory. It wasn’t reported as a crime, because it was just seen as someone going off on their own.
And that’s not to mention the many stories (too many for me to mention here!) in which people don’t go to the police because they’re afraid of retaliation if they do. That, too, is an important reason the police might not officially know about a crime.
We’re told from early childhood to go to the police if there’s a problem or a crime. And that’s often the right thing to do. But there are times when people decide that it’s easier, safer, more expedient, or in some way better, not to go to the police.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rod Stewart song.
8 thoughts on “I Don’t Want to Talk About It*”
An interesting post, Margot. In real life, I have seen people often do not approach the police at time because they want the headache of police coming to their home and answering the same questions repeatedly. More often than not, they do not want to involve themselves in cases where they would have to frequent the police stations or law courts. In fiction I have read, sometimes people do not want to involve the police lest their suspicions about about their loved ones come true.
Thanks for your insight, Neeru. I can imagine that people don’t want the stress of repeated questions, police tramping through their homes, the hassle of law courts, and so on. It just may not seem to be worth the trouble. And, of course, if a loved one may be involved in a crime, that would make a person all the more reluctant to call in the police.
Really interesting post, Margot – so many different reasons not to call for help! Certainly, mistrust of the police themselves is something which is becoming commoner nowadays and also the bother of going through all the procedures is offputting. But definitely more worrying is if you think someone close to you has committed a crime…
Thanks, KBR. There really are a lot of different reasons – all of them understandable in their ways – not to contact the police, even if it’s the wisest move. As you say, people don’t always trust the police. And even if they do, there are a lot of hurdles. If you’re feeling shattered anyway because your home’s been invaded, or something else terrible happened, the last thing you’ll want is to get involved with bureaucracy and then relive it all at a trial if there is one. And, yes, I can only imagine what it must be like if you think a loved one has committed a crime. It’s really hard to muster up what it takes to go through the trial, etc.
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I do love a murder story where a policeman ends up being the culprit. One of the Val McDermid ‘Karen Pirie’ books went that way and oddly I guessed right at the start of the book, although I had no idea whether I was right of course. And then there’s that book The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, a real shocker of a book!
Oh, the Thompson is definitely a shocker, isn’t it, Cath? And yet, it’s powerful and keeps your attention – well, it kept mine! It is interesting when a police officer is the ‘bad guy,’ I think. I’ve read a few books that went that way, and if it’s done well, it can really have a punch to it. I’m glad you mentioned McDermid – what a talent!
They do a survey here every year to get an estimate of how much crime there really is, as opposed to how much crime is reported, and the difference is quite staggering. But when it’s known the police don’t take some crime seriously, like house-breaking, or where people feel the court process will be harrowing, like in sexual abuse cases, it’s understandable why crime often goes unreported.
I’m not at all surprised, FictionFan, that there’s such a difference between the crime that’s reported and the crime that there really is. There are a lot of people who don’t trust the police, and part of the reasons is that they’re sure the police won’t take their situation seriously. I’d say you’re right that it’s especially true of housebreaking and certain other crimes. And even if the police do take a complainant seriously, there’s the sometimes-traumatic matter of the trial, of giving testimony and reliving it all. That’s enough, I’d say, to keep a lot of people from telling the police when something’s happened.
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