The Good Neighbors of Kitty Genovese

Cover of Ryan David Jahn’s Good Neighbors
Good Neighbors by Ryan David Jahn
On the night of March 13th, 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and murdered outside her apartment building in Queens, New York. Her neighbors heard, and a couple even witnessed some part of the event as it took place. No one called the police for thirty minutes. It turned out that many of the 38 witnesses who heard the murder take place thought they were listening to a lovers quarrel.

It was the death of Kitty Genovese that inspired Ryan David Jahn’s brilliant debut crime novel, Good Neighbors, winner of the 2010 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Good Neighbors is about the people who witness a similar, fictional crime, and how their lives intersect on that night. However, it’s also about the impact that not calling the police, not getting involved, has on their lives. Jahn’s writing is tight, gripping, and spare, allowing the reader to really connect with the emotionally charged story. You can open the book to any page, begin reading, and it immediately becomes impossible to put down.

Kitty Genovese
The real Kitty Genovese
The psychological basis behind what happened to Kitty Genovese, which scientists named, “The Kitty Genovese Syndrome” or “Bystander Effect,” is one I have thought about quite a bit. Bystander Effect is, basically, the phenomenon that occurs when a group of people witness a crime or disaster. Scientists have found that the larger the group of viewers, the greater chance no one will do anything; everyone thinks that the next person will take responsibility. The scientists conducting these experiments have also found that the more a male in the group perceives himself to be “macho”, the less chance he will intervene to call police or stop the crime, due to his desire not to risk embarrassing himself in front of a crowd.

Information like that makes me WAY more afraid to go outside and interact with my fellow humans.

After you read Jahn’s book, you should dig out a copy of the 1975, made-for-TV movie, Death Scream, based on the Genovese case. It stars not only Ed Asner and Art Carney, but also one of the actors I miss most and who died WAY too young, Raul Julia. There’s one scene I will always remember: a shot from one of the windows above the street as the bleeding victim runs screaming across the street, and the neighbor just shuts the curtains and turns away.

Good Neighbors movie poster—how well do you know your neighbors?
Good fences make good neighbors…or do they?
Speaking of movies and neighbors, there’s another movie I wanted to mention. It’s a Canadian film done last year, that’s finally seeing some American distribution. It’s also called Good Neighbors (no relation to Jahn’s book) and takes place in Quebec, 1995, in the dead of winter. A serial killer is running amok in a small neighborhood, and the tenants of an old apartment building have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t. I wonder how many of them would call the police, if they heard a neighbor screaming?  

Could something like what happened to Kitty Genovese, and to Katrina Marino, the protagonist in Jahn’s Good Neighbors, happen today? The Internet seems littered with hours and hours of bystander video of all sorts of crimes. People even cheer on the criminal in some cases. However, for every person who sits back and tapes an assault rather than trying to stop the crime, there seems to be a person who leaps onto the train tracks as the train rockets down on some innocent person who happened to stumble. I’d like to believe that, in a stressful situation, I would react well and help a person or at least call the police, rather than wait for someone else to step in.

I guess, for most of us, we will never know until we find ourselves “in the breach.” How do you think you’d react, if you were in a crowd and a violent crime happened right there in front of you? Would you be on your phone calling the police? Or on your phone posting the clip to Twitter?


Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.


  1. Saundra Peck

    Good Neighbors, the book, looks like my next Kindle read… I am one of those people who yell out “call 911” as I try to help people, so a book about a crime that inspired studies sounds like a great read. I am familiar with the “Bystander Effect” and when I see it or feel it, it always pulls at my soul.

  2. Terrie Farley Moran

    I was a senior in high school living in the Bronx when Kitty Genovese was killed. The entire city was horrified that the neighbors didn’t run out into the street and help. I’d seen my own father do that any number of times and I’d watched other men in the neighborhood respond to something not right be it a car accident or a crime, so I couldn’t comprehend that thirty-eight people would watch or ignore a man stalking and attacking a women three separate times over the course of nearly half an hour. No one bothered to so much as call the police. My own interpretation at the time was that in working class neighborhoods we do pitch in but people a little bit better off than we were became scared for some reason. Now I’ve lived in Queens for more than forty years. When anything happens, I call 911 and then I try to render assistance. I’m an old lady on Social Security and Medicare but as recently as two years ago, I called 911, and then I intervened in a physical struggle between a man and a woman and my intervention caused another man (much younger and healthier than I) to also step in. I never thought about it but on reflection, the horror of the Kitty Genovese incident probably made me determined to jump in as needed. To this day I hope those thirty-eight observers have spent the last forty-seven years haunted and miserable for their part in the needless death of a lovely young woman.

  3. Neliza Drew

    My husband is one of the people who gets involved or calls whenever he hears or sees something amiss. His boss is the kind who witnesses a six-car pileup and shrugs, “Someone will call 911. I’m on my lunch break.”

  4. db

    Since this site likely has an international readership, it may be worth noting that the Ryan David Jahn novel, Good Neighbors, is known as Acts of Violence in some parts of the world. Same award-winning book, different title.

    I like to think I’d at least call the cops if I thought someone was in trouble. I did call ’em once when I lived in Southern California, in a town reputed to have one of the lowest crime rates in the nation, because I’d awakened in the night to the sound of screaming and banging…what sounded like my downstairs neighbor being knocked around by her boyfriend.

    The cops showed up within a few minutes, and things got quiet. Didn’t cost me anything; I doubt the downstairs neighbors ever knew who made the call. I’m sure they would’ve simply said they’d “received complaints.”

    I can’t understand how someone could think “Let someone else get involved” when the violence is so close by and it’s so easy to do something about it.

  5. Laura K. Curtis

    What has always struck me about the Kitty Genovese story is how timeless it is. Think about 1964. That was almost fifty years ago. But nineteen-year-old kids still know about the crime. (They may not remember her name, but they know about all the people watching from their windows.) If you ask them when it occurred, they’ll give you a blank look. It seems as if it could have happened yesterday.

    I’ve never (thank goodness) been witness to a crime except when I was a teacher and it was occurring in the hall outside my classroom. When that happened, yeah, I stepped in (except when it was girls–I’ll step between two guys, not not two girls). The only time I ever called 911 was when a guy died of natural causes in the parking lot at Staples while I was there. His wife, who had returned to her car to find him there, was screaming. I wasn’t the only one who called, I don’t think. And we all did our best to help her, though it was obvious there was nothing to be done for him.

  6. Robert K. Lewis

    Thank you, everyone, for your VERY insightful comments. Nice to hear that there are people out there who would, or have, called. 🙂

    And Laura, that’s really interesting that nineteen-year-olds would know, even in a peripheral sense, about the Genovese case. I would not have thought that likely.

    Thanks again!

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