Friday, January 7, 2011

Who Are You?*

It's much harder to investigate a so-called "Jane/John Doe" murder than it is to investigate a murder where the victim is quickly identified. So some killers go to great lengths to make it hard to identify a victim. Of course, today's forensic and medical technology make it difficult for a body to remain unidentified for long. But sometimes, the body's unidentified just long enough for, say, the murderer to work out an alibi or cover his or her tracks in other ways. It's interesting too, how often we see crime fiction plots that start with an unidentified body.

For instance, Agatha Christie's
The Clocks begins with the discovery of an unidentified dead man in the living room of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, is sent to Miss Pebmarsh's house one day for what she thinks is a routine typing job. When she arrives, she discovers the body and gives the alarm. Colin Lamb, a Secret Service operative who's on a mission of his own, happens to be on the same street and helps Sheila Webb to report the murder. No-one in the neighbourhood knows who the dead man is, and since he has no identification (even the tailor's marks have been removed from his clothes), Inspector Richard Hardcastle has a hard time prosecuting the case at first. Then, Lamb tells his father's friend Hercule Poirot about the case, in part to intrigue him. Lamb's plan works and Poirot looks into the matter. What he and Lamb find is that several people in the neighbourhood are keeping secrets. Once they discover who's keeping the secret of the dead man's identity, Poirot figures out how the man must have fit in, so to speak. That helps him put Hardcastle on the trail of evidence that leads him to the murderer.

Lucy Eyelesbarrow finds an unidentified body in Christie's
4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). She's been hired as temporary housekeeper at Rutherford Hall, the home of the Crackenthorpe family. Her work there is really a "cover," though. Miss Marple has asked Lucy to search the property for the victim of a murder that her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessed. Lucy duly finds the body of a young unidentified woman, just as Miss Marple thought she would. When the police are informed what's happened, the first thing they do is to try to draw a connection between the body and the Crackenthorpe family. However, no-one in the family recognises the dead woman. So Inspector Bacon and Scotland Yard Inspector Dermot Craddock have to face the task of trying to find out who the woman was. They eventually narrow it down to a few possibilities, but while they're exploring them, several members of the Crackenthorpe family are taken ill by what turns out to be poisoning. Then, two of them die. Now it looks as though someone's targeting the Crackenthorpe family. Miss Marple and Lucy Eyelesbarrow work together to find out who killed the dead woman and how her death ties in with the Crackenthorpe family.

More modern technology makes identification a lot easier, so it can be more difficult to create a really plausible case of a body that's not identified. Still, some authors do it quite well. For instance, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahöö's
Roseanna is focused on an unidentified woman whose body is pulled out of Lake Vättern. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team are assigned to investigate the case. At first, the team assumes she's a local resident, but no-one has reported anyone missing who matches the dead woman's description. It's not until the team reports the woman's description to international authorities that Beck finds out who she is. It turns out that the woman matches the description of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, who was reported missing from her Lincoln, Nebraska home. It's not until Beck and the team finally find out the victim's identity that they can begin tracing her last weeks. By this time, quite a lot of time has passed since the murder, and there are no longer any physical clues to the murderer. Still, they discover that she was on a cruise in Sweden when she was murdered. This allows them to concentrate their efforts. Finally, an inspiration to look at photographs taken of the people on the tour leads Beck and the other detectives to the killer.

In Colin Dexter's
The Riddle of the Third Mile, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of an unidentified man whose truncated body is fished out of the river at Thrupp. At first, it seems to be the body of Oliver Browne-Smith, a former Oxford don and once Morse's mentor. Morse, though, isn't convinced it was Browne-Smith, even though the body is dressed in his clothes. Then, Morse receives a letter from Browne-Smith that makes it even more apparent that the dead man was someone else. Then, three other deaths occur. It's not until Morse really figures out what ties all of the deaths together, and what the victims had in common, that he's able to deduce who the dead man must be.

Ruth Rendell's
Simisola highlights another reason bodies are not always identified at first. If there's not a great effort and emphasis on identifying a body, it's not always easy to do, and there's an argument that some victims aren't identified because not enough people care who they are. In Simisola, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team are asked to find Melanie Akande, who went missing after an appointment at the local employment bureau. Not long after the search for Melanie begins, her employment counselor, Annette Bystock, is found strangled in her bed. Wexford suspects the two events are related. Then, an unidentified body is found in the local woods and Wexford thinks it's Melanie Akande's body. He's wrong. It's not until later in the novel that we find out who the unidentified dead woman is. Part of the reason the body's not identified sooner is that the woman wasn't a "nice, white middle/upper class" victim. Her death raises issues of immigration, racism and "double standards."

That's also a theme in Donna Leon's
Blood From a Stone. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the shooting death of an unidentified Senegalese man who was selling at an outdoor market when he was murdered. No-one noticed what happened, so Brunetti doesn't get a good description of the murderer. And the victim was in the country illegally and earning money illegally. So no-one identifies the man, and anyone who does recognise him isn't willing to talk. After some effort, Brunetti finally discovers where the victim lives. When he does, he and Vianello find a cache of very valuable diamonds. It turns out that these are "conflict diamonds," sometimes called, "blood diamonds," given in payment for illegal arms used in war. In the end, Brunetti and Vianello find out who committed the murder and they uncover an arms-smuggling operation. But throughout the case, there's pressure on Brunetti not to put a lot of effort into finding out who the dead man was; he was, after all, just an illegal immigrant from Africa.

Simon Beckett's
Whispers of the Dead focuses on several unidentified victims. Forensic anthropologist David Hunter is visiting Tennesee's Anthropological Research Laboratory when a decomposing body is found at a local cabin. The team tries to identify the body from reports of missing people, but that proves difficult. Then another body is found. And another. Now, it's clear that the team is up against a vicious serial killer who's skilled at making bodies hard to identify. In the end, Hunter and the team he's working with do track the killer down, but throughout the novel, we see how skilled the killer is at covering up victims' identities.

These are just a few of the many examples of stories that focus on unidentified victims. There are lots more I haven't had space to mention. What do you think? Do you like that motif in books, or do you think it's either too overdone or not as plausible in today's "information age?"

: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Who.

...and no, you do
not get to see my passport or driver license 'photo! *shudder*


  1. I am far too fond of unidentified bodies and bare bones! Simisola is brilliant, of course, but my Danish manuscript also begins with an old body in the basement. I hope there are readers out there with the same unhealthy interest ;D

  2. Dorte - LOL! I hope it's not unhealthy; I love the unidentified body motif, too, so I don't want to think about what that says about me. Of course, you and I have an excuse; we're crime fiction writers ;-).

    I can't wait to read your story :-) :-)

  3. I think it's a great motif and probably pretty realistic -- along with the flip side, people presumed dead but no bodies found.

  4. I think soon we will be forced to submit a fingerprint for everything. Too much identity theft for that not to happen.

  5. I think in some ways it is more realistic these days that a body might be unidentified - there are so many of us for a start and we move across the globe in such numbers - it seems only natural that at least a few dead folks will turn up in places they are not known/expected. Australia is a mecca for young backpackers - they come from Europe in their droves particularly - often alone, often for months or even a year at a time because it's such a long way and often tavelling to the more remote parts of the country. Every year or two there will be a body discovered somewhere that is unidentifiable at first and then - sometimes months or years later - it is identified as a poor backpacker who hadn't been expected home for a year or more so no one had alerted authorities. Even these days with everyone tweeting & facebooking their every move it still seems to crop up on the news every now and again.

  6. I enjoy the mysteries where there is an unidentified body. It's a challenge to figure out who the victim is along with the sleuth. Even with all of our modern technology, when the murder happens in small towns it can take quite some time before the victim is identified. Love the title for this post, as well as the subject matter.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. I like this motif very much indeed because it offers an additional level of challenge to the sleuth. Not only does he/she have to answer the "why" question, but address the more fundamental "who" question. I also enjoy reading about the process used to identify the victim. I think it is a valid motif in this "information age" precisely because there is so much information available sometimes that it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  8. Karen - Oh, that is a good point. There are lots of people who disappear and are thought to be dead, but there's no body. And with today's mobility and travel, it makes sense that a motif like that's realistic. It makes for good suspense in a story, too.

    Patti - Interesting point! There is a lot of identity theft; it's pretty scary out there that way. One wonders how long it'll be 'till you're right. Hard to believe now that there was a time when there was no fingerprint technology...

    Bernadette - You're absolutely right. People travel now more than ever before, and it's not uncommon for people to be away for a very long time. And if a person isn't married, or there isn't another compelling reason for someone to try to reach that person, no-one's the wiser. I know when I travel to other countries, I'm often asked how long I intend to stay in whichever country I'm visiting, but who really checks up carefully on that, either? Even if you don't consider the wilderness, there are plenty of cities where a person can disappear and no-one really be aware that that person's died. Funny... I think if I had a chance to really backpack away from "it all," Twitter and Facebook would be the last things on my mind, but I know people are addicted to social networking...

    Mason - Thanks :-). You've got a good point that when there's an unidentified body, this adds another layer of suspense as the reader tries to figure out who the victim is as well as who the criminal is. And depending on the circumstances, bodies can remain "Jane/John Doe" deaths for quite a while...

  9. I do like reading them, but I've been hesitant to write them. I have a hard time figuring out how to get my sleuth involved in those types of crimes. Maybe if she personally discovers the body and feel some ownership. It's a bit challenging with a cozy, but I've loved the police procedurals that have dealt with it.

  10. Book Mole - Oh, you're right. The "unidentified body" motif does add the challenge of not just whodunit and whydunit but who got killed. The sleuth's got more questions to solve, so a plot like this can really engage the reader. And you've got a point. Our "information age" has produced so much information that now the sleuth has to figure out which information is relevant and which isn't...

    Elizabeth - I know exactly how you feel! I really like reading books with this theme, and there are some terrific police procedurals that focus on the unidentified victim. But like you, I haven't tried my hand at writing a novel like that. I've got an amateur sleuth, too, who would have to have a plausible way to find an unidentified body and get access to the equipment, etc., to find out who the victim was. I may think about it at some time, but first I'd have to make it all believable. I don't exactly write cosies, but like you, my novels aren't the gritty police type...

  11. I think I like this theme but like Elizabeth, I don't want to write it. My main aha for my sleuth is that she has learned from her mentor to really plumb the personality of the victim to find the murder - hard to do if you don't know who the body belongs to! My murdered characters have lots going on - I'd hate to lose that.

  12. Jan - No doubt about it; the character and personality of the victim have a lot to do with the reason s/he is killed. That's part of what makes it hard to solve crimes when the victim is unidentified. And since you focus so much on your victims' characters, it does make sense that you'd be hesitant to write about a "Jane/John Doe." That's a very good point.

  13. I love stories where they identify the victim and start solving their murder only to find out that the person isn't really dead and that all along it's an unidentified victim.

    I should write a story like that... (the ideas are flowing to my mind... no, stop! Must. Finish. Novels. I'm. Working. On. Now.)


  14. Clarissa - Oh, I like that storyline, too!! I can think of several novels that have that premise, but I don't want to give away spoilers. You're right, though; that's such an effective premise for a novel.

    Now go. Write. Work on your novels. ;-)

  15. Personally, I prefer a mystery where the victim is identified easily. It could be mistaken identity, but I like to know.
    Just weird, I guess.

    Having said that, I would love reading a really well written story with an unidentified body, and these all sound great examples.

  16. Rayna - I don't think that's weird; it's a matter of personal preference, and there's nothing at all wrong with that. I think you put your finger on the important point: it's got to be a well-written story if the "unidentified victim" motif is going to work. Some of the ones I mentioned here are, I think really fine examples.