Friday, June 25, 2010

They're the Faces of the Stranger But We Love to Try Them On*

The focus of most murder investigations is the victim. Who knew the victim? Who had anything to gain by the victim’s death? Who might have been so angry at/jealous of/obsessed with/afraid of the victim that there seemed no choice but killing? Because the victim is so important in an investigation, real-life and fictional detectives try to get a picture of what the victim was like. That’s especially important because very often, detectives don’t meet the victim before the murder, so they don’t get the chance to form their own impressions. The only problem with this is that people can have very different views of the same person. So, much as no two witnesses remember a crime in the same way, it may be difficult to get an accurate picture of the victim. Add to that the fact that witnesses who are hiding something might lie about their impressions of the victim, and you’ve got a wide variety of different perspectives. The detective, then, has to sift through them and figure out which impressions are the most accurate. We see this variety of perspectives quite a lot in crime fiction, and it makes sense. For one thing, people really do have different impressions of the same person. For another, different perspectives on the same person can serve as excellent “red herrings,” especially if we don’t meet the victim ourselves before the murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, Amyas Crale, a famous painter. Carla’s mother, Caroline Crale, was convicted of the crime and died in prison a year after the trial. Carla, though, is sure that her mother was innocent, and asks Poirot’s help in proving it. Poirot agrees and interviews the five people who were “on the scene” at the time of the murder. He also speaks to several other people who were involved in the original investigation and trial. What’s fascinating about this search for answers is the different views of Amyas and Caroline Crale that emerge. One view is that Crale was a cold, heartless, egotistical hedonist who put his wife through more than any woman should have to endure. Another is that Crale was a brilliant painter, sadly misunderstood, who loved life and who endured years of nagging and controlling from his self-absorbed and selfish wife. Yet another view is that Amyas Crale was despondent over his infidelities and committed suicide One of the important tasks Poirot has to accomplish in this case is to sift through the various impressions of both Crales to find out who killed Amyas Crale and why.

In Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Poirot finds the killer of beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. She and her husband, Ken, and stepdaughter, Linda, are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. When Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel, Poirot gets involved in the investigation, since he’s staying at the same hotel. He and the police interview several of the other guests, including the members of Arlena’s family, and get several different perspectives on her. One view is that she’s a heartless “homewrecker” who toys with men and delights in breaking up families. Another is that she’s cold, calculating and money-hungry. Yet another is that she’s been the victim, both of her husband and of a blackmailer. And then there’s the view, put forth by one guest, that she’s “pretty much of a darned fool.” Since Poirot didn’t really know Arlena, he has to sort through what everyone says about her to find out who really killed her and why.

Rockford Police Chief Mario Balzic gets some very conflicting perspectives on a young murder victim in K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page. When the nearly-nude body of Janet Pisula is found in her room at the local community college, the first thing Balzic tries to do is find out about her background. He doesn’t get very far, though, because it turns out that Janet Pisula spoke to nearly no-one, and had no close friends at school. Interviews with her teachers and the other residents of the rooming house where she lived aren’t very useful, either. One of her teachers says that she wrote brilliantly; another says that she seemed unable to answer questions in class. One perspective is offered by her uncle, who says that she suffered brain damage as the result of a car accident. Another perspective, offered by her one close friend, Frances Milocky, is that Janet Pisula was brilliant, but had so many different ideas she wasn’t able to express them. She’s called “dumb” by other people. As Balzic slowly learns more and more about this young woman, he finds it harder to understand why she was killed – until he gets an important clue from something he’s told in one of the interviews he conducts. That clue doesn’t really “unlock” Janet Pisula’s complex personality, but it does help Balzic find her killer.

In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis re-open the two-year-old murder of a nurse, Yvonne Harrison, whose nude body was found gagged and handcuffed to her bed. At first, the police thought she was the victim of a burglar, but there was never enough evidence to convict anyone. So the case was left to “go cold.” Now, anonymous tips suggest that Harry Rapp, who’s just been released from jail on burglary charges, may have been responsible. Superintendent Strange gives the case to Morse and Lewis, but Morse seems strangely uninterested in solving it. So at first, Lewis does much of the work on his own, and what he finds are some very different perspectives on the kind of person Yvonne Harrison was. One view of it is that she was hopelessly attracted to men, and unable to resist them. Another is that, in fact, she was the aggressor, and men found her so irresistible that she was murdered in jealousy. A third view is that she was “all business,” and that her many relationships with men were all for financial reasons. Certainly it’s clear that she wasn’t faithful to her husband. As Lewis sifts through all of these perspectives, he’s increasingly worried by Morse’s seeming unwillingness to work the case, and then he finds what he thinks is the shocking reason for Morse’s reaction. Of course, this is a Colin Dexter novel, so things are not what they seem. But what’s interesting is that Morse’s perspective on Yvonne Harrison isn’t really given to the reader, even though he knew her. In the end, Morse does provide invaluable help to Lewis and together they solve the case.

We also see a variety of perspectives on a victim in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland. In that novel, former candidate for the ministry Alexander Seaton is an undermaster at the grammar school in Banff. One morning he awakens to find that the body of Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s apprentice, is in his schoolroom. Then, Seaton discovers that his good friend, Charles Thom, has been arrested and imprisoned for the murder. He’s got a motive, too, since he and Davidson were rivals for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom begs Seaton to clear his name, and Seaton agrees. As he begins to look into the murder, he finds that different people had different views about Davidson, and those views lead Seaton to different theories about the killing. One view is that Davidson was a political plotter, in league with the Spanish government to overthrow the Protestant leaders of Scotland and bring Catholicism to the country. Another is that Davidson was involved in witchcraft. There are other perspectives taken on Davidson, too. As Seaton listens to what different people say about Davidson, he discovers that the one person who might really know is Marion Arbuthnott. But before Seaton can really get helpful information from her, she dies, too. At first, everyone believes she committed suicide. Then, rumor gets around that she was a witch, and that rumor has terrible consequences. Seaton finally gets to the truth and is able to find out who killed both Patrick Davidson and Marion Arbuthnott, but not before risking his own life.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take, we learn of the brutal murder of up-and-coming architect Birna Hálldorsdóttir. She’s found raped and murdered on a beach not from the upscale spa/resort where she was staying. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is staying at the same resort because she’s helping a client, the spa’s owner, prepare a case against the former owners of the land and buildings. He claims that they’re haunted, but that the owners never told him. When Birna’s body is found, Thóra’s client is accused of the crime, since he was having an affair with her. Thóra agrees to take on his case, and begins to look into Birna’s background. She finds some very conflicting perspectives on the victim. Two members of the hotel staff hated Birna and are quite vehement in their dislike. Thóra’s client, on the other hand, is full of praise for Birna. So is another local resident whom Thóra finds out was also having an affair with the victim. There are other, varying opinions of her, too. Bit by bit, Thóra sorts through these perspectives and finds out what Birna was doing at the resort and what the motive was for her murder.

Everyone has a different viewpoint, and it’s interesting to see how different people can see the same victim from very different perspectives. As the sleuth listens to what witnesses say and learns about the victim, it often involves a process of sorting out these different perspectives It can sometimes seem that the witnesses are all talking about completely different people. What’s your view? Which books have you enjoyed that use this strategy?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Stranger.


  1. Five Little Pigs illustrates your point to perfection. In a different way, the shifting viewpoints in The Moonstone add real depth to a true classic.

  2. Martin - Thanks for that reference to The Moonstone. As you say - a real classic, and those shifting viewpoints do, indeed, lend much to the story.

  3. Agatha Christie is the master at this. She always has so many POVs and Poirot and the reader has to sift through information to find out what's true and what's not. Great post. Loved the Five Little Pig story.


  4. Clarissa - Thank you : ). Five Little Pigs is, I think, one of Agatha Christie's great examples of getting all kinds of different points of view. I think that's one of the things I like best about that story. And you're right; Christie does that so very well in several of her stories. I had to stop myself at two. ; ).

  5. very interesting post...I like to think of the victim as an important character in my mysteries -even if they aren't alive from the git go of the book. They have lots to tell both as memories for the suspects and as corpses (how they are in death). No body does it better than Agatha Christie!

  6. Agatha Christie knows what's up! These were well thought examples, thank you so much!!!

    It was a pleasure visiting your blog!

  7. Jan - You put that very well! The victim is an important character, whether or not we get to meet the victim before s/he dies. In fact, in Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Hercule Poirot mentions how important knowing the victim is. He says that once you get to know the victim very well; the victim tells you who the murderer is.

    Jen - Why, thank you : ). And thanks for your visit. You're right that Agatha Christie certainly knew the game brilliantly!

  8. Agatha Christie (big sigh, a wonderful writer and one I study as I learn to write better.

    Great Post!


  9. Teresa - Thank you : ). Yes, I've learned more from Agatha Christie's writing than many folks learn in writing classes, seminars, etc... She is, in my opinion, one of the finest writers there has been, and certainly at the top of my crime fiction writers' list.

  10. I've always believed the victim is the most important character in a murder mystery. The more complex the victim, the more complex the motives can be on why the poor creature was killed. I far prefer victims that aren't crying out to be killed, some are just so bad you wonder how they've survived so far. Give me a victim with a real agenda, some admirable qualities, and a few bad decision. Now give me suspects with similar characteristics and we're off to the races.

    All that said, "Five Little Pigs" is superb. It's a wonderful example of how everyone sees the world through their own eyes.

  11. Elspeth - I couldn't agree more! A victim who's deeper than it seems at first, and who has some complexities, is far more interesting than, as you say, someone who's just "crying out to be killed" (love that phrasing!). Most of us aren't just one-dimensional, anyway, so it makes sense that victims shouldn't be, either. Because of that, it's no wonder that others see the victim from lots of different points of view.

    And yes, Five Little Pigs really is a fabulous example of the way perspective and assumptions shape our thoughts. That's a major part of its appeal for me.

  12. Nice to see K.C. Constantine mentioned. Yes, creating a victim with complexity and interest is important. Even if they are dead in the first scene they must attract our interest.

  13. Patti - I've always found Constantine's Rockford series engaging and well-written. Interestingly enough, Constantine himself dislikes The Blank Page. I find it a compelling read, though.

    I agree with you, too, that the victim needs to attract the reader's interest. Otherwise, to put it bluntly, who cares about solving the crime?

  14. Just like you, I love it when we get different points of view on the victims. The Remorseful Day is a wonderful example, and I also like the challenge of creating characters who have different sides or layers to their personality.

  15. Dorte - You've got quite a good point about creating characters who have different aspects to their personalities. Everyone sees a different side of that character, and that makes that character all the more interesting, I think. It is, as you say, a challenge, but an enjoyable one. And I'm glad you liked The Remorseful Day; what a wonderful read!