I’m Living in a Bad Dream*

a-body-in-the-houseImagine this scenario. You wake up one morning, or you come home one evening, to find that there’s a body in your home. So, of course, you call the police. But here’s the catch. How are you going to clear your name? After all, it is your home. So, it’s only natural that the police would have a lot of questions for you. And if you happen to have known the victim, things get even more tricky for you, even if you’re completely innocent. And that’s not to mention the horror of actually finding the body. It’s like a bad dream.

This scenario is used in several crime novels, and it’s not hard to see why. It raises the tension right away. And, in the case of whodunits, it can be very effective at diverting suspicion from the real killer.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, awake one morning to learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library. Neither knows the woman, but of course, the police have to start somewhere. And it gets a bit difficult for the Bantrys as questions are raised about how the colonel might have known the victim. Dolly knows her husband isn’t guilty, and asks her friend, Miss Marple, to help find out who the murderer is. The victim is tentatively identified as eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel. This discovery opens up several possible lines of investigation, and it’s not long before the police and Miss Marple discover that more than one person could have wanted the young woman to die. Still, there are definitely a few uncomfortable moments for Colonel Bantry… I couldn’t agree more, fans of The Clocks.

Things are even more nightmarish for Janek Mitter, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. One morning, he wakes up after a night of far, far too much drink. He discovers to his shock that his wife Eva is dead, and her body is in the bathtub. He claims that he didn’t kill her, but Inspector Van Veeteran and his team have to go where the evidence takes them. So Mitter is arrested and put on trial. Although Van Veeteren is beginning to have his doubts, he can’t prevent Mitter from being found guilty. Because Mitter was so drunk the night of the murder, he doesn’t remember much of anything that happened. So, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a prison. Meanwhile, Van Veeteren starts to ask questions about this case. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now, it’s clear that he was telling the truth, and someone else killed his wife.

Too much drink also plays a role in what happens to Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell in Denise Mina’s Garnethill. Mauri wakes up one morning after a night of drinking. She discovers her lover, Douglas Brodie, dead in her living room, but she can’t recall what happened. As you can well imagine, she’s a prime suspect. For one thing, she is mentally fragile; she’s even spent time in a mental health facility. For another, she and Douglas had been having problems, not the least of which is that he is – was – married to someone else. It doesn’t help that Mauri is not from the sort of background that inspires a lot of support from the police. But she’s sure she didn’t kill Douglas. So, she starts to ask questions. As she gets closer to the truth, Mauri finds out some dark secrets that someone wanted very much to keep.

Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed begins as Tadh Maguire is sleeping off a night of drinking. He’s jolted awake by a frightened shriek from his girlfriend, Kate. A second later he sees why she’s screaming. There’s a dead man in his bed. What’s more, Maguire knows who the man is. The victim is Tony Marino, second-in-command to crime boss Aldo Pirelli. If Maguire calls the police, it won’t be long before Pirelli finds out what happened. And he’ll likely assume that Maguire killed his associate. That can only have a bad outcome. There’s also the very likely possibility that Maguire will be the police’s prime suspect. Also not a good thing. So, Maguire calls his friend, Jason Choi, and asks him to help remove the body. That leads to all sorts of consequences, including abduction and some very nasty thugs who think Maguire has some money they want. This novel is more of a screwball noir approach what happens when a dead body ends up in your home.

You’ll notice that in several of these examples, there’s a night of drinking involved. And that’s one way to make it credible that a body could be put in someone’s home without that person knowing it. But it’s not the only way.

For instance, in Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking at the door of his cabin. He opens the door to find a woman who asks for his help. She says she doesn’t know who she is or why she’s there, but she needs assistance. The man invites her in, but when she asks his name, it occurs to him that he doesn’t know who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the young woman leaves. That’s when the man notices the body of another man on his living room floor. Now, he has to figure out who he is, as well as who the dead man is and why the body is in his living room. Just then, the man gets another visitor, PI Enescu Fleet, who’s looking for his missing dog. Fleet seems to be the answer to the man’s problem, and he agrees to look into the case.  

And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. One evening, real estate agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife, Pia, that he’s going to go look at a house for a client. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets concerned and contacts the police. The next morning, they begin their search. It ends when Ingrid Olsson, who’s been recovering from hip surgery, returns to her home to find Vannerberg’s body in her kitchen. She can account for her whereabouts of course, and she wouldn’t have been capable of murder in the first place. So the police, in the form of Stockholm area DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team, trace Vannerberg’s last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted him dead. It turns out that this murder is connected with other killings – and with a past traumatic incident.

See what I mean? You can be perfectly innocent, and still end up with a body in your house. So do be careful this holiday season…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Violent Femmes’ Bad Dream 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Denise Mina, Håkan Nesser, Rob Kitchin, Sherban Young

30 responses to “I’m Living in a Bad Dream*

  1. I had to do some digging but I remembered I read a book this year that fits this list. It’s called Like Father, Like Daughter by Christina Morgan and it’s about a woman called Libby who wakes up next to her husband of 8 years, lying dead in their bed. Very good read too!

  2. Some writers take this even further, by having the person who finds the body not want to report it because they have some other nefarious activity to hide… or of course because they firmly believe they did the killing!

  3. Pingback: I’m Living in a Bad Dream* | picardykatt's Blog

  4. Oh yes this is one of my favourite devices – I read one recently: While You Were Sleeping where a woman woke up next to her dead neighbour – now that is a difficult one to explain away!

  5. Ah, yes, The Body in the Library! I’ve been having a splurge of re-watching the Joan Hickson Miss Marple stories, but haven’t got to that one yet – always a favourite. Fortunately I don’t have a library… 😉

    • That is fortunate, FictionFan! 😉 – And I would love to watch the Joan Hickson Miss Marple stories again. I’ve always liked her portrayal the best. I hope they’ll be re-released here on Netflix or some such service soon. They’re great, I think. And I do like this particular one…

  6. I actually wrote a short story a few days ago, where that scenario plays out!

    But yes, it’s a ‘tricky’ situation to say the least. You find a dead body, but you can’t go to the cops.

    It’s a perfect plot for a novel, and definitely one that I would read.

    • I’ll bet your short story is great, Hervey. And you’re absolutely right that it is a challenge. And that is, as you say, what makes it such an interesting plot for a novel.

  7. An Unfamiliar Murder by Jane Isaac starts off exactly like this. Young Anna walks into her house after work to find an unknown stabbed body on the floor and is immediately the prime suspect so she flees. It really would be the shock of your life if it happened!

  8. Tim

    I enjoyed reading your posting — another gem, which is no surprise — and I cannot add to the conversation by coming up with something from fiction, but I can add something else. I remember having a horrifying dream when I was about twelve years old: I had discovered that the body of my neighbor (and childhood playmate) was hidden in my attic, and I did not know why, and I did not know whether or not I should tell anyone, so I told no one; at the same time, in a day or so, my neighbor’s parents were distraught because their daughter had apparently run away from home and could not be found. Note: the first part was a dream, but the second part was actual. Ain’t it a kick in the head how dreams intrude upon reality — and vice versa.

    • It really is, Tim. The dream itself must have been frightening enough. To have that happen in real life, too, must have been awful. And you were so young, too…

      Thanks for the kind words.

  9. I have read the first three in your list and they are all very good. I also have Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed, so I should read that soon.

  10. kathyd

    I must write down Fleeting Memory, The Gingerbread House and Like Father, Like Daughter. Sound very good.
    I have read books with this plot device, but the Garnethill trilogy is what stands out. Maureen O’Donnell is determined to find the killer; it takes three books but she succeeds — and she is some feisty investigator.

    • She is, indeed, Kathy. It’ll be very interesting to find out what you think of the other titles if you get the chance to tread them. As you say, there are plenty of books that use that plot device. Some do it very well. Some don’t. But either way, I think it can make for an effective plot point.

  11. “After a night of drinking” is cliche, don’t you think? But I love how it’s done in Fleeting Memories. Intriguing!

  12. Our friend Sarah Ward plays interesting games with this trope in her new book, Deadly Thaw. Lena was found guilty of murdering her husband after ‘his’ body was found in her bed – but what really happened? It’s a great book….

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