This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Friday, March 15, 2013

You Don't See What You Don't Look For

            There was a story in The Washington Post a while back about how auto accidents happen, and it began with the experience of a nurse in the D.C. area who went to work the same way every day. Her shift started at 5:30 a.m., so she’d get up, shower, dress, and groom, then leave for the hospital, about five miles away, a little before 5. A mile from her home she’d stop at a 24-hour gas station/store to get a large coffee and sweet roll for the road.
            One day, on a morning just like any other, she made the left turn into the gas station and creamed a kid who had been skateboarding on the sidewalk and was crossing the gas station entryway. He was hospitalized, but survived and recovered.
            When the police interviewed the nurse, she said she never saw him. She had been driving to work this way for years and always looked to see if there was a car coming the other way before making the left turn. But she never checked the sidewalk because she knew, after all that time, that there’s never anyone on the sidewalk at that time of the morning.

We All Make Assumptions

            We can probably all relate to that story; I certainly can. There’s one road I drive on from time to time where I always slow down at a particular point because one night I almost ran over someone who was crossing the street there — jaywalking in dark clothes on a street with no lights. It’s on my radar now to look for pedestrians there, even though there’s no crosswalk.
            One of the ways the human mind deals with the complexity of modern life is by weeding out information that seems irrelevant, often with tragic consequences. The tragedy can be amplified when that normal practice turns into a prejudice.
            For instance, police officers tend to develop a set of beliefs based on experience, one of them being that when a married woman is murdered, the husband is a likely suspect. That makes sense because so many husbands do, indeed, kill their wives, but the trap is that a couple of scraps of corroborating evidence can lead detectives to zero in on that possibility and not see — like the nurse who didn’t look at the sidewalk — the other evidence that points elsewhere.

Observation and the Crime Novel

            As a mystery writer and reader I have more than the usual interest in the phenomenon of not seeing. To begin at almost the beginning, Sherlock Holmes became famous for seeing what others didn’t, and doing it because he had trained himself to observe.
            One of the standard lines in crime fiction — a cliché, in fact — is when a detective asks a witness to go over everything, leaving nothing out because the witness may not realize what’s important. In a well constructed crime novel, some small detail that comes out in that way eventually leads to the solution of the crime. Typically, it does so only after being merged with some other seemingly random fact in a way that required an imaginative leap to make that connection.
            Of course it’s also possible to be too observant. People sometimes say, after a serial killer is arrested, didn’t the neighbors suspect anything? No doubt they noticed some weird behavior, but most of the time that just indicates weirdness, not pathological criminality. They didn’t see a serial killer next door because they weren’t looking for it, and that’s probably a sign of normality on their part. We pay the police to be suspicious; the rest of us have to live and let live.