A very interesting recent comment exchange with Maxine at Petrona got me to thinking about an unusual sort of crime fiction plot point that’s become arguably more popular lately (so thanks, Maxine, for the inspiration). In some crime novels, we actually get the point of view of the person who’s been murdered. It takes a deft hand to do that well, especially for those readers who prefer pragmatic and prosaic solutions to mysteries. But when it is done well, this plot point can give the reader a really interesting perspective and it certainly makes for innovation. It can be an effective way to tell backstory, and can pull the reader in, too.
The idea that a dead body could tell all or part of a story isn’t really new. Agatha Christie, for instance, hints at it in The Mystery of the Blue Train. In that novel, wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering plans to take the famous Blue Train to meet her lover Count Armand de la Roche. Ruth’s father Rufus Van Aldin is convinced that the Count is much more interested in Ruth’s money than in Ruth herself. In fact, ten years earlier, Van Aldin forcibly separated the two. But Ruth won’t listen to her father and prepares for her journey. One of her fellow passengers is Katherine Grey, who’s on her way to Nice for the first time after having inherited quite a lot of money. Ruth is strangled before the train reaches its destination, and Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same train, investigates. Since Katherine actually had a conversation with Ruth shortly before her death, she gets caught up in the investigation, too. At one point, Katherine has conversations with two of the suspects. As she’s sitting thinking about those conversations, she has the distinct feeling that Ruth is there, too, sitting with her and trying to say something to her. The normally-not-fanciful Katherine is struck by how real the experience is, and uses what Ruth tells her to begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together. While Poirot is officially working on the case from one direction, Katherine’s unofficially working it through from another and in the end, each in a separate way, they discover who the murderer is.
Howard Rigsby’s short story Dead Man’s Story is actually told from the point of view of a dead victim. Joe Root is a Florida Everglades game warden who’s been killed by poachers. Root tells the story of what happened to him beginning with the night he comes upon a group of poachers and confronts them. They threaten him but Root refuses to back down. The poachers make good on their threat and kill Root, thinking that will solve their problem. But Root’s body keeps turning up, and no matter what the poachers do, they don’t seem able to get rid of it. In reality, natural forces and certain coincidences prevent the body from disappearing. But the poachers don’t know that, and believe that Root keeps coming back deliberately. This frightens and disturbs them; at the same time you could almost say it’s Root’s way of taking revenge. In the end, a colleague of Root’s is able to track the poachers and connect them with Root’s murder.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is also told from the point of view of a dead victim. This time it’s fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon. Susie tells the story of how one December afternoon, she is walking home from school when her neighbour George Harvey persuades her to take a look at an underground shelter he’s built. Once he’s trapped her there, he rapes and kills her, removing nearly all the body parts. Susie watches from her personal heaven as it becomes clear to her family that she has disappeared. Then, a neighbour’s dog finds the bone from one of Susie’s elbows, and Detective Len Feneman, who’s been assigned to the case, begins to investigate it as a homicide rather than a missing person case. Throughout the novel, two plot threads unfold. One is Susie’s process of coming to terms with the fact that she is dead and can’t take that back. The other is what happens to Susie’s family as a result of her murder. Susie watches as her parents’ marriage comes apart and her brother Buckley and sister Lindsey are devastated by her loss.
In Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant, readers are introduced to archaeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. They join forces to investigate when Stewart and his dig team unexpectedly discover the ancient remains of eight women who’ve apparently been murdered. Because the site is on Native American land, the Pueblo nation sends Hail Walking Hawk to help ensure that sacred ground is not desecrated. This novel moves back and forth in time between the present day, in which Stewart, Cole, Hail Walking Hawk and the dig team investigate, and the 13th Century, when the murders occurred. In several places, it’s clear that Hail Walking Hawk has a deep connection to the ancient community and to the victims whose remains are uncovered. While we don’t actually “hear” what the dead say to Walking Hawk, we know that she does hear them. It makes for a fascinating sub-plot in this novel.
In Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, we learn about the deaths of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her eighteen-year-old boyfriend Simon Kyrö. One October day, the two go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi to explore the ruins of a plane that went down in that lake during World War II. Although the lake’s surface is frozen, they’ve cut a hole in the ice to make their dive. While they’re under the water, someone unfastens the safety line they’ve tied to a couple of crossed wooden planks. Then, that someone covers the hole and traps both young people beneath the ice, killing them. The following spring, Wilma’s body surfaces and the police begin an investigation into the deaths. Wilma herself tells the story of the deaths, so we know what happened to the young people, although we don’t know (because she doesn’t know) who committed the murders. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson, one of Larsson’s sleuths, is working as a prosecutor in Kiruna. Lately she’s been haunted by dreams in which a shadowy figure – a ghost, really – appears, and we learn that Wilma is trying to help in the investigation of her own murder. Martinsson seems to have a deep connection with Wilma, although it’s not a stereotypical case of “ghost appears and talks to a person.” Martinsson works with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, who’s investigating Wilma’s death, to find out who the killer is. As it turns out, the mystery is connected with another, older mystery: possible collaboration between some of the locals and the German Wermacht during World War II.
And then there’s Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, in which Inspector Malin Fors and her team investigate the murder of an unidentified obese man whose body is found hanging from an oak tree outside Linkoping, in Sweden. As the story moves on, we hear plenty from the dead man himself, who describes the way in which he’s killed, even though he doesn’t tell us who the killer is. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was just too good an example not to mention it.
It can make for a very interesting thread through a story when we get to hear from the dead victim. And yet, it’s not for everyone. For some readers, that plot point is too “out there.” And even for those who don’t mind it from that point of view, it does take a skilled hand to do it well. But what’s your point of view? Have you read novels where we get the dead person’s point of view? If you have, did that plot point work for you? If you’re a writer, have you ever considered moving “outside the lines” that way?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Hill, originally written as a poem by Alfred Hayes and adapted for music by Earl Robinson. The most famous version of this song is probably Joan Baez’ recording of it.