There are many ways that an author can add suspense to a crime novel. One of them, for instance, is the ‘second murder’ trope. I’ve done that, myself, and it can be effective. Another is what I’ll call the ‘misidentified body’ trope. In that sort of plot, a body is identified. Then, it’s discovered that it’s not that person at all.
This trope gives the writer a lot of flexibility. Perhaps the writer wants to make the real victim the intended victim all along. Or, perhaps the writer wants an ‘accidental murder.’ Or two murders. In any case, a misidentified body can add plot twists, suspense, and interest to a story.
Agatha Christie uses this sort of plot point in more than one of her stories. For example, in The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, awake to the terrible news that the body of a young woman has been found in their library. Neither knows who the dead woman was, nor how her body got there. The police are called in and begin the task of finding out who the victim was, but Dolly Bantry isn’t sure they’ll get to the truth. So, she asks her friend, Miss Marple, to help. A search of missing person records suggests a match with eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, who was a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel. With that as a starting point, the police interview Ruby’s co-workers and friends to find out who would have wanted to kill her. There are several suspects, too. Everything gets much more complicated when the burned-out hulk of a car belonging to George Bartlett is discovered with a body in it, also the body of a young woman. As it happens, Bartlett was the last person to see Ruby Keene alive, so there’s a good chance that the two deaths are related. And so they turn out to be. And throughout this story is the question of who, exactly, has been killed… I see you, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and Taken at the Flood.
In Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned to investigate when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. McPherson starts by trying to trace the victim’s movements during her last days, and soon discovers that she had planned to marry a ‘blueblood’ named Shelby Carpenter. She’d postponed the wedding, though, saying she needed some time away. As it turned out, though, she never left town. What’s more, she had planned to have dinner with an old friend, Waldo Lydecker, on the night of her death, but called him to cancel. Neither man knows why she changed her plans, and neither claims to know who killed her. Then comes a shock. The body turns out not to be Laura Hunt’s after all. In fact, she comes home from a stay in the country and surprises McPherson while he’s in her home. Now, the police have to find out who was actually killed. It turns out that the real victim was a woman named Diane Redfern. Laura knew her, and even gave her permission to stay in the apartment. But she claims not to know who killed her. But, as McPherson soon learns, Laura had a very good motive for murder, since Diane was having an affair with Shelby Carpenter. Now, Laura becomes the chief suspect, as McPherson tries to get to the truth.
In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Dr. Raymond Akande gets concerned when his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Melanie, goes missing after a visit to the local employment bureau. He tells his friend and patient, Inspector Reg Wexford, what’s happened. At first, Wexford isn’t unduly worried, as there might be any number of reasons why a young woman might take off for a few days. Akande insists that Melanie wouldn’t have left, even for a short trip, without telling her parents. So, after a bit more time goes by, Wexford starts the missing persons process. Then, the body of a young woman is found in a local wood. Wexford’s sure it’s Melanie’s body, and asks her parents to identify her. They go to the mortuary and, to Wexford’s shock, tell him that the young woman is not Melanie. Now, Wexford has two tasks (beyond, of course, making things right with Melanie’s parents as best he can). One is to find out what happened to Melanie. The other is to find out who the dead woman is, and who killed her.
Priscilla Masters’ River Deep is the first of her series featuring Martha Gunn, Coroner for Shrewsbury. In the novel, the body of an unknown man floats out of a basement when the River Severn overflows its banks. The body is not that of the house’s owner. In fact, he says he has no idea who the dead man is. At first, the police think the dead man may be Clarke Haddonfield, who was reported missing, and whose description is a solid match. But they soon learn they’re wrong. Finally, the victim is identified as Gerald Bosworth. So, the police concentrate on trying to trace Bosworth’s last days and weeks and find out who would have wanted to kill him. This raises other questions, though. What happened to Haddonfield? And, is his disappearance related to Bosworth’s death? And why was Bosworth’s body found in the basement of someone he didn’t know?
And then there’s Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. San Diego PI and passionate surfer Boone Daniels gets a new case. It seems that Coastal Insurance is being sued by Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri. A warehouse he owned was burned, and he filed a claim with Coastal. However, Coastal investigated the blaze, and concluded that it was a case of arson. Now Silvieri is suing for damages and bad faith. The key to this case is a stripper named Tamera Roddick, who was a witness to the fire. But she’s disappeared. Coastal wants Daniels to find her, so that she can testify. Then, a young woman dies after a fall from the balcony of a cheap motel. She has Tamera Roddick’s ID with her, so at first, the obvious assumption is made. But it turns out that she is Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who called herself Angela Hart. Was she killed in a case of mistaken identity? Was the killer after her the whole time? And where is Tamera? Daniels finds the case getting increasingly complex – and dangerous.
If it’s not handled well, the plot point of a misidentified body can come off as contrived. But if it’s handled effectively, it can add layers of interest and suspense to a crime novel. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s You Are Everything.