Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Through the Eyes of the Killer...

One of the fascinating things about crime fiction is when we can really see how the killer thinks. For most of us, the thought of taking another life, except, perhaps, in self-defense or to save a loved one, is inconceivable. Yet people do kill, and it’s very interesting to see how the killer’s mind works. That’s one reason why, in many novels, the killer explains everything at the end of the novel. That’s also one reason why crime fiction that’s told from the killer’s point of view can be so absorbing. In those novels, we get to see what motivates the killer and look at the story from his or her point of view. Of course, there are risks, too, when a story is told from the killer’s point of view. For instance, sometimes, especially when the story switches back and forth from the killer’s point of view to the point of view of another character (say, the sleuth), the story can seem disjointed. Also, it can be more challenging to make a story told from the killer’s point of view realistic. Still, it’s an interesting plot device and can be very effective.

There’s a long tradition of the killer telling his or her view at the dénouement, when the sleuth unmasks him or her. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a retired tycoon. Since he had a large fortune, there are several suspects, and all of them are hiding something. Poirot finds out which of the suspects is the real killer, and tells the murderer that he's going to tell the Inspector in charge of the case what he knows. The killer's only chance is "come clean," and in the end, the killer writes out the truth of the case. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Poirot investigates the murder of the 4th Baron Edgware. At first, the Baron's wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the chief suspect. However, she has an alibi, so the police can’t really pursue a conviction. Poriot looks into the case and finds out who the murderer is, and an arrest is made. Later, the killer writes a letter to Poirot, explaining what really happened, and we get to see how and why the crime was committed from the killer’s point of view.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we also see an example of a killer who writes out a confession. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates the death of an elderly member of his club, General Fentiman, who apparently died in a chair at the club. His only living relation, his sister, Lady Dormer, has also died, and it becomes critical to find out which of them died first. Lady Dormer was wealthy, and according to the terms of her will, the beneficiary depends on whether she or her brother died first. As it turns out, Fentimen was poisoned, so Wimsey has to find out not only which of the two died first, but also, who killed Fentimen. When he does, he tells the murderer what he knows, and gives the killer the opportunity to clear another suspect from suspicion. The killer writes out a confession, and then commits suicide.

In some novels, at least part of the story is told through the killer’s point of view. That’s what happens in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s three-novel Anasazi series. In those novels, Archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole investigate several sets of remains found in New Mexico’s Sonora Desert. In parallel fashion, we follow the fortunes of a group of 13th Century Andasazis. Warrior Chief Browser, his deputy and friend, Catkin, and their friends investigate the same deaths, and in two different time periods, we find out who was responsible for the various deaths. Throughout the novels, we also hear from the killer, whose point of view we follow periodically. What’s particularly interesting is the different perspective the sleuths and the killer have on the same events.

We see a story through the eyes of the killer in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, too. In that novel, forensic anthropologist David Hunter is on a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory (AKA The Body Farm). While he’s there, he gets drawn into the investigation of a decomposed body found in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Then another body is found, and another. It’s soon clear that a serial killer is at work, and Hunter is involved against his better judgment in the case. Throughout this novel, we also see the events as the killer sees them. In this way, we learn about the events that triggered the killings, and we learn what the killer’s goal actually was. At the same time, Hunter is also putting the evidence together, and we get to see the final events of the story, as it were, through two pairs of eyes.

There’s an interesting set of sequences in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, too, where we see the events in the story from the point of view of the killer, as well as the point of view of the investigators. Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, is assigned to help find Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the Navajo Reservation. By the time he and the FBI agent he’s escorting find Gorman, Gorman's been murdered and his body prepared for death in the traditional Navajo way. Chee’s taken off that part of the case and asked to find Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s distantly related to Gorman and who seems to have disappeared. Chee believes that her disappearance is related to Gorman’s death, so against orders, he keeps looking for Gorman’s killer, because he’s afraid that Margaret might be in danger. In the latter half of the novel, we get to see the events of the story from the killer’s perspective, too. We find out what the killer’s background is, and why he’s after both Gorman and Margaret. There’s an especially interesting scene where he encounters Chee for the first time; that scene is told from both perspectives. That’s not easy to do without confusing the reader, but Hillerman is successful at it.

Michael Robotham’s Shatter also features the killer’s point of view. In that novel, clinical psychologist Joe O’Laughlin is drawn into a strange case of psychological terror when he’s asked to try to talk a woman, Christine Wheeler, out of committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. He doesn’t succeed, and a few days later, her distraught daughter Darcy visits O’Laughlin. Darcy is sure that her mother didn’t commit suicide, and she wants O’Laughlin to help prove it. O’Laughlin begins to wonder whether someone could actually be manipulated into committing suicide, and he wonders why someone would have wanted Christine Wheeler dead. So he asks his friend, retired police officer Vincent Ruiz, to help him look into the case. Then, there’s another death, and now, it seems much clearer that a killer’s at work. We see parts of the story told from the killer’s perspective, too, and through those parts, we learn how the killer manages to manipulate the victims. Here
is a fine review of Shatter from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

There are, of course, several other novels that include the killer’s perspective as well as that of the sleuth. One that I confess I haven’t read, but thought too good an example not to mention is Paul Cleave’s debut novel, The Cleaner. That’s the story of Joe Middleton, who works at the Christchurch police station. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Joe is also a serial killer known as the Carver. In the novel, Joe’s looking for a “copycat killer” who uses the Carver’s techniques. Joe knows the killer is a “copycat,” of course, for the best of all reasons. Here
is a fine review of The Cleaner by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Interestingly enough, there’s also an Agatha Christie novel written from the point of view of the killer. I won’t give away the title, so I don’t spoil it for anyone, but it’s a tricky strategy that Christie did remarkably well.

What’s your view? What do you think of novels that feature the killer’s point of view?


  1. I haven't read Agatha's RA yet, but I am really not a fan of being inside the killer's head. I find it extremely unsettling, though I'm sure others may not. I love the Sayers book, and wrote about it one November on my blog.


    Again, an excellent posting, Margot!

  2. Nan - Thank you :)! You're very kind. I know what you mean about how unsettling it can be to know what the killer is thinking. It's eerie to put ourselves "in the killer's shoes."

    Thanks very much for sharing your terrific post on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Folks please do stop by Nan's fine blog; lots of fine reviews and discussion await you there : ).

  3. Seeing things from the killer's view point can make one unsettled. But at the same time it can make for an intriguing read. I enjoy the novels where the author is able to give you both the killer and the sleuth's viewpoints. Enjoyed the post.

  4. I've only read a couple of novels told from the killers perspective, the Agatha Christie and also Paul Cleave's The Cleaner. I enjoyed both. It's a different perspective and can get intensely uncomfortable, especially as there are characteristics of the killer that you like, so you can feel quite torn and sometimes sympathetic.
    Don't think I'll try it myself though.

  5. Mason - Thank you : ). I agree that sometimes, understanding the killer's point of view is both intriguing and engrossing. It also can "rattle the reader." When the author shares both viewpoints skillfully, the reader certainly gets a full look at the mystery. I admire writers who can do that.

    Vanda - You put that quite well; it really can make the reader uncomfortable, and I hadn't thought about the fact that it can also make you feel a bit torn. That certainly invests the reader in the story, and of course, authors want to do that. Still, like you, I don't think I'd write that way. It's a real risk, isn't it?

  6. I read that AC novel with the POV of the killer and it's one of my favorite. I like to always add POV of my killers in my novels. I don't like to get into their heads but its there for people to find some sort of sympathy.


  7. Ann - Oh, that Agatha Christie novel is one of my favorites, too. I respect you for including the killer's POV. I agree that it adds to the reader's engagement if you can generate some feeling for the killer, and that can make your characters more real. Still, that's tricky to do.

  8. I have not read any books like this yet. I say yet, because I now think reading one might help me with my wip.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  9. It's not usually cozy enough for me--at least with the modern mysteries, which tend on the graphic side. But I could handle a Golden Age through the killer's eyes. I think it's an interesting technique, though. Another "pulling for the bad guy thing"--I do like Dexter and Patricia Highsmith's books.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Glynis - Very kind of you : ) I know what you mean. I learn a great deal about writing from reading the work of other authors. My own WIP doesn't use the killer's point of view, but I've been learning a lot of other things from what I read.

    Elizabeth - I'm not a fan of really graphic stories, either. It's not my preference, and I don't write that way. But, as you say, sharing a story from the killer's point of view is a really interesting strategy, and it can be engaging. I'm not sure I'd try it, but I can see the appeal if one wants to gain sympathy for the "bad guy." And thanks very much for reminding me of Highsmith and Dexter : ). I like them, too.

  11. I'm normally a bit wary of books told through the killer's eyes (I think Thomas Harris kind of ruined it for me) which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to enjoy Martin Edward's fictionalised account of the story of Hawley Crippen in Dancing for the Hangman. It felt so very realistic that I could imagine it happening just like that.

    Now I'm trying to work out which Christie you are talking about....hints? clues? or do I have to read more?

  12. Bernadette - I am so eager to read Dancing for the Hangman! I'm an Edwards fan as it is, and I do enjoy historical fiction, so what's not to like? Folks, Bernadette's excellent review of Dancing for the Hangman is here.

    Hmm... about the Christie novel...hmm...I don't want to give too much away. OK, in this novel, Hastings does not appear, although he is mentioned.

  13. I read one from the killer´s point of view recently (no spoilers) which was done quite well, but I agree with Nan and Bernadette that they may be too unsettling to read.

    Besides it is not the only way to tell the reader what happened and why. Some writers are excellent at making us believe the (self-centred)killer is dying to tell us all about his glorious moment in the final chapter. It is an balancing act, though, because now and then writers tell us too much in the last chapter, giving us every tiny bit of information about the antagonist´s life, making me at least forget all the excitement immediately before it.

  14. I admit that one of my POVs telling my WiP is from the guilty party's. However, I don't want readers to figure that out until when my detective figures it out. It's certainly proving interesting to write.

    I think it depends on what the killer's motivation is. If you're dealing with a psychotic maniac, then that could be disturbing to read - and (honestly) I've found it becomes rather predictable. A killer, though, who has committed murder for 'good' reasons - that can be fascinating to read.

  15. Dorte - You're right; sometimes when we learn the killer's perspective, it is awfully unsettling, isn't it? Still, if it's done well, it can be exciting. I hadn't thought about the fact that the killer can give too many details and take away from the excitement, but you're right; that certainly can happen. I think, though, that every time too much information is given, it can take away from the plot. As you say, it is a balancing act.

    Elspeth - It's funny you would use the word, "predictable." You wouldn't think that a psychotic killer's point of view gets predictable, but it can. Especially if the rest of the book isn't very well-written. As you say, though, when the killer has a "good" (if there is one) reason to kill, and the rest of the story is done well, then yes, that can be really interesting. And the more I learn about your novel, the more eager I am to snap it up when it comes out. It sounds fascinating, and I'm sure it'll be a winner.

  16. Lovely post, as ever, Margot. There is one style of crime fiction that is quite popular, in which the author tells the narrative story, but intersperses it with short (usually) chapters in italics (usually) from the killer's perspective. We, the reader, are supposed to work out which character it is, I guess. Sometimes this is done quite well but often it is rather cliched, especially as we usually gradually realise that the killer is male, lives with his mother, she dominated him, he doesn't go out, etc etc.

    I've read quite a few with this "alternating perspective", and won't remember many by name. Marie Jungstedt does it, I think Inger Ashe Wolfe did it in The Calling, and Nigel McClery did it in his second novel. But they are by no means the only ones.

    Do you know I think I have read that Agatha Christie novel but for the life of me I can't remember anything about it, least of all the title. I am sure Martin Edwards would know, though, without even looking it up!

  17. Maxine - Thank you : ). You do haave a point about how easily stories told from the killer's point of view can be. As you say, there are many now, where we learn through short, interspersed chpaters or mini-chapters who the killer is, and what sort of psychological trauma made him (no sexism intended here, but it often is a 'him') turn to killing, etc.. I haven't read The Calling, but as you know, Simon Beckett does it in Whispers of the Dead. Beckett, I might add, does it skillfully. If it's not done well, it really can be cliched. I think the basic idea of telling about a murder from the killer's perspective is intriguing. There've been a number of short stories I've read that do that well. But it takes some skill.

    I'll bet you have read the Agatha Christie one. I know Martin has, too. If it helps at all, I've mentioned that particular novel in at least one of my posts. Oh, wait, I suppose that's not much help, is it? ; )

  18. Great post Margot. I read the Christie book when I was at school, and really enjoyed it. Then last year I read THE CLEANER, and loved that. Completely different kinds of books, in style and content, and how much the reader knows about the narrator being the killer, but both very well written in their own way. I wouldn't want to overdose on killer-perspective books, but one now and then amongst the other crime novels I read, is a great change of pace, if they're well-written. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  19. Craig - Thanks so much : ). I agree that there is such a thing as overdosing on novels that are told from the killer's point of view. And, as we've all been saying, writing that kind of novel does take skill, and can easily go quite wrong. When it does work, though, it can be a fascinating approach to telling a story.