Consider the crime writer
This last sunny Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were strolling, window shopping, actually, in the yuppified part of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. A street musician sat with his back to the sole of a giant black flatiron, a public sculpture across the way from an old flatiron building. The street scene included a number of pedestrians and, within a couple of blocks, numerous charming boutiques and cafés.
As we were walking away from the corner where the guitarist sat, I heard a bottle break, then some shouting, then some thuds. I turned to see a man on the ground being kicked in the side. Within a few seconds, several participants in the melee had scattered, some around the corner, some past where we stood. The victim of the beating, with the assistance of a friend, hobbled past us, holding a shirt to the back of his head, which was bleeding from where an assailant had broken the bottle over it.
When we reached the corner where the musician still sat, we and other tourists conferred and concluded that we could not piece the event together well enough to make a credible police report. Hence, we were all non-witnesses to an unreported crime. To be sure, I tried to ask the participants I encountered what had happened, particularly when some of them returned from around the corner to see where the beatee had gone. But the more I learned, the less I knew. Had any of us called 911 and waited for a cop to take our statements, we would have contributed nothing to the pursuit of justice.
There was one person I think I might be able to pick out of a lineup, although I don’t know the person’s role in the events. Yet I would swear this was a slight young man of the sort one might call pretty and my wife insists it was a rather unfeminine young woman. Some lineup that would be!
I’ve watched my share of police dramas and read my share of crime descriptions in novels and stories. And I’ve also read reports of experiments designed to assess the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. I’ve thought about how I might do as an eyewitness to a crime, and I’ve had the sort of practice that most of us get with the occasional traffic accident. I fancy myself a fairly observant person, too. But in the real event, with non-actors attacking a flesh-and-blood person on the street, I batted zero. We all batted zero. So my hat is off to the real cops and prosecutors who piece together the events of crimes, to the witnesses who stay collected enough to remember what they see, and the writers who can imagine violent crimes and write about them in a way that evokes reality. Fictional crime is certainly better organized than real crime.