Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Identity Crisis

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?


  1. Great post, Margot. So coincidental that we both wrote about The Likeness at the same time! I suspect I have more of a sensationalist turn of mind - when Cassie first discovers the murder victim is her lookalike, my mind immediately spun lots of possibilities (I distinctly remember "plastic surgery" coming to mind!).

    I don't find fake identities too hard to believe - I've enjoyed several of the mysteries you've mentioned. I think when done well, a false identity can add quite a fun and credible twist to a mystery plot.

  2. Belle - Thanks : ). It really is a little spooky, isn't it, that we both chose the same book.. It's funny you'd have thought about plastic surgery when Cassie finds out the victim could be her "twin." I didn't quite think that, but I admit my mind was churning out all sorts of scenarios.

    I agree with you, too, about false identities: when they're done well, they really can add an interesting level of suspense and they can be good plot twists.

  3. It can be done well, but quite often isn't, as it can sometimes seem like a bit of a clunky plot device. Like Belle, I did not enjoy The Likeness all that much - maybe Belle is correct that one would enjoy it more if not expecting it to be a mystery. But I found the "double identity" unconvincing and the coincidence of how it came about unbelievable. Similarly, Val McDermid in a recent thriller (the last Tony/Carol one, not the current Fever of the Bone, the one before) has a criminal who has serial identities for each crime, so the police don't catch him/her. I found this unrealistic, that this person would be so good at not leaving any trace or clues. Also, this same person chose the next letter of the alphabet (or something along those lines) for each new character, which is how he/she was eventually caught, which I think feeble given the fact we are to believe that he/she was sophisticated enough to be in no records, etc.

    It can be done well, though, and I can't think of any examples at the moment! I think that false identity came into one of Martin Edwards's Lake District books and was done effectively, and I think Ruth Rendell has done it (the Chimney Sweeper's Boy, perhaps, which I very much enjoyed). Sorry my memory is so bad this morning.

    When I was young, my favourite "false identity" novel was A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. I found that brilliant, but then I had not come across the device before. Probably now it would seem a bit obvious. The nature of the false identity in that book means that the film(s) of the book could not really work and deliver the same punch as the book, half-way through when realisation hits!

  4. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean about how clunky the false identity tool can be. It is sometimes used in a very unconvincing way, and to me, that just gets in the way of the rest of the novel. Like you, I like my novels believable, and it's hard to do that with a device that just ends up being silly.

    That's why I'm glad you mentioned Ruth Rendell and Martin Edwards; both of them do use the identity question quite effectively, and they're good examples of the way false identity can help build suspense. That's the thing about a blog post; one posts and then only later remembers more examples - at least that's how I am.

    ..and thanks for warning me about Val Mcdermid's A Darker Domain. I'd thought about reading that one, but maybe I'll hold off...

  5. I saw it done recently on one of the Inspector Lewises that was on PBS. The victim wasn't who he seemed and I thought it really added to the plot. I think you could take it too far (like red herrings that go on and on), but it's fun when used well.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - I have to admit that I haven't seen that episode, but I agree with you 100% that false identity (like just about any device in a novel) can be overdone. To me (just my opinion), it especially detracts from a novel if it's contrived - if there's not a genuine, believable reason for a character to have a fake identity. When it's done well, though, you're absolutely right that it can add an interesting layer to a plot.

  7. Mistaken, false, loss of--all fun to read about.

  8. I appreciate the comments about my books. You will have gathered that I'm fascinated by questions of identity, and so identity switch books appeal to me very much. As you say, Margot, sophisticated modern techniques of detection have made it harder to conceal the identity of a corpse, and it's because of that that modern writers who explore identity puzzles tend to focus on identity secrets of the living characters rather than the deceased. The Lewis episode that Elizabeth mentions involved a deliberately false identification of the deceased, a plot device that can be very effective, as it was in that episode, but perhaps risks being over-done.

  9. Patti - You are so right! It can be fun as well as intriguing to read about those identity issues. When done well, it really adds to the plot, doesn't it?

    Martin - You have such a well-taken point! It's quite difficult now to have readers believe that it would be impossible to identify a body. It's just too likely that efforts would be made to do so, and that they'd succeed. Fortunately, identity secrets are just as fascinating, and it is interesting to explore them, isn't it? As I mentioned, I haven't seen that Lewis episode (although after your comment and Elizabeth's, I'll have to rectify that), but I agree that that kind of deliberately false identification can easily be overdone.