Wednesday, April 3, 2024

IN PRAISE OF NOSY NEIGHBORS: Guest Post by Freya Sampson

The “nosy neighbor” has long been a popular character in mystery novels. Ever since Miss Marple sat in her front window, binoculars in hand as she solved the countless murders in her village, fiction has loved a busybody neighbor whose spying helps them to catch a criminal. These characters are often reclusive or hiding a secret of their own, such as in AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and when they witness a crime, they’re almost always ignored or disbelieved by the authorities, meaning they have to solve it themselves. 

My latest novel, Nosy Neighbors, is about Dorothy Darling, a 77-year-old woman who spends her days spying on and complaining about her neighbors, in particular 25-year-old Kat Bennett. But the pair are forced to become unlikely allies when their building is threatened with demolition, and even more unlikely amateur sleuths when one of their fellow residents is violently attacked in his home. Although the novel is a work of fiction, it was inspired by my own experiences: both of living with a nosy neighbor, and as I’m about to confess publicly for the first time, being a nosy neighbor myself!
It all started when I was in my early twenties and living in a rented house with friends. There was a lady who lived across the street from us who used to sit at her front window all day and stare into our house, occasionally shouting at one of us for being too noisy or blocking her gate. At the time we found her amusing, if a little irritating, but I never stopped to think about why she was so interested in our lives, and I certainly never made any attempt to talk to her.

Fast forward to 2020, and I was living in a different part of London when the pandemic hit and lockdown was imposed in the UK. Like millions of others, I suddenly found myself trapped in my home with my family, unable to leave other than for essential tasks. Up until this point, I’d never paid much attention to my neighbors; but now, stuck in my house, I found myself becoming fascinated with them. What was going on with the young man who lived across the road, who I’d see sitting topless at his computer screen all-day, talking into a headset? What about the couple next door I’d hear arguing through the wall, or the older man on the other side who I never saw step outside his front door. For the first time ever, I started watching the people who lived around me and wondering about their lives. Reader, I had become a nosy neighbor.

During that time, I thought back to the woman I’d dismissed as a busybody neighbor two decades previously, and started to wonder why she’d been so interested in me and my house mates. Was she simply annoyed by us and looking for excuses to complain, as we’d always thought? Or, as I now began to suspect, had she been lonely and deeply isolated, watching us because we were the only people she had in her life? I rang my old housemate and asked her if she remembered the shouting lady from number 32, and she reminded me of a story I’d forgotten. When our house had been broken into one night while we were out, it was the woman across the road who’d seen someone jimmy open our window and called the police. Her ‘nosiness’ had prevented the criminal from robbing our home.

Shortly after that conversation, I came up with the idea for my newest book, and in particular the main character Dorothy Darling. On the outside she’s seen as nosy and vindictive, and she’s deeply unpopular with her fellow residents because she’s always complaining about them. But through Dorothy, I wanted to explore the reasons why someone might become a ‘nosy neighbor’: the secrets in their past that tie them to their home, their motives for spying on their fellow residents, and the ways in which their ‘nosiness’ might actually be their gift that brings people together.

My own experience of being a nosy neighbor during the pandemic has definitely changed the way I think about the people I live amongst. Now, I make more of an effort to talk to my neighbors, in particular those who live alone or are newly arrived on the street. And if the lady from Tremadoc Road ever reads this, please know that I’m grateful for you keeping an eye us, and I’m sorry I never took the time to ring on your doorbell and say hello.


Freya Sampson works in television as a creator and executive producer. Her credits include two documentary series for the BBC about the British royal family as well as a number of factual and entertainment series. She studied history at Cambridge University and in 2018 was short-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize. She lives in London with her husband, two young children, and an antisocial cat

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