You’ll See Things in a Different Way*

Different PerspectivesOne of the ways in which authors give characters depth is by sharing their perspectives – their stories. When we see the way different characters view the same event, a few things happen. First, we get a broader view of what happened. Second, we get a better sense of those characters. It takes a deft hand to do that without confusing the reader but when it’s done well, it can add richness to a story.

Agatha Christie uses that strategy in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was convicted of the crime and died in prison, but Carla is sure her mother was innocent. Poirot takes the case and begins the job by interviewing the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. Each of the people he speaks to has a different view of Caroline Crale and of what happened on the day of the murder. In addition to the personal interviews Poirot asks each person to write an account of the crime and the days that led up to it. In those accounts and those interviews, Poirot finds clues that lead him to the truth. It’s a fascinating way to look at precisely the same person and crime from five completely different perspectives.

We see that also in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been having some marital trouble. Still, Eva has always wanted a happy family life, especially now that she and Henrik are parents to young Axel. Then Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. In the meantime we also meet Jonas Hansson, whose fiancée Anna has been in a coma for over two years after an incident in which she nearly drowned. By chance Eva and Jonas meet one night in a local bar. The events leading up to that meeting and the events that result from it spin the lives of just about everyone completely out of control. As Alvtegen tells the story of what happens, we see many of the same incidents from different perspectives. For instance, we learn about Jonas’ meeting with Eva from each of their points of view. That strategy allows us to get to know the characters involved and see what their motivations are.

That’s also true in Y.A. Eskine’s The Brotherhood. That novel uses a wide variety of perspectives to tell about the murder of Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. White and probationer Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a break-in one morning. Tragically, White is stabbed while they’re there. The murder itself is told from the perspective of Howard and the perspective of seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, the prime suspect in the murder. The investigation that follows is also told from different perspectives including those of some of White’s co-workers, his boss, a local journalist and Darren Rowley’s attorney. Erskine takes this approach in The Betrayal too, which focuses on the date rape of one of the Tasmania Police officers. It’s a very effective strategy for letting readers get to know the various characters involved.

And then there’s Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. That’s in part the story of the murder of former journalist Robert Dell’s wife Rosie and their two children. They’re killed in an ambush when their car is forced off the road and into a gorge. That particular incident is told from Dell’s perspective and from the perspective of the murderer Inja Mazibuko. Mazibuko is a locally very powerful Zulu leader who’s ‘in the pocket’ of the minister of justice. Dell is framed for the murder and it’s not until his father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape from prison that Dell gets the chance to go after Mazibuko. Goodbread has his own reasons for targeting Mazibuko so the two travel to Zululand together. The story of the journey is told from both men’s perspectives and the events that happen in Zululand are told from Mazibuko’s perspective as well as those of Robert Dell and of Mazibuko’s intended bride Sonto. There are other parts of the novel too where exactly the same event is told from at least two different perspectives. That strategy lends depth and suspense to this novel.

It does to Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar too. PI Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok, travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. While she’s there, Didi’s partner Nou is brutally murdered. Then Didi himself is murdered. The official police explanation is that he killed his partner and then resisted arrest when the police went to interview him. But Keeney knows that isn’t true. So she decides to do her own investigation. Her search leads her to some ugly truths about child trafficking and the Thai sex trade. Several incidents in this novel are told from more than one perspective. For instance, Keeney’s arrival at Chiang Mai is told from her own perspective and that of Nou. Later, when Didi is killed, Keeney decides to go into his home and search through it for clues. That part of the story is told from her perspective and from that of the police officer who’s been ordered to keep watch. That strategy – describing exactly the same incident from a few perspectives – is a very effective way to develop the characters and to tell the story.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer is the story of beginning attorney Catherine Monsigny. As the story begins, Monsigny has just successfully defended Cedric Devers in an assault case. That event is told from her point of view as well as Devers’. With that success behind her, Monsigny gets an even bigger chance to make good when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against the charge of murdering her husband Gaston. More than once she goes to the prison in which the defendant is being held to interview her. Those meetings are described from both women’s perspectives. As the investigation continues, Monsigny finds that she has to decide who exactly is telling the truth about the murder: her client or the victim’s cousins, who insist that she is guilty. In the meantime Monsigny is facing her own personal demon. When she was a toddler, her mother Violet was murdered. Monsigny was present at the murder, but remembers little about it. When it turns out that the Villetreix trial is to be held not far from the place where Violet was murdered, her daughter decides to find out the truth about that killing too. The actual incident – Violet’s murder – is told from several perspectives. There’s Monsigny’s own sketchy memory, there’s the perspective of the murderer and there’s another perspective too. It’s a fascinating way to look back on the incident.

But not everybody feels that way. What about you? Do you enjoy looking at the same incident through more than one pair of eyes? Or do you find that too distracting? If you’re a writer, what do you think of it as a strategy?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Karin Alvtegen, Roger Smith, Sylvie Granotier, Y.A. Erskine

23 responses to “You’ll See Things in a Different Way*

  1. Margot: If an author is going to write a legal mystery with a trial the writer is going to need characters to see incidents in different ways. Trials are not needed if everyone is in agreement.

    One of the most extravagent series in this respect are the Solomon and Lord books by Paul Levine. The wild Solomon and the conservative Lord see everything differently in and out of the courtroom.

    • Bill – I was hoping you would comment on this post for just that reason. As you say, trials, whether they are part of a legal mystery or embedded in a different kind of mystery, are all about seeing the exact same incident from different perspectives. I’m not sure how you could have a trial otherwise. Thanks for bringing that up and for mentioning the Levine series. What a great example of integrating that theme of different persepctives.

  2. kathy d.

    I do like reading books from different perspectives, but not so many it’s hard to keep track. Also, in thrillers, I don’t want to read the psychopath’s point of view. I don’t care about it. So all those chapters or sections in italics, I skip.
    In Angela Savage’s book mentioned here and her next one The Half-Child, different viewpoints enhance the story. I really enjoyed this element in The Half-Child, as a friendship blossoms.
    Solomon and Lord sounds like a series for me, as I love legal mysteries if they’re well-written. I must find these.

    • Kathy – I know exactly what you mean about being confused if there are too many characters’ viewpoints. Telling a story from a variety of viewpoints has to be done deftly if it’s going to work. And I agree completely about Angela Savage’s books. Folks, if you haven’t ‘met’ Savage’s Jayne Keeney, do yourself a favour and get to know her.

      • I don’t mind the different viewpoints as long as its not completely confusing. Too much jumping can be distracting but if done well, it is realistic. If we all witnessed a street robbery we would all see something different. It’s fascinating, which is why I think it can be a great tool if used well.

        • Rrebecca – I completely agree with you. We all do see things a bit differently and as you say, if we all saw the same robbery we’d have different stories to tell. That’s why using multiple viewpionts in a crime fiction story can be very realistic if, as you say, it’s not done in a confusing way. I always like it for instance when the author makes it clear whose viewpoint is being shared.

  3. I’m glad you brought this issue Margot. I love to read the same story from multiple points of view. One of the first books I remember reading from beginning to end when I was a kid was PC Wren’s trilogy (Beau Geste, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal). I was excited, long before seeing the movie starring Gary Cooper.

    • José Ignacio – Oh, I’d forgotten about the Beau Geste trilogy! Thanks for the reminder. It is a good example of the way different points of view can be successfully used to tell the same story.

  4. Very interesting Margot – Multiple points of view can be so hard to pull off that I always admire it when ti is well done – I thought RUPTURE by Simon Lelic was very successful for instance, as a way of generating ambiguity and realism in characterisation though of course it can also be a crafty ploy as in ROGER ACKROYD for instance or anyway in cases where narration proves deliberately unreliable.

    • Sergio – You’re absolutely right that Rupture handles the issue of multiples points of view really effectively. In fact I’m a bit annoyed with myself that I forgot to mention it, so thanks for filling in that gap. And of course that strategy can be used brilliantly to provide ‘red herrings’ and Christie was quite deft at that. The Murder of Roger Ackgroyd is quite a good example, too.

  5. I like multiple viewpoints although ‘Five Little Pigs’ isn’t my favourite AC book. The third book in the Len Deighton trilogy ‘Spy Sinker’ has the action of previous books narrated from different points of view. I found it slightly annoying in a whole book but I enjoyed the series overall.

    • Sarah – You know it’s interesting. A lot of people – AC fans or not – either really like Five Little Pigs or really don’t. People don’t seem to be neutral about it. Oh, and thanks for mentioning the Len Deighton trilogy. I’m not as familiar with Deighton’s work as you are, but those are good examples I think.

  6. Oh Five Little Pigs! One of my very favourite Christies, for exactly the reasons you describe. When I visited the Agatha Christie house in Devon, I was completely knocked out when, walking the paths of the garden, I came unexpectedly upon the exact spot where Amyas Crale is painting Elsa when he dies, it’s called The Battery, with grey stone wall and battlements. It was instantly recognizable, without a shadow of a doubt, I was thrilled to bits to see it. But yes, it’s the viewpoints that make the book so clever.

    • Moira – Oh, lucky you to have been to Greenways! I would love to go. It’s on my bucket list and hopefully won’t take that long. And like you, I really like Five Little Pigs. I think Christie uses multiple viewpoints really effectively in it.

  7. I definitely enjoy novels told from various perspectives. It can get confusing but makes it a richer story for me. And I agree I don’t usually like the story told from the psychopaths point of view. Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath was like that and I was not comfortable with that book at all.

    • Tracy – I know what you mean about not feeling comfortable with a story that’s told from the psychopath’s point of view. I don’t like that much, myself, to be honest. It’s must not my thing.

  8. PeterReynard

    Not a mystery series, but Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has a couple of books that span the same time period but the story is told from the perspective of different characters. It was a great idea and there was too much repetition (for my taste).

    Christie also gives us different perspectives at a much higher level (spanning books) when she uses different narrators for the same set of characters. For example, Capt. Hastings is the narrator when he is around. But when he is not, we have a different point of view, sometimes Poirot himself if I recall.

    • Peter – I’ve not read the Wheel of Time series (although Mr. COAMN has). You make an interesting point about the risk when one uses that strategy of being repetitive. I’d not thought of that when I prepared this post but you’re quite right about that.

  9. I love books where events are viewed through different characters’ eyes. I tried it in one of my manuscripts and found it a great challenge. It forces the writer to “become” each character in order to interpret the scene appropriately.

    • Pat – It is a challenge, isn’t it? It’s one thing to have more than one point of view in a novel, but when one tells the exact same story from a different point of view, that’s a little tougher.

  10. kathy d.

    The second book in the Precious Ramotswe tells the story from both her point of view and that of her soon-to-be spouse. It’s rather delightful, and it works quite well. Why do I feel all is right with the world when reading this series?

    • Kathy – You bring up a great example from Tears of the Giraffe. Thanks for reminding me. And what’s great about that series in my opinion is that it reminds us of the solid, good parts of human nature without getting either preachy or too cloying. And that is a difficult feat to accomplish.

  11. Pingback: ‘Cause Every Little Thing Gonna be All Right* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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