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?