When there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to establish time of death if possible. Sometimes there are witnesses who can help in that process. But even so, establishing time of death isn’t always as simple as it may seem on the surface.
In crime fiction, at any rate, there are plenty of factors that can make it harder to establish when a victim actually died. Sometimes, for instance, fictional murderers set things up to make it seem as though a victim died at one time, when the death really took place either earlier or later. And that makes sense, too. If the killer has an unbreakable alibi for the supposed time of death, it’s easier to avoid getting caught. There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which the time of death is manipulated. No spoilers here, but the end result is that everyone has to go back to the proverbial drawing board when the real time of death is established.
Sometimes, knowing when someone died plays an important role in inheritances. That, too, can impact the way people think about it. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, General Fentiman dies while sitting in his customary chair at his club (which also happens to be Lord Peter Wimsey’s club). His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. The time of these deaths matters greatly, mostly because of inheritances. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, it passes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dormer. Then, it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. Wimsey looks into the case and finds that more than one person had a stake in exactly what time each death happened.
There’s also a question of time of death and inheritance in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which introduces her sleuth, rare book expert Henry Gamadge. In the novel, Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter Amberley and Alma, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson, pay a summer visit to Ford’s Beach, Maine. Amberley’s in very bad health because of his heart condition, and he’s not expected to live long. He stands to inherit a fortune from a deceased aunt if he lives to the age of 21, but there’s a good chance he won’t live that long. Still, he’s determined to make this trip, as he is interested in the summer stock theatre in the area. The family arrives in the last few hours before Amberley turns 21 and settles in. The next morning, he’s found dead at the bottom of the cliff. One question is, how did he end up at the cliff in the middle of the night? Another is: did he die of heart failure or was this a murder? And, of course, there’s the question of when he died. This makes all the difference when it comes to the money he was to inherit.
Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up with a terrible hangover after a drunken sleep. He takes stock of himself and then slowly gets up. Within minutes, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. Mitter was so drunk that he has no memory at all of what happened the night before. So, he has no alibi when the police begin to investigate. Having no choice, they arrest him, and he’s soon put on trial. Because Mitter was thoroughly drunk, he can’t establish when he last saw his wife alive. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint when she died. In part because of that, Mitter is the only one who was definitely at their home at the time his wife died. He claims to be innocent, but there’s no clear time of death that would put anyone else at the scene. He’s therefore convicted and remanded to a mental hospital until he can recover his memory of the murder. Inspector Van Veeteren’s team gathered the evidence against Mitter, and at first, it seemed persuasive. But now, Van Veeteren has doubts. And, when Mitter himself is murdered, it’s clear that this case is much more complicated than it seems.
And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which features Raythune County, West Virginia, prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins. Early one morning, the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River, in Acker’s Gap. At first, it looks possible that she either committed suicide or that the car went into the river by accident. But soon enough, forensics reports reveal that Lucinda was dead before she went into the river. The fact that she was submerged in water makes it hard enough to pinpoint when she died. But now, Elkins and local sheriff Nick Fogelsong have to cast a wider net, as the saying goes, since they don’t have a clearly established time of death. And it turns out that there are more suspects than it may seem on the surface.
There are lots of other crime novels in which the time of death turns out to be very important to the story. Sometimes it’s because of one or another alibi. Sometimes it has to do with another aspect of the plot. Either way, the process of finding out when a victim actually died is central to murder investigations, whether they take place in real life or fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Unicorns’ Sea Ghost.