One of the decisions that authors make when they tell a story is how to share point of view. Will the story have only one point of view? If so, whose? If not, how will different points of view be shared? There are a lot of different successful ways to do this, really; it all depends on the context and on the author’s goals.
When the story is about a relatively small community, where there is a limited group of characters, it can be effective to share those different perspectives. It’s a bit like a camera ‘zooming in’ on different households as events unfold.
Agatha Christie did that quite frequently in her novels and stories. To take only one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny when his friend, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks him to look into a case. James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, but Spence thinks he may be innocent. As Poirot investigates, we get glimpses into the homes of the various characters who figure into the story. There’s the Summerhayes family, owners of a Guest House; there are the wealthy and dysfunctional Wetherbys; and, there is up-and-coming politician Guy Carpenter and his wife, Eve. Also living in the village are the local GP, Dr. Rendell, and his wife, Shelagh, and Laura Upward and her playwright son, Robin. As the story goes on, we get to know these characters as there are various scenes in their homes. That set of perspectives offers a broader look at the village, as well as some interesting character development. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Moving Finger and of A Murder is Announced.
In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and he’s trying to ‘go straight.’ Then, he gets the chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building and decides to rob the entire building. As the story unfolds, and Anderson makes his plans, we meet the various residents in the building. The entire story is told in the form of transcripts, letters, notes, and so on, so the points of view aren’t shared in the traditional way. Still, we ‘zoom in’ on the various apartments and their residents. And we get the police perspective as well.
Truman Capote uses a similar approach in In Cold Blood, the fictional retelling of the murders of the Clutter family in 1959. Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith killed Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon, because they’d heard that Clutter kept a great deal of money at his home. Capote tells the story from different points of view, including the Clutters, some of the families they knew, and others who lived in their small Kansas town. The novel begins with the lead-up to the murders, and then goes on through the tragedies themselves, the police investigations, and the trials of the two killers. Through it all, the different perspectives allow the reader to see how the murders impacted this small community.
Louise Penny’s novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec take place very often in the small town of Three Pines. Because it’s a small town, the local families know each other, and each is affected when murder strikes. And Penny chooses to show the points of view of the different characters as the stories go on. We get to know, for instance, Clara and Peter Morrow, both of whom are artists. We also follow Gabri and Olivier, who own the local bistro/B&B, and Ruth Zardo, resident poet. There are other characters, too, whose lives we follow and whose points of view Penny shares. That multiple viewpoint works well in this series, quite probably because there is a limited cast of ‘regular’ characters, so the number of perspectives is limited.
And then there’s Shirley Wells’ Into the Shadows, in which she introduces her sleuths, forensic psychologist Jill Kennedy and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Max Trentham. Kennedy has recently moved to the Pennines village of Kelton Bridge, hoping for a quiet life. She’s recently left her successful career, and now she wants to start over. Then, in one plot thread, the vicar’s wife, Alice Trueman, is murdered. It seems very clear on the surface that her son, Michael, is responsible. He was found standing over the body with the murder weapon. But he won’t say anything about what’s happened. So, Trentham asks Kennedy to work with the young man and try to get him to open up. It’s not going to be an easy task, but Kennedy agrees to at least try. As Trentham and his team work to find out the truth about this murder, we get an ‘inside look’ at the other families in the village. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of some of those people, and that allows the reader to see the sleuths and the investigation from different points of view.
Showing different perspectives – ‘zooming in’ on different characters and families – can be complicated, especially if there’s a large number of people. But when those perspectives are done well, and when it’s a smaller sort of mystery, those different points of view can be interesting. They can add character layers, plot points, and more to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Johnston’s China Grove.