There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

Remote LocationsCrime fiction fans like their stories to be believable. And in a real-life murder, one of the challenges the killer faces is what to do with the body of the victim. In some cases, the body can be left at the scene of the murder. But in other situations, doing so could point the proverbial finger right at the murderer. For example, if the victim is killed in the murderer’s home or office, suspicion usually falls fairly quickly on the culprit. So the body has to be moved. Modern police forensics testing can determine whether a body’s been moved, but even so, moving a body can make it more challenging in a lot of ways to catch a killer. So of course, fictional murderers take this into account too.

When it’s possible, a lot of killers (at least fictional ones) like remote and inaccessible places. Even if the body is discovered at some point, enough time usually has gone by to make the detection process very difficult. That’s what the killer counts on in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. In that novel, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme investigate when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. She’s been missing for five months by that time, and as we learn in the novel, the trail has gotten cold. So Cardinal and Delorme face a difficult challenge in connecting her with her killer. In fact, it’s not until there’s another murder that they can really get some of the leads they need to find out the truth.

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing persons expert. So she is consulted when the body of an unknown man is discovered in Rimutaka State Forest. The place where the body was found is in remote part of the forest, so it’s not surprising that it’s been there for a very long time. In fact, Rowe learns that the body has been there since the mid-1970s. At this point there’s vey little evidence to go on, but Rowe uses the little bits of information she does have to try to find out who the man was. The fact that the body was found in such an inacessible place certainly doesn’t make her task any easier, but Rowe eventually learns the truth about this ‘John Doe.’

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Precious Ramotswe meets a new client, American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. Ten years ago, she and her husband were living in Botswana with their son Michael. When his parents returned to the US, Michael chose to remain behind and join an eco-commune. Not very long after joining that community he disappeared and was presumed killed by an animal. Now Andrea has returned to try to get some closure and find out what really happened to her son. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out what she can. Little by little, she traces Michael’s last months and weeks and in the end, she discovers the truth. Throughout the investigation though, her efforts are made all the more difficult by the fact that the community is in such a remote area that just about anything could have happened, and no-one would know.

Some fictional killers opt for bodies of water as places to leave bodies. The advantage of that is that lots of evidence gets washed away or at the very least considerably altered. That can often include evidence like time of death. That’s what happens for instance in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendant Peter Diamond. One evening, the body of an unknown woman is found at Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. It’s difficult to discover who the victim is at first, in part because of having been submerged. After a few false starts, the woman is identified as TV personality Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman. Because the body’s been left at the lake, it’s very difficult to trace the body back to the scene of the actual murder, and thus to the killer. Superintedant Peter Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull start of course with the victim’s husband. But there’s no clear evidence against him; nor is there an obvious motive. And there turn out to be other suspects too. As it turns out, the fact that the body was left in the lake add several complications to the case.

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, begins with the discovery of the body of an unknown woman in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. By the time the body is discovered, it’s been several months since the murder, and that’s one reason for which it’s very difficult to find out who the woman is. But after some time, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was visiting Sweden when she was killed. The water has not just hidden the body, but also obliterated obvious evidence. So it takes a great deal of time and effort for Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team to connect the victim with her killer. In the end though, and after a lot of perseverance, the team solves the case. There are of course lots of other examples too of fictional killers who use water as a place to leave a body (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase and of Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach).

For a different and darkly funny take on moving bodies, you may want to check out Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. When Tadgh Maguire wakes one more morning after a night of drinking, he has much bigger problems than just his hangover. The body of local gangster Tony Marino is next to him in his bead. Maguire knows how short his life span will become if it gets around that he killed Marino, so he decides that the only thing to do is move the body. And that’s when the real trouble begins…

The less evidence there is, the harder it is for the police to link a murder victim to a killer. And the harder it is to find a body, the more time goes by and the less evidence is available. So it’s little wonder there are so many fictional examples of bodies left in remote areas or iin water. Ther are dozens of examples in crime fiction; which ones stand out for you?


ps. The ‘photo is of the Mojave Desert of Eastern California and Western Nevada. Lots of likely places there…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritchie Cordell’s I Think We’re Alone Now, made famous by Tommy James and the Shondells.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rob Kitchin

21 responses to “There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

  1. Margot, I’ve put Stiffed at the top of my list, but all of these sound really good. A long time ago I read a book….or perhaps a manuscript…where the body was discovered in a huge vat of melted chocolate. Yes, it was death by drowning. Puts a new slant on that “Death by Chocolate” dessert some restaurants feature.

    • Pat – Oh, it sure does! It’s certainly a creative way to have your fictional victim murdered!! Yikes. And I do hope you get the chance to read Stiffed soon. It’s a well-done novel I think.

  2. One of the many classics which rely on the presence (or absence) of a body is Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Whose Body?” We (and Lord Peter Wimsey) are presented with a case involving an unidentified body wearing only a pair of pince-nez glasses, which turns up in the bathtub of a rather inoffensive little man named Mr. Thipps. Meanwhile, across London, a leading financier has disappeared. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the body is NOT that of the missing man – and it’s up to Lord Peter to figure out whether there is a connection between the two cases and whose body is in that bathtub.

    • Les – Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned whose Body?. That bathtub is such a creative place to leave a body, isn’t it? I just love the plot threads in that story. Thanks for for filling in that gap.

  3. I’m going to nominate Dorothy L Sayers too – in Have HIs Carcase, Harriet Vane finds a corpse by the sea, but cannot stop it being washed away. And there’s something about the state of the body that’s an important clue…
    Btw, that song is going to be going round in my head now – I am more familiar with the Tiffany version…

    • Moira – I like that story too, on a number of levels. And there’s certainly an effect of where the body is left and discovered, I think. I really like the way Harriet Vane begins to develop as a character too. Oh, and about the song? You’re welcome ;-). I wonder what you’ll think of the Tommy James version if you listen to it.

  4. Margot – Another great post on a fascinating topic. Wasn’t the Hitchcock movie ‘The Trouble with Harry’ about a body that kept disappearing, or turning up in different places? It’s not one of my Hitchcock favorites and I don’t recall the details.
    Love that death-by-chocolate!

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. Good memory for The Trouble With Harry too. It is indeed about an all too ubiquitous body. Oh, and I agree about the chocolate too…

  5. Margot: In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin a body is put in an obscure location that, by its placement casts suspicion on a certain character. It is hard to be more specific without being a spoiler.

    • Bill – Good call on Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. As you say, it’s hard to really discuss it without giving spoilers, but you’re right; that’s a good example.

  6. Margot, your post reminded me of a very funny Australian anti-tourism ad… Enjoy!

  7. Col

    Stiffed was a great book. Hopefully I will get the Blunt located soon and moved closer to the top of the reading pile. Nothing to add regarding the theme and my own examples.

  8. interesting post, Margot. I not only like the plots to believable but I also like the endings to be too. I find this to be a problem sometimes. I’ve just mentioned it in a review about Scandi crime where I find it can be a particular problem.

  9. Wasn’t the body moved in The Dinner by Herman Koch or am I making that up?

    • Rebecca – You are absolutely right that the body gets moved in that novel. I hadn’t thought of that one when I wrote that post; thanks for filling in the gap.

  10. Re Giles Blunt’s FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW, I just worked up my nerve to get a copy of the 2nd book in that series, THE DELICATE STORM. The first book was terrifying, but it was written so beautifully that I have to try at least one more.

  11. Pingback: Writing Links…10/15/14 | All Twangs Romance

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