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?"
*NOTE: 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*