I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night Alive as You and Me*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice Sebold, Åsa Larsson, Howard Rigsby, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Mons Kallentoft, W. Michael Gear

22 responses to “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night Alive as You and Me*

  1. Margot- Isn’t it strange that whenever someone thinks up a different type of plot or narrative structure Agatha Christie has written a variation back in 1928. 😉

    • Norman – You know, I’ve noticed that, too. The more I think about crime fiction, the more I realise how far ahead of her time Christie was, and how broad and firm a grasp she had of the genre. Little wonder I find examples in her work for just about any topic that occurs to me.

  2. It sure worked in The Lovely Bones. I haven’t read the other stories you mentioned, except for maybe The Mystery of the Blue Train because the characters sound familiar, but will look them up.

    • Pat – I agree; Sebold really did use that plot point effectively in The Lovely Bones. And normally I’m not much of a one for that sort of paranormal/paranormalish cast to a story.

  3. kathy d.

    I don’t like this plot device at all. One thing is to read through a book and find out at the end that the “ghost” has been speaking, which is done in some books I won’t mention so as not divulge spoilers. I can put up with this in small doses if it’s done well and subtly and at the end.
    I got into two pages in Sebold’s book and gave it back to the person who loaned it to me, having been the second person to return it unread to that friend.
    I unfortunately saw the movie, which has the worst graphic brutality and sadism towards a child. I could not believe that this gratuitous violence was portrayed in a movie. Who would see this? Who could sit through this? Not only the violence, but watching the psychopathic pedophile? And seeing his history of violence against children and young women? And he gets away with it! And not only does law enforcement not find him and give him justice but the father of the murdered girl is injured trying to
    get at the pedophile when the police don’t. And the moral of the story is that parents shouldn’t take matters into their own hands when the authorities don’t.
    It was maddening from beginning to end and tanked at the box office. I don’t know who would have seen this, not parents, not children, not young women.

    • Kathy – I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like The Lovely Bones, although I’m not surprised that you really disliked the film. I have to admit I didn’t see that myself, but you’re not the only one who’s mentioned how graphic it is. I must say I don’t like films that play up the brutality in a story – maybe because I don’t think the violence of a murder mystery should be the most compelling thing about it. That’s the reason I’m often wary of seeing a film based on a crime fiction novel. Rarely does a film handle that aspect of a story very well.

  4. kathy d.

    The violence is very disturbing and shocking. And it shakes up our sensibilities as adults who instinctively feel protective towards children. No one should have to see this level of gratuitous violence towards children. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
    However, on the other hand, something I love is “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last night.” I grew up with it. It was in our song book. We sang all types of folk songs in our family, and that was one of them. And it was way before Joan Baez sang it. I trying to remember if Pete Seeger or the Weavers sang it.

    • Kathy – I think that violence towards children – especially if it is graphic – seems to just be harder for most people to take than other kinds of violence…
      You’re quite right, too, that Joan Baez was hardly the first person to record Joe Hill. There’ve been lots of others.

  5. kathy d.

    Just looked up the song. Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson sang it. The Dubliners sang it; this version I haven’t heard.

    • Kathy – Thanks for that information. I knew that there’d been several versions of it, and I happen to like Pete Seeger’s version. It’s interesting isn’t it how a song like that will almost take on a life of its own.

  6. I thought The Lovely Bones was very good, I kept away from the film because I suspected they would sensationalise it. It sounds like I was right.

    I once read a book that was narrated by a murder victim. The twist was that he had been astrally projecting, and his body was murdered while he was away. Of course, he solved his own murder. I so wish I could remember the title or author, I seem to remember that I thought it was very interesting

    • Sarah – That’s precisely why I didn’t see the film of The Lovely Bones. From what Kathy has said about it, I think I took the right decision.
      That book you describe sounds really interesting. Unfortunately it doesn’t sound really familiar to me, so I can’t think what names of the title or author might be. If I get a brainstorm, I’ll let you know. And if you think of it yourself, do let us know, please.

  7. One of the books that has stuck in my mind is Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead in which the killer didn’t want to kill his victims, he wanted them in what’s called locked-in syndrome. Billingham let us into the mind of a woman in that condition, a woman who couldn’t communicate in any manner. It was chilling and heartbreaking, and definitely made me want Tom Thorne to bring that mad man to justice.

    • Cathy – Thanks for bringing up locked-in syndrome. It’s got a lot of similarities to the “dead victim speaks” theme, and yes, it is really chilling. And when an author does it well, readers can really identify with the person who’s “locked in” and get even more drawn into the story. It’s definitely a compelling take on giving the victim a voice.

  8. kathy d.

    A good book, and done in a positive — and not gratuitous way — about locked-in syndrome is Locked-In by Marcia Muller. It’s about her series character, Sharon McCone, who is suffering from locked-in syndrome, yet she can think and is involved in the investigation — though she can’t speak — to find out who is responsible for her traumatic brain injury. It’s good.
    Perhaps a topic for this blog might be books vs. movie versions of a book.
    Even in S. Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, the books’ violence was one thing, the brutality on-screen another, which was harder to take.

    • Kathy – Thanks for suggesting Locked-In. Although I admit I haven’t read this one, the Sharon McCone series is well-written and it sounds like a very interesting plot point.
      And yes, there’s a very big difference sometimes between the violence one reads about in a book and the violence depicted in the film version of that same book. That’s a well-taken point.

  9. Hearing the story from the victim does make for an intriguing read when done well. These examples all sound interesting, I’ll have to check on them. One series that came to mind is the Pepper Martin Mystery series by Casey Daniels. Her protagonist can talk to the dead and helps solve their murders. It’s listed as a cozy and has a bit of humor mingled in.

    Thoughts in Progress
    Freelance Editing By Mason

    • Mason – Oh, yes, I’ve heard of the Pepper Martin series. I’m glad you mentioned that series because it’s a terrific example of what I mean. When it’s done well, that plot point – where the sleuth can communicate in some way with the dead – can certainly add an interesting twist to the story.

  10. I have done that in my novels. In my coming release, one chapter is in the POV of the victim. I believe it has to be done well. Once the victim is unconscious or dead, the POV stops and the writer can’t explain more past that or else it’s considered change in POV and that drives me nuts. Also, it’s like the writers is now the POV.

    • Clarissa – Oh, that’s so interesting that you’re including the victim’s POV! The more you mention about your novel, the more eager I am to read it. And yes, if one’s going to share the victim’s POV it does indeed have to be done really carefully. Otherwise it can interrupt the flow of the story. It can also be just too unrealistic for readers who like really pragmatic stories.

  11. Thanks for your fascinating post based on our discussion, Margot, you’ve really made a great story out of it. And isn’t it just the case about Christie? Others have developed the concepts further but often when we go back to those early authors such as her or Conan Doyle, we find most plots there!

    After our discussion I wondered if Sebold took her inspiration for The Lovely Bones from The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende? That book really blew my mind when I read it very many years ago, it was the first time I’d ever read a book with this “magical realism” in it apart from Marquez, but Allende seemed to directly speak to the reader’s emotions much better. The trouble is I can’t recall THOTS well enough to remember if there is actually a “sentient dead body” in it or not, but I think there may have been, as it explored the concepts of life/death and the relationships of the dead with the living, and the influences of past deeds.

    On TLB, I was very struck by its opening but felt that it lost itself after a few chapters and I was disappointed in the second half of the book. I had no wish to see the film as films are rarely more insightful than the books they are based on and I could just imagine what Peter Jackson would make of this with his inability just to tell a story but to go to town on it – worked OK in Lord of the Rings but there are very few books out there on that scale. TLB would be most effective with a small-scale, unsensational approach that let the horror speak for itself, but I am sure it did not get that with Jackson. (I did love the LOTR films though- the extended editions that is).

    Was the film DOA based on a book? That may have been the one about the murder victim – the protag realises he has a few hours to live and has to find out who has poisoned him….

    Another similar book/film is The Cut or In The Cut, starring Meg Ryan. I think the book is by Suzanne Moore or someone with a very similar name.

    I really hated the concept of Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham – I just hate books about murder or torture, and felt so upset reading that book from the pov of victims who were paralysed but who could think fine. I just can’t understand why anyone would want to read about that.

    • Maxine – Oh, no need to thank me; yours was the inspiration for this post. And you are so right about Christie. That’s part of why I’m such a fan of her work. Yes, one could point to other authors who perhaps write wittier dialogue, or deeper characters, or…or…. But Christie was so far ahead of her time in so many dozens of different ways. I feel that every time I look at her work, I learn something new about the craft of writing crime fiction. Little wonder I refer to Christie in nearly every one of my blog posts.
      As to The House of the Spirits, I haven’t read that one in years, so I can’t speak in sophisticated detail about it. But as I recall, one of the characters (I believe it’s Clara) is psychic or has some paranormal ability. When she dies later in the novel, if I recall correctly, her spirit comes back to visit her grand-daughter. In that sense yes, it’s a terrific example of a “dead person who speaks,” and it’s such a wonderful example of magical realism. Thanks for reminding me of this; it’s been far, far too long since I read it, and I should again.
      It’s interesting, too, that you mention Peter Jackson’s style. Different directors are most definitely skilled at different kinds of films. As you say, Jackson’s approach worked quite well with the Lord of the Rings films, I thought. I really enjoyed them all and didn’t feel that for those films, the style was too over the top. As I say, I didn’t see The Lovely Bones on film, but yes, I can imagine that style wouldn’t work well with that quiet kind of a story. I wonder how many many other films just simply don’t work not because the novel on which they’re based is poor, but because they’re not handled well by the director, or because it’s just not the right director for that story. Interesting question!!
      Right you are that 1950’s D.O.A. is about Frank Bigelow, an insurance salesman who’s given a slow-acting poison for which there is no antidote. He has only a short time to live, and uses that time to search frantically for the culprit. The film was later made into a novel, but the story was born, as it’s said, in the cinema. It’s an interesting twist on the plot point of getting the victim’s point of view, and it’s considered a noir film classic. The film’s been remade several times, too.
      And I couldn’t agree with you more about gratuitous torture and particularly cruel murder. That’s one of the few ways in which I censor my reading, to be honest.

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