It’s been many years since the brutal attack on Kitty Genovese in 1964 Queens, New York, when a young woman returning from work in the pre-dawn hours is stabbed repeatedly by her assailant. Alerted by her screams, neighbors watch from their apartment windows, but none call for help, each resident assuming someone else has phoned the police. Kitty endures two hours of savagery and rape, her attacker even returning to finish the job: “He wonders if anyone is ever going to stop him.” But the victim refuses to die, crawling to the safety of her front door until her last breath.
Jahn recreates Kitty’s nightmare in this novel. Like in Hitchcock’s popular movie Rear Window, we learn of the intimate dramas of apartment dwellers as the victim, Kat Marino, flails desperately against the blows of a madman, her entreaties for help ignored. A wife demands the truth from an unfaithful husband; a Vietnam draftee ordered to report for duty considers the fate of his terminally ill mother, her condition both excuse and burden; a suicidal vet comes to terms with his sexual identity, terrified of admitting the truth; a patrolman ignores a woman’s screams, preoccupied with his own need to conceal the illegal profit he has been extracting from helpless victims; a man listens to his distraught wife’s fears of an accident on the way home, then drives into the night to do what she cannot, waving to Kat as she takes the parking place Frank is just leaving.
Frank is conceivably the only man who might act on Kat’s behalf, but he is delayed in returning in an ironic twist that illustrates Fate’s often cruel jokes. As for the others caught in the web of their own concerns, it is hard to empathize with individuals in turmoil in the hours just before dawn, from the bitter jealousies of two couples engaged in “swinging” to the exhausted ambulance driver who rushes to the scene of an accident only to recognize a face from the past, a nightmare that has haunted his life since childhood. The author doesn’t minimize these epiphanies, large and small, moments of decision and regret. But Kat’s life-and-death struggle, the victim submitted to the inhuman attacks - even a brutal rape - over and over again, a kitchen knife buried in her chest, renders anything else insignificant.
There is simply no excuse, no problem more serious or life-threatening than the girl in the street, stared at but ignored. This frightening scenario is one we instinctively know could happen to any of us. The urban environment is anonymous. Daily activities shut down on the cusp of another day, schedules so carefully calibrated that even piercing screams can’t break through the shell of self-involvement people have built around themselves. Two hours after the first cries for help, the sirens finally announce the arrival of an ambulance. Breaking daylight reveals pools of Kat’s blood - so much blood - Kat still desperately clinging to life.
Staring at those who have finally emerged from the building, Frank, returning after his own harrowing nighttime ordeal, yells in outrage at his neighbors, “Nobody saw what was happening out here?” This story is a sad and tragic footnote to our concept of community and compassion, our belief in our own moral righteousness.