Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn

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I am always on the look out for a good new crime book so when @crimeficreader described Acts of Violence as the best debut of 2009, during a twitter conversation, I decided to read a copy. It’s a Crime! is one of my favourite crime fiction blogs, so if you’re after some more recommendations then head over there!

Acts of Violence is based on the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese; a crime which over 30 people witnessed, but not one acted to save her life. This crime prompted an investigation into the social psychological phenomenon which became known as the bystander effect and this book takes a look at the reasons behind their inaction – why did so many people ignore her cries for help?

The book begins by focusing on Katrina (the fictional character based on Kitty). We follow her journey home and witness the attack:

It –  he – seems to be pulled toward her, like a yo-yo on a string, seems to glide toward her rather than walk. She doesn’t notice the sort of lumbering broken-machine flump-flump-flump a man walking normally has when he shuffles from one place to another. He just floats toward her menacingly.

The book then flipped between various characters living in the surrounding appartments. We hear of their problems (ranging from a woman who thinks she has just run over a baby, to a suicidal Vietnam draftee and a man looking after his dying mother), but I struggled to believe that so many people in such a small area were all facing critical points in their lives at exactly the same moment. The number of violent acts taking place also seemed unrealistic to me.

The large number of characters meant that we could only glimpse into their lives, never having the chance to really get to know them. It was an interesting explanation of the bystander effect, but I would have found it more realistic if the characters had been normal people who were simply too tired or confused to phone the police.

The book was fast paced and gripping throughout, but the numerous story threads meant that the book felt disjointed to me. It was a glimpse into a few hours of their lives, but I was left wanting to know more – how they felt once they’d heard of the crime and whether they really knew what was going on.

I’d recommend this to fans of crime fiction who don’t mind books without a mystery to solve.

The thoughts of other bloggers

…the most outstanding novel I have read this year. It’s a Crime!

…doesn’t leave enough room to truly explore all the issues it raises. Follow The Thread

This is an excellent, thought provoking novel… Hack Writers


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16 Comments

  1. Amy says:

    The story it is based on and the resulting investigation sound really interesting, but like you, I would find it more convincing if there were just regular bystanders around rather than everyone being at a critical point. That, to me, makes it seem a little bit less believable – like the author tried to build hype that way rather than letting the story tell itself. Perhaps the author doesn’t truly believe the bystander effect and had to explain it that way?

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I would love to know what all the bystanders were really doing when this crime was committed. I find it really hard to believe that that many people were actually awake at 4am, let alone commiting violent acts or at personal crisis points.Truth is stranger than fiction though, so who knows what was really going on!

  2. Wendy says:

    I have always been interested in the “bystander effect”…and the Genovese case was one of the more famous examples…so this book interests me. Thanks for the review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, I hadn’t heard of this case before, but it would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone familiar with it. I half want you to pick it up at some point so that you can let me know your thoughts!

  3. Sandy says:

    I’m generally always up for a good crime novel, but I don’t think this is one I am interested in. Like you, I’m not sure I buy the fact that everyone in the vicinity of the crime was having crises at that moment. I also like crime thrillers because I like to solve puzzles. If there isn’t one to solve, I think I might get bored.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Like you I also like a puzzle to solve – perhaps I just think of crime novels in the wrong way?

  4. Christy says:

    I remember learning about this case when I was in college and being completely shocked by it. I don’t think I would like this book though, based on what you said your review. I’m assuming the characters’ inaction was then based on their own specific turmoil, as opposed to more universal human tendencies to hesitate.

    Hope you don’t mind me sharing a long-ish story, but hearing about bystander effect always reminds me of a remembered incident:

    When I was a teenager, I was on a school field trip to New York City. We were on a chartered bus and the bus stopped at a particular site. Some of us took the opportunity for a bathroom break at a nearby large church. It was a nice day, a Sunday in April, and there was a service going on in the sanctuary. We went downstairs to the well-kept bathroom there.

    As we were washing our hands, we heard a woman screaming coming from somewhere down the hallway. Startled, I looked at the other people in the bathroom, which included some adult women not affiliated with our group. They didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything. Was it because I was young and taking my cue from the adults? Or because it was in a nice-looking church during the day and the sound was so incongruous? Or because I was from a small town, and in a strange, huge city? These are the kinds of ordinary motivations that fueled my inaction and that I would be interested in reading about. I really wish I’d walked down that hallway. It might have been nothing, but the right thing to do would have been to make sure.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christy, Your example is the perfect explanation of what I consider to be the bystander effect. I have seen experiments where a person is placed in a room with lots of actors. Smoke is then pumped into the room and all the fire alarms go off. The actors are all instructed to stay put and they observe the behaviour of the only person not in the know. That person will often stay in the room, even when the sprinklers go off and flames appear. The power of the majority is very strong. I think it is only natural to copy the people around you – especially if they are adults. Investigating a scream is a dangerous thing to do and so I understand reluctance to investigate. I think this book would have been much more realistic if some of the characters had shown fear, some tiredness and other assuming that someone else would deal with it. Thanks for sharing your story. I guess the fact that you never know why that person screamed will always play on your mind.

  5. I have heard abou the Kitty Genovese crime and read quite a few things about it, but not a fiction book based around the story. I’m fascinated by it so maybe I should pick this one up.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I hope that you decide to pick it up as I would be interested to hear your thoughts – enjoy!

  6. Jenners says:

    I would hope that the main reason people didn’t react was shock and that they just froze in fear and confusion. What a horrible thing to die in front of 30 people and have no one make a move to help you.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Such a sad case. I think the emotions would be much more powerful once they realised what happened – that part of the story would be far more interesting to me.

  7. I’m not normally a crime fiction read, but this actually sounds really interesting! I’ve always been curious about the bystander effect.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, It is quite different to most of the crime fiction I’ve read – I hope that you enjoy it!

  8. Kathleen says:

    I love crime fiction and have always been fascinated by the Kitty Genovese case. There was just another situation recently (I think in New York) where people stepped over a homeless man who had been beaten to death for several hours (and the blood was easy to see) and no one called the police or tried to come to his aid. Anyway, thanks for the link to the blogger who can give me loads of crime fiction recommendations. I’m almost afraid to check out their blog for fear that my books will soon overtake me and my family at home!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, Yes, I heard about that case. It is shocking – especially since he was stabbed trying to help someone else. I hope you find lots of good crime fiction recommendations over there!

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