In crime fiction, just as in real life, one of the first steps in a murder investigation is to identify the murder victim. Once that’s done, it’s just as important to identify who the likely suspects are and then use the evidence to narrow the list down to the real killer. Identities are important in crime detection; they not only give clues to the whereabouts of the killer, but they can also give clues to the motive. For instance, if it turns out that the victim is the heir to a large fortune, and the murderer, under his or her real identity, is another heir, this makes for a strong motive for killing the victim. Murderers know this, so one strategy they use to confuse the sleuth is to change their identities – or the identity of the victim. The question of identity can add a real layer of suspense to a story, provided that it’s not contrived.
Manipulating identities was much easier in the days of classic crime fiction, because forensic testing, such as DNA sampling, hadn’t been developed. That’s one reason for which there are some brilliant examples of forged and switched identities in the mystery novels of that era. For example, in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen has set up a private detective agency with a partner, Beau Rummell (that name is the source of more than one wisecrack in the book). Queen and Rummell are hired by the very wealthy and extremely eccentric Cadmus Cole, who’s just returned from twenty years at sea. Cole won’t tell them what the case is, but he offers the firm a large retainer, which Queen and Rummell accept. Cole then returns to sea, where he suddenly dies. At this point, Queen and Rummell begin to search for Cole’s heirs. Since Queen’s indisposed, he sends Rummell to Hollywood to track down one heir, Kerrie Shawn, a hardworking, but very poor, aspiring actress. Queen also manages to locate Margo Cole, the other heir, who’s been living in France. The two young women are brought to Cole’s estate where they immediately begin to vie for his fortune. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummel, who’s fallen in love with Kerrie, investigates the shooting with Queen’s guidance. What Queen and Rummell discover is that very few of the major characters in this case are really who they seem to be. Forged identities play a major role in Margo’s death and in the solution of the case.
Fake and hidden identities play very important roles in several Agatha Christie novels; I’ll just mention two of them here. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Madame Giselle, a French moneylender who’s been murdered with a poisoned thorn while en route from Paris to London. The only people who had the opportunity to murder Madame Giselle are her fellow passengers, so Poirot and Inspector Japp investigate each passenger. What they find is that two of the people on the plane have hidden their real identities. Those identities turn out to have everything to do with how and why Giselle was murdered.
That’s also true in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory, Death), in which Poirot finds out who’s murdered Celia Austin, a young woman who lives in a student hostel. As he and the police look into the background of each of the residents in the hostel, as well as those of the owner and the matron, they discover some surprises about three of the residents’ identities. In the end, it turns out that Celia’s death is related to those hidden identities.
More modern crime fiction also makes use of switched, forged and fake identities. For instance, in Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces, the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia, is shocked when pieces of a body start turning up in different parts of the town. Nobody wants to believe that the murderer is a “local,” so everyone assumes that the murderer is Blair Bainbridge, a handsome male model who’s just bought a farm in town. Bainbridge’s neighbor, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, has gotten to know Blair a little, and has some interest in him, so she wants to clear his name if she can. Things get even more urgent when a body appears on Bainbridge’s farm. As “Harry” investigates the case, she finds out that both murders are connected to the fact that someone in town has a fake identity and is willing to do anything to keep that identity.
False identities figure importantly in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma, too. In that novel, the Watson family, an all-American family from “the far western village of Carlton’s Creek,” are the lucky winners of a lottery. Their prize is $250,000 and a week in a luxury suite at New York’s posh Hotel Beaumont. Everyone on the Beaumont’s staff has been instructed to give the family the “star treatment,” including baseball and theater tickets and a shopping spree. On the second morning of their visit, the Watsons’ twelve-year-old daughter, Marilyn, goes missing. At first, everyone thinks she may have wandered off or gotten lost; Marilyn’s deaf, so it’s hard for her to communicate. When her body turns up, stuffed into a large wastecan, the hotel detective, the police, and Pierre Chambrun, the hotel manager, unite to find out who killed Marilyn and why. It soon becomes clear that she was probably murdered by someone on the elegant 14th floor, where the Watsons were staying, so Chambrun and his public relations director, Mark Haskell (from whose viewpoint the story is told) focus their investigations on the residents of that floor. What they find is that Marilyn’s killer is at the hotel under a false identity, and killed Marilyn to protect that identity.
Sometimes, of course, it’s the sleuth that has a false identity. That’s often the case in spy thrillers, where the sleuth goes undercover as a part of his or her job. But mystery novels that aren’t spy thrillers also sometimes feature sleuths who go undercover. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, a British agent goes undercover at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, to track down a treasure trove of jewels that were spirited out of Ramat, a Middle Eastern country, just before a major revolution. He takes the name of Adam Goodman and cooperates with Hercule Poirot as Poirot investigates the murder of a games mistress at the school. In Christie’s The Clocks, a Special Services agent who takes the name of Colin Lamb is on the trail of a Communist spy ring. He traces one of the ringleaders to Wilbraham Crescent, a quiet neighborhood in the town of Crowdean. While he’s following the clue that’s led him to that neighborhood, a young woman bursts out of one of the houses, screaming that she’s found a dead man in the house. It turns out that the young woman works at a secretarial bureau and has been lured to the house deliberately. When Lamb goes inside to investigate, he finds the dead man and alerts the police. The whole murder seems surreal – almost melodramatic. Not only was the woman, Sheila Webb, lured to the house deliberately, but the dead man has only a fake business card to identify him, and four clocks have mysteriously appeared in the room where the dead man was found. The whole case seems so fantastic that Lamb takes it to his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot, and challenges him to solve the murder.
In Tana French’s The Likeness, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox, who’s recovering from a traumatic undercover assignment, has been reassigned to the domestic violence team. She’s sent back to the homicide squad, though, when the body of a young woman who looks exactly like Cassie is found. The young woman’s name is Lexie Madison, which is the alias Cassie used in her last undercover assignment. Somehow, the dead woman has taken Cassie’s fake identity. Frank Mackey, Cassie’s supervisor, persuades her to take the dangerous step of assuming Lexie’s identity and pretending that Lexie is still alive, so she can penetrate Lexie’s world and find the killer. As Lexie, Cassie joins an eccentric and strangely close-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, outside Dublin. Now, Lexie’s in the precarious position of having to find a killer without being found out. What complicates matters even more is that she finds Lexie’s world so compelling and appealing that it’s very hard to maintain her own identity as Cassie Maddox.
What’s your view? Do you like the “tool” of fake identities? Do you think it’s too hard to believe?