Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pulling Back the Layers...

When police investigate a murder, they often have to piece together what happened based on what witnesses say, what the evidence shows, and so on. So for police and private investigators, their acquaintance with the victim and the crime starts with the body. Gradually, they put together a picture of the victim and the events leading up to the murder. That’s a strategy that’s very often effective in crime fiction, too. As we slowly get to know the victim and learn what really happened, we learn more and more of the truth. In a way, it’s like unwrapping a package or peeling back the layers of an onion. Another analogy is putting together the pieces of a mosaic or puzzle. Either way, we learn what really happened and who the victim really was bit by bit.

Agatha Christie uses this strategy in some of her work. For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is traveling from Scotland to St. Mary Mead to visit her friend, Miss Marple. While she’s on the train, another train passes in the other direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the window of the other train and sees a woman strangled. At first, no-one believes her. There’s no dead body on the train, and no-one’s reported anyone missing. But Elspeth McGillicuddy knows what she saw, and tells Miss Marple about it. Miss Marple believes her friend, and they set to work trying to figure out what happened. Neither has any idea who the woman might have been, nor why she might have been murdered, but soon, they establish where the body must be if it left the train at all – Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe. Miss Marple arranges for her friend, Lucy Eyelsbarrow, to get a position at Rutherford Hall as a housekeeper, and the three women begin, bit by bit, to learn who the dead woman was, and why anyone at Rutherford Hall might want her dead. As Lucy gradually finds clues, hears gossip and so on, we learn a little more about the dead woman, who called herself Anna Stravinska. In the end, Miss Marple is able to piece together how Anna Stravinska was related to the Crackenthorpe family, and what happened on the day she was killed.

In Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Adriadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, is invited to design a Murder Hunt – a sort of scavenger hunt with a “body,” “suspects” and “clues” – for an upcoming fête at Nasse House. Oliver agrees and goes to Nasse, which is owned by Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. She soon gets the feeling that there’s something more going on than just the Murder Hunt, and asks her friend, Hercule Poirot, to come and investigate. He agrees and visits, under the guise of giving away the prizes for the Murder Hunt. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the “victim” is strangled. At first, Poirot and Oliver (and therefore, the reader) know very little about Marlene. All they know is that she’s Girl Guide, she was asked to be the “victim” and was quite pleased about it, and her family is a deeply-rooted local family. Bit by bit, as the investigation continues, we learn a little more about Marlene’s character. We also learn a little more about her background and family. The more small pieces of information Poirot gets, the closer he gets to finding out what really happened on the day of the fête. As it turns out, Marlene had a habit of snooping, and she found out things that it wasn’t safe for her to know. That unfortunate habit cost Marlene Tucker her life.

We also meet an unknown (at first) victim in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Harriet Van is taking a hiking holiday to Wilvercombe. Along the way, she stops to have lunch and rest by the sea, and ends up dropping off to sleep. When she wakes up, she finds the body of a man who’s had his throat cut. At first, Harriet wonders if the man committed suicide, but soon enough, she deduces that it was probably murder. With the tide coming in, Harriet gathers the clues she can, takes photographs of the body, and gets to Wolvercombe as fast as she can to give the alert. At first, we don’t know anything about the dead man. Soon, though, he’s identified as Paul Alexis, a professional dance partner at a local hotel. Gradually, Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey (who comes to help with the investigation) learn a little more about Alexis. Russian-born, he was engaged to marry wealthy Mrs. Weldon when he was murdered. At first, it seems that Alexis might have been killed as part of a political plot, since he thought himself to be a member of the Russian nobility. In the end, though, it turns out that Alexis was murdered for a much different reason. As the novel progresses and Wimsey and Vane learn more and more about the dead man, they also learn more about what exactly happened on the day of the murder.

Martha Grimes’ The Man With a Load of Mischief also begins with the murders of two unknown people, Rufus Ainsley and William Small, whose bodies are found in two different pubs. At first, we don’t know anything about these men, and the residents of Long Piddlington, where the murders occur, claim that they’re more or less strangers. Melrose Plant, a local resident, is curious about the murders, and suspects that the two men are not completely unknown in the village. Bit by bit, he and Inspector Richard Jury, who’s assigned to the case, peel away the layers, so to speak, and find out who the dead men were. As it turns out, both men’s deaths are much more closely connected to the village than it seems on the surface.

In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the shooting murder of an unknown illegal immigrant from Senegal. At first, no-one knows who the dead man was. The first officer to arrive, Alvise, is not known for his brilliance, and doesn’t carefully interview any of the witnesses, so by the time that Brunetti gets to the murder scene, the witnesses have mostly scattered. Worse, no-one seems particularly interested in finding out who the man was, nor who would have wanted him dead. As a vu comprá, or illegal street peddler, the man’s not considered worthy of much attention. So Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello have their work cut out for them as they try to investigate the murder. As they uncover bits and pieces of the victim’s background, Brunetti and Vianello find that he had a fortune in diamonds in his possession. They trace those diamonds and gradually, form a picture of the man and the people who wanted him dead.

Martin Edwards uses a similar strategy in The Cipher Garden. That novel begins with the murder of Warren Howe, a landscaper who’s killed with his own scythe. At first, we don’t really know anything about him. Soon, we learn that Howe was an abusive adulterer, and that the theory at the time of his death was that his wife, Tina, had killed him. She had an alibi, though, so the police couldn’t really push the case forward. Ten years later, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty, and DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case. As they look into the case, we learn, bit by bit, the kind of man Warren Howe was. We learn this through the people who knew him and through some of the other evidence that the team finds. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who’s taken a cottage nearby, is researching the strange shape of the cottage garden. When he finds out that Howe was employed by the same landscaping firm that created the garden, Kind begins to add pieces to the puzzle that Scarlett and her team are investigating. We gradually get a sense of the network of relationships and past history in the village that led to Howe’s murder, in the same way that a picture slowly comes into focus.

There’s a very interesting study of how the victim’s character is slowly revealed in Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals. In that novel, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a Reykjavík lawyer, gets a call from the family of Harald Guntlieb. Harald, a German student studying history in Iceland, has been brutally murdered, and the family wants Thóra to investigate. The police have a suspect in custody, but the Guntliebs don’t believe the police have the right person. The Guntliebs offer Thóra a very high fee, and, thinking of her financial situation, Thóra agrees to look into the case. Soon, the Guntliebs send their representative, Matthew Reich, to work with Thóra, and the two begin to investigate. At first, we know very little about Harald. Bit by bit, though, Thóra and Matthew begin to peel away the layers of hearsay, lies and side issues to find out the kind of person Harald was. As they interview his mentor, his friends and members of his family, a picture emerges of the young man. What’s interesting about this picture is that it’s clouded again and again by various witnesses who lie for their own reasons.

The strategy of revealing the truth about the victim bit by bit can add levels of interest to a story and build suspense as we learn more and more. Do you like this strategy? Or do you prefer stories where you learn a lot about the victim before s/he is killed?


  1. I love the bit by bit method. It adds so much to the suspense and intrigue. If we know too much about the victim before they are killed, then the search for their killer isn't always as interesting. But if we learn a little at time, then we can be surprised at new information we learn and the story can have many twists and turns.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - You put that quite well. When we learn little pieces of information at a time about the victim and the circumstances of the killing, it sure is easier for those plot twists and turns. I also like it when one of the things we find out is that there's some set of hidden relationships that the victim has with the suspects. That's what happens in The Man With a Load of Mischief, and I think it adds to the story.

  3. I'm currently reading The Cipher Garden and I hope you didn't just tell me who the murderer is. I'm enjoying that book and I have enjoyed the others too. I love having a character seem one way and as the story progresses, we begin to see the character another way.


  4. Clarissa - No worries; I have a very strict "no spoilers" policy for Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Trust me; nothing I've written will prepare you for the ending of that fine, fine novel. I'm glad you like Edwards' work; that Lake District series is one of my favorites. I agree with you, too; it really is interesting when we get first one, than another, than yet another impression of a character - until we finally learn the truth.

  5. I much prefer books that peel away the layers rather than giving the reader everything in one big dump. This is one of the reasons I like to outline my plot and characters before beginning to write - whether it's a novel or a game. It makes it easier to add twists as well!

  6. Elspeth - That's a very well-taken point; it really is easier (and more fun : ) ) to add plot twists and surprises if one lets just a little information about the character out at a time. It's always a balance, I think, too, because readers want to know something about characters early in the novel. They want something to hold onto, so to speak. I like your idea of outlines to help organize how much information to share and how much to keep back (and for how long). I do the same thing.

  7. I think both ways work. The problem about getting to know the victim beforehand is that the reader feels much more involved. I think I have mentioned my ´rule´ before: "we don´t kill children the reader has got to know." The same is true to some extent about really likeable characters: if you kill them, you may antagonise your readers. So it is probably safer to kill first and make the victim come alive afterwards ;D

    A fine example of this is Sjöwall and Wahlöö´s debut, Roseanna.

  8. Dorte - That's a very well-taken point. The better we know the victim, the harder it is when the victim dies, unless the victim is one of those despicable people. That's why there's a balance, I think, if the author is going to let the reader get to know the victim a bit first. On one hand, knowing the victim can engage the reader more. On the other, it can engage the reader too much. And thanks for the mention of Roseanne. It's a fine example of what we're talking about here.