When the police investigate a murder, one of the first things they try to do is to establish who the victim was. Once the victim’s identified, it’s much easier to try to find out who would want that person dead. That’s one reason it’s so important to get an accurate identification. In these days of DNA testing and other identification procedures, the process is more precise than it used to be. But even today, it’s possible for a body to be misidentified. And that has all sorts of sometimes tragic consequences.
In crime fiction, a misidentified body can allow for an interesting plot development, misdirection, and more, so it’s not hard to see why an author might choose to include that plot point. But it’s got to be done skillfully, so as to be credible. After all, a lot of readers like their disbelief right near them when they read. There are plenty of instances of misidentified bodies in crime fiction; space only permits a few examples here.
More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories include this device. I can’t say much about them, for fear of giving spoilers. Fans will know which stories I’m referring to here. Sometimes the misidentification is accidental; that is, a character makes an honest mistake about who the dead person is. At other times, though, it’s not accidental at all. In both cases, it adds to the sleuth’s task, and serves as interesting misdirection.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body? includes an effective use of misidentification. In the novel, an architect named Alfred Thipps discovers the body of an unknown man in his bathtub. He’s never seen the man before, and has no idea why the body is in his home. The Dowager Duchess of Windsor knows Thipps (he’s been working for her) and is certain that he is not guilty. So, she asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to help clear the architect’s name. Wimsey agrees and begins to look into the case. At first, it seems that the body might be that of wealthy financier Sir Rueben Levy, who’s gone missing. But that turns out to be wrong. Now, Wimsey will have to solve two mysteries: what happened to Sir Reuben; and who is the dead man?
Ruth Rendell’s Simisola also looks at what happens when a body is misidentified. Dr. Raymond Akande is worried about his twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie. She hasn’t been home in a few days, and it’s not like her to do that without staying in contact with her family. He asks one of his patients, Inspector Reg Wexford, to look into the matter. At first, Wexford isn’t too concerned. After all, there could be any number of reasons that a young adult might take off without necessarily letting her parents know where she is. But when more time goes by, Wexford begins to believe that something might be wrong. So, he starts to ask questions and devote some police time to the case. The, the body of a young woman about Melanie’s age is found in a nearby wood. Wexford’s convinced that the body is Melanie’s, and even calls her parents in to identify it. But they tell him that the dead woman is not their daughter. Wexford’s identification complicates the case. It also hurts Melanie’s parents deeply that he didn’t take the time to be sure of the dead woman’s identity before contacting them.
Priscilla Masters’ River Deep introduces Shrewsbury coroner Martha Gunn. One of her roles as coroner is to investigate sudden and violent deaths, deaths from unknown causes, and deaths that occur in prison. So, she and her team look into the case when the body of a man floats out of a house after the River Severn overflows its banks. At first, the man is tentatively identified as James Humphreys, who owns the house. But that turns out not to be right. Humphreys is very much alive (he wasn’t home at the time of the flood). He says that he has no idea who the dead man was, nor why he’d be in Humphreys’ basement. A search through the missing person cases suggests that the dead man might be Clarke Haddonfield, who’s about the same age and build. But that’s not true, either. Now, Gunn and her team have to work out who the dead man is (and by whom he was killed), and what happened to Clarke Haddonfield.
And then there’s Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol, which features former San Diego Police Department officer Boone Daniels. He occasionally does private investigations, but he’d really rather be on his beloved surfboard. Then, he gets a visit from an attorney, Petra Hall, who’s working on behalf of Coastal Insurance. It seems a warehouse owner named Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri is suing Coastal because they didn’t pay out on his claim after a warehouse fire. Coastal claims the fire was deliberately set, which is why they won’t pay. The only witness to the fire was a stripper named Tamera Roddick, but she seems to have disappeared. Hall wants Daniels to find Tamera. Then, a young woman dies of a fall from the balcony of a cheap hotel room. The victim has Tamera’s ID, so it seems that the body’s been identified. But it turns out that the dead woman was another stripper, a friend of Tamera’s who went by the name of Angela Hart. Daniels and Hall now have to find out not only what happened to Tamera, but also who killed Angela.
Misidentifications can happen, even in this age of DNA and other personal evidence. When they happen in crime fiction, they can add an interesting layer to a story. Which cases have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sondre Lerche Vaular’s You Are Not Who I Thought I Was.