I Know You Don’t Know Who I Am*

Making IdentificationOne of the first things police do when a body is discovered is try to identify the dead person. There are, of course, lots of reasons to make identification a priority. One of them is that most (certainly not all!) murders are committed by people known to the victim. If the police know who that person was, they’re likely to narrow down the list of suspects. Even when it’s not a case of murder, identifying the victim allows loved ones and friends the closure that comes with knowing the fate of the person who’s died.

Modern DNA and other forensics technology has moved the process of identification forward considerably. And a lot of cop shows present this as a quick and easy way to find out the victim’s name and so on. But in real life, it’s not that simple. For one thing, DNA testing can be very expensive. Most police departments don’t have in-house DNA testing facilities, either, so they have to send any remains elsewhere. This can mean many weeks of delay in identification, and more opportunities for contamination of the evidence. It’s an important part of identification when there’s any doubt; but it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ that it might seem from cop shows. So police and other sleuths, both real and fictional, use other means of identifying bodies when there’s no obvious evidence such as a wallet with a driver license in it.

One means of identification is through dental records. Dental records are not, of course, foolproof. Still, they are useful. That’s what we see, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. In that novel, the body of an unknown man is discovered in the home of Millicent Pebmarsh. It’s very unlikely that she is the killer, since she was not at home at the time of the murder, and since she is blind. She claims not to know who the victim was, and what’s left with the body is no help, either. There’s no identification except for a business card that turns out to be bogus. What’s interesting (and one thing that puts Hercule Poirot on the right path) is that the victim has had dental work done; but it’s not the work of an English dentist. This means the man is probably a foreigner, and so he proves to be. When his records are finally located, it turns out that he is Canadian. There’s another Agatha Christie novel, too, in which dental records turn out to be key to the story. Even the title of the novel would be too close to spoiler-land for me, though, so I won’t give it. If you know the story, you know which one I mean, anyway…

One step the murderer takes in The Clocks to prevent identification is to remove the laundry and tailoring tags from the victim’s clothing. This makes sense, too, because victims can be traced by their clothing sometimes. That’s especially true for clothes that are custom-made. We see that, for instance, in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police is faced with a puzzling case when the torso of a dead man is found in an unused chicken coop. It’s obviously no use looking for a dental records match or even a fingerprint match. But the police do get one lead: some material from the victim’s clothing. Grace’s second-in-command Glenn Branson, who’s more sartorially sophisticated than his boss is, suggests checking with various manufacturers and tailors, and that proves to be a fruitful avenue of exploration.

There’s another very effective use of clothes to make an identification in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting case to Sherlock Holmes. Peterson interrupted a fight between an unknown man and some hooligans. The man ran off, but dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson gave the goose to his wife to cook; as she prepared it, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Now Peterson’s intrigued, so he’s brought the hat with him to Holmes. After a few moments of examining the hat, Holmes deduces an awful lot about its owner. That information allows him to trace the man who dropped it and the goose; from there, we learn how the gem got into the goose’s craw.

Donna Malane’s sleuth Diane Rowe is a missing person expert, so she is skilled at using all sorts of clues to identify people. In one plot thread of Surrender, she’s been hired to help the police find out the identity of a man whose remains were found in New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest. There’s little to go on, as the man has been dead for several decades. Pathology results can only establish his gender, his probable age (twenties), and the likely time of his death (1970s). But bit by bit, Rowe gets closer to identifying the victim. One important piece of evidence proves to be a boot that was found near the remains. Looking at information from boot manufacturers helps Rowe discover the man’s name, and bring some closure to one person for whom he was important.

Diane Rowe’s work is just one example of how useful missing person reports can be. The police use them quite frequently when an unknown body is discovered. It’s no guarantee of identification, of course, but if a body is similar in age, weight and so on, and is of the same sex, there is at the very least a better likelihood of identifying that person. Those reports turn out to be very useful in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, when Inspector William Wisting and his team use them to solve a bizarre case. A series of feet clad in trainers has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern, and the media is only too happy to add to the speculation that a serial killer may be at work. That doesn’t turn out to be the case, and missing person reports help establish that fact.

There are other ways, too, that are used to find the identity of ‘John/Jane Doe’ victims. Some are more successful than others, and none is foolproof. But when used in conjunction with DNA and other testing where appropriate, they can be quite valuable.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s To Whom it May Concern.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Malane, Jørn Lier Horst, Peter James

24 responses to “I Know You Don’t Know Who I Am*

  1. Just finished the third week of the Future Learn course Identifying the Dead, and this pops up in my inbox…..freaky!

  2. I’m intrigued by the idea of the series of feet in trainers washing ashore… may have to read that one just to find out the reason!

  3. Col

    I’ve just finished a book by Max Allan Collins where someone fakes their own death by drugging a victim and staging a car crash and subsequent fire, leaving little behind for close examination. She gets away with it at the time.

    • That’s a good point, Col. Just as authorities work to make identification, killers may try to make identification impossible. And fire is one way they do that. Thanks for the reminder. And for the reminder of the Collins!

  4. I’m reminded of criminals who tried to destroy their victims’ fingerprints many years ago to keep police from identifying a body. Pretty hard to do that kind of thing these days because of DNA — the killer must destroy the whole body, the residue, and any minuscule bits left behind in the trunk of a car or a carpet. ID technology doesn’t give a criminal much wiggle room anymore, and that’s a good thing!

    • No, it really doesn’t, Pat. Today’s ID technology allows for an identification to be made with very little evidence. And that means criminals have to work very hard and be very skilled if they’re going to get away with their crimes. It used to be that destroying fingerprints was enough, but it’s certainly not now.

  5. Margot: In a real life case in Saskatchewan a doctor from South Africa practising in rural Saskatchewan sexually assaulted some patients. He passed a DNA test because he managed to insert a tube of someone else’s blood in his arm and when a tech took a blood sample from the arm it came out of the tube. He was eventually caught and convicted.

    • Oh, my goodness, Bill! I had no idea of that case! It just goes to show you that even as useful as DNA testing can be (and it can), it’s by no means foolproof. And that’s a cautionary tale, too, that other evidence important when you’re investigating crime.

  6. I love this post, Margot! When DNA comes back within hours in books it drives me crazy. In real life it can take weeks, sometimes months, if the lab is backlogged with cases. Dental records are a good way to ID someone, and that can lead to false trails if the killer switched the records. Always a good thing in crime fiction. 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sue. I don’t like it, either, when things happen so neatly and quickly in books or on TV/film. As you say, there’s no real telling how long DNA results might take in real life. All sorts of things can slow them down. In the meantime, the killer’s gotten away and had even more time to cover her or his tracks. Dental records are useful (when they’re not switched 😉 ). And today, since they are often digital and stored in computer archives, anyone who works in the dental office can be a great suspect if it turns out the records were switched.

  7. Margot, here’s a funny one in context of your theme. In Indian films, the dead and the separated at birth are often identified by a mark or a mole anywhere on their body. The scene is usually emotional and the identification is usually done by a distraught parent. Thank god, we don’t see much of that now. Bollywood has matured.

  8. I’ve just read a 1993 novel (I won’t name it for spoiler fears) where there is a very clever switcharound of ID of the victim: one of the clues is people describing a woman who was in quite a state – she kept her arms folded and was almost hugging herself. It’s very cleverly done – it sounds as though her emotional state is what’s important, but of course a woman doing that is also making sure she’s not leaving any fingerprints…

    • Oh, Moira, that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post. As you say, there are extremely clever ways of hiding identity, even in today’s world of DNA testing and other sophisticated forensics tests. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. What a great post! I am impressed with your knowledge of the mystery genre. 🙂

  10. It’s certainly a common plot twist in many mysteries – and it can be very effective indeed. Without naming titles because they would be MAJOR spoilers, I can think of an Elizabeth Daly novel and another by John Dickson Carr where the readers are kept busy thinking the victim is one individual when it’s really another person. Those are two of my overall favorite mysteries ever written. Then there’s Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? where the identity of someone found naked in a bathtub not his own is key to unraveling the entire mystery. And the question of identity is at the center of Arthur Upfield’s “The Clue of the New Shoe,” where, once again, it seems impossible for DI Napoleon Bonaparte to identify the naked body of a murder victim. In the hands of a fine author, the twists are almost limitless.

    • Those are all fantastic examples, Les. And the whole question of identity is, indeed, done so well by some of the Golden Age writeres. You’ve mentioned some terrific ones. You’ve also put me in mind of an Agatha Christie story where you’re supposed to think the victim is one person, but turns out to be someone different. Very clever, I’ve always thought.

  11. I liked that you talk about how difficult it is to get a DNA identification. NCIS and CSI are favorite shows but they make it look so easy to identify people. In books I definitely want some reality in the technical aspects at least.

    • I feel the same way, Tracy. One can enjoy/get caught up in a TV show, and still know that it’s not realistic. I’ve done so. But for some reason, when I read, I want what I read to be authentic. It doesn’t have to be endlessly detailed, but it does need to reflect reality, and that includes the difficulty of making an identification.

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