One 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.