Many crime stories are told, for he most part, from the point of view of the sleuth. Sometimes they’re told from the point of one of a pair of sleuths (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories). That makes sense, since the sleuth is often the story’s protagonist.
Sometimes, though, a story is told from the point of view of a different character. That can be tricky to do well, but when it does work, it can make for an interesting perspective. And, that different point of view can mean that readers get to see the sleuth through different eyes, as the saying goes.
Agatha Christie did that in several of her stories. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia is the story of the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanies her archaeologist husband, Eric, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. Louise has reported strange noises, hands tapping on windows, and other odd occurrences, and her husband wants to ease her mind. So, he hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay at the expedition house and look after his wife’s needs. Not long afterwards, Louise is bludgeoned to death one afternoon in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. This story is told in first person (past tense) from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. That allows for a really interesting perspective on Poirot, as well as perspectives on the other people in the expedition house.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is told mostly from the point of view of the suspects in the death of Joseph Higgins. Most of the action in the novel takes place at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military use (WW II). One day, Higgins is brought there with a broken femur. It’s not life-threatening, but surgery will be required. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation in an incident that’s put down to a terrible accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent in to do the requisite paperwork. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that Higgins might have been murdered. For one thing, that’s what Higgins’ widow claims. For another, one of the people who was present when Higgins died has too much to drink at a party, and then blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. That night, she, too, is killed. As Cockrill gets closer and closer to the truth about these deaths, we follow the thought processes of the suspects, and we see how they view Cockrill.
John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to one of his sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies in the US he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he make plans to meet Fell, and Rampole agrees. On his way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, Rampole meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away and wants to know more about her. When he meets Fell, he learns some of the Starberth family story. It seems that, for two generations, Starberth men were governors in the nearby Chatterham Prison, which has fallen into disuse. From those years has come a tradition that every Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his visit, each one is to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are written on a piece of paper kept in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. Tragically, he dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony attached to the room. Although it seems like an accident at first, it turns out to have been murder. Fell solves the crime, but the story isn’t really told from his perspective. It’s told from Rampole’s perspective. It’s an interesting way to see Fell’s character from the outside, so to speak.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Jennifer White, a Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire, and now lives with her caregiver, Magdalena. One night, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole is murdered. She lives next door to White, so, naturally, the police want to know if there’s any information White has. Detective Luton takes the case and wants to talk to White, but learning the truth won’t be easy. Since White has dementia, she may or may not be lucid, and she is very likely not going to be reliable. But Luton is convinced that she knows all about the murder and might even be guilty. So, she tries to find ways to get White to share her story. The novel is told from White’s point of view, so readers see Luton from that perspective. And, as the story goes on, and White’s condition deteriorates, her view of Luton changes, too.
And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features the members of the Now family. Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, where they’re still reeling from the death three years earlier of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His death was a tragic accident, not a murder, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family, and they’re all suffering. Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. In one sense, there are plenty of suspects. He was mean and cruel, and no-one will miss him. But it’s not long before the police start to focus their attention on the Nows. And there’s evidence that could support any of the three of them being guilty. At the same time as they’re coping with being suspects in a murder investigation, they’re also facing a family health crisis. Having to deal with both of these crises at the same time draws the family together just a little. And, very slowly, they start to do a small bit of healing. Interestingly, we don’t ‘get into the heads’ of the police here. The story is told from the different perspectives of members of the Now family.
When a story is told from a different perspective like that, it can give readers a different view of the sleuth. It can also offer an interesting way to look at the experience of being involved in a criminal investigation. It’s not easy to write this sort of story well, but it can be effective.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Pet Shop Boys’ A Different Point of View.