Fear in Writing: Guest Blogger: Margot Kinberg--POV in Crime Fiction

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guest Blogger: Margot Kinberg--POV in Crime Fiction

Margot Kinberg is the author of B-Very Flat and Publish or Perish.  She is a professor of Linguistics at National University in San Diego, California.  Kinberg is also a musician with a soft spot for Billy Joel.  She blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, where she posts very thought-provoking and well-researched articles on mystery writing.  If you haven't read one of Margot's prolific posts, here is your chance!  She has kindly agreed to post at Southern City Mysteries today, and I am so grateful to have her.  Thank you, Margot, and without further ado...

Margot: Thanks so much, Michele, for hosting me. It’s an honour to be here. One of the things that sets crime fiction apart from other genres is that there’s a mystery – a crime, really – to solve. Very often, that crime is murder. Crime fiction fans want to get caught up in the mystery and want that sense of suspense that comes with uncovering clues and finding out the truth. One way that mystery authors add that kind of suspense to their stories is in the way they use point of view. There are several ways to build suspense through point of view; any one of them can be successful depending on the author’s writing style and the plot. The key seems to be to use point of view to add interest and tension without confusing the reader or keeping too much from the reader.

The Sleuth’s Point of View

It can be very effective to tell a story from the sleuth’s point of view. As the sleuth discovers clues, so does the reader. If the sleuth happens to be in danger, the reader follows along, and that process can truly engage the reader. Several novels and series use this point of view quite skillfully.

One way to do that is to use the first person, with the sleuth as narrator. That’s what Janet Evanovich does in her Stephanie Plum series. Plum is a bounty hunter who learns the trade as she goes along. As she gets into and out of danger, we find clues as she finds them, we follow along as she goes in search of her quarry, and we put the pieces of the puzzle together as she does.

P.D. Martin uses the same strategy in her Sophie Anderson series. Anderson is a profiler for the FBI. Her specialty is “getting into the heads” of serial killers. She’s aided by psychic visions that allow her to see and feel what the murder sees and feels. In novels such as Body Count, The Killing Hands and Kiss of Death, Anderson uses those visions and dreams to help her solve her cases. In this series, using the sleuth’s point of view is especially effective because they allow readers to experience the same visions and dreams that Sophie Anderson does.

Sometimes, the sleuth’s point of view is told in third person, and that can work very well, too. For instance, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series uses that point of view approach. So do many of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. There are many other examples of this point of view strategy and it works quite effectively. This strategy lets the reader learn what the sleuth learns, when the sleuth learns it, but also allows the reader to see, if you will, what else is going on. That third-person way of giving the sleuth’s point of view also gives the author an easy opportunity to describe the sleuth.

When stories are told from the sleuth’s point of view, the reader can put him or herself into the sleuth’s shoes, as it were, and get caught up in the investigation by “being the sleuth.”

The “Sidekick” or Secondary Character’s Point of View

Some crime fiction is told from a “sidekick’s” point of view. Two of the most famous examples of this approach are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries and the Agatha Christie mysteries that feature Hercule Poirot and Captian Hastings.

In nearly all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, the story is told from the point of view of Dr. Watson. The beauty of this point of view strategy is that it allows the author to surprise the reader and not reveal too much at once. The sleuth can, say, find a clue that the secondary character doesn’t see and then surprise the reader and the other characters with it. This strategy, in other words, allows the author to amaze the reader.

Another real advantage of this approach to point of view is that it lets the author tell the reader a great deal about the sleuth. For instance, in most of Agatha Christie’s stories that include Captain Hastings (and in some that include other “sidekicks”), the secondary character makes mention of Poirot’s fastidiousness, his sartorial splendor and what seems his egoism. We get quite an interesting perspective on Poirot when a story’s told from another point of view, since Poirot himself would not be likely to discuss his – er – less than perfect qualities…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are, by and large, told from Watson’s point of view with a similar effect. We can be amazed, as Watson is, by Holmes’ deductive skills. We also get a clearer picture of the kind of man Holmes is, since Watson describes not just his appearance, but also his habits, his use of drugs, his behaviour and so on.

The Killer’s Point of View

Some crime fiction novels are told from the murderer’s point of view. This can be extremely suspenseful as we learn what goes on in the killer’s mind. That’s what Jim Thompson does in The Killer Inside Me, in which West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford investigates a savage beating and then a murder. As he gets involved in the investigations, we learn of a “sickness” that Ford has had since his youth. It makes for a truly suspenseful story.

There’s an Agatha Christie novel, too, that’s told from the point of view of the killer. I’m not going to mention which one – no spoilers : ). However, it does make for a fascinating way to look at a crime.

Multiple Points of View

Lots of crime fiction is written from multiple points of view. That’s a little trickier than staying with one point of view, because if it’s not done well, it can be confusing. It’s important to clarify for the reader whose point of view is being shared at any given time.

That said, though, there are advantages to shifts in point of view. The reader can get a broader picture of a character, a place, an event, etc., if there are multiple perspectives. It’s easier to really get to know the characters, too, if we see the events of the story from a variety of points of view. Also, shifts in point of view allow the reader to learn things that the sleuth doesn’t know yet, and watch how the sleuth finds those things out.

Simon Beckett shifts points of view in his novels featuring forensic anthropologist David Hunter. In Whispers of the Dead, for instance, Hunter is visiting Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropological Research Laboratory. While he’s there, a body is discovered in a cabin not far from the lab. Then another body is discovered. Before long, it’s clear that there’s a serial killer at work. Much of this story is told from Hunter’s point of view (using the first person). However, there are also sections of the story told from the killer’s point of view. That switch in point of view is indicated by different typeface and it’s included in different sections, so although some readers may find it distracting, it’s not hard to follow.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also features shifts in point of view. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year old drowning death of Bethany Friend. In the course of the novel, we see the events from several points of view. Some of the story is told from Scarlett’s point of view. Other parts of the story are told from the point of view of Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who helps Scarlett solve the murder and two others that occur. Other parts of the story are told from the point of view of Scarlett’s lover, Marc Amos. Still others are told from other characters’ points of view. Edwards makes those shifts easily and elegantly by “setting the stage” so the reader knows which point of view is being shared at any given time.

I use multiple points of view in my Joel Williams series, too. Williams is a former police officer-turned-criminology professor. As he gets involved in mysteries, some of the stories I write are told from his point of view. Parts are told from other characters’ points of view, including the victim and the murderer. I think it gives readers an interesting perspective on the whole case, and allows the careful reader to pick up the clues ; ).

There are some other ways to handle point of view, of course. I’ve only touched on a few. Whichever decision the author makes about point of view, the key is for the story to make sense for the reader and be easy to follow. It’s also important that there be a good match between the story itself and the approach to point of view. Just as an example, part of what makes Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None so suspenseful and such an engaging novel is that she chose to shift points of view among the ten people involved in the novel. It’s a very effective choice.

What do you think about point of view? If you’re a crime fiction fan, do you have a point of view preference? If you’re a writer, what’s your choice for point of view?

Thanks again, Michele, for your hospitality!!

To purchase one of Margot's books, such as her latest, B-Very Flat, click on the links here and above. 
For those who came seeking the answer to Thursday's Blogfest entry, I will post it on Saturday.  I already had this great guest blogger lined up, so I couldn't intrude on her time with Guess That Character Blogfest Part II.  Check it out on Saturday, right here!
Sign up for the Happy Birthday Blogfest, celebrating Southern City Mysteries' first birthday, in the right-hand column or in the announcement post.  The Blogfest is set for Sept. 24th.


  1. Fascinating, as all your posts are, Margot. I love that particular Agatha Christie precisely because of the twist in the end.
    Watson as a narrator is so much nicer than Holmes as a narrator, isn't he? Though to give Conan Doyle, he brings out the analness in Holmes really well when he gets him to narrate.

    And I really must see if I can get a copy of your book here- sounds fascinating.

  2. Rayna - Thank you! And thank you so much for your interest in my books : )! That's so kind of you. And you know, I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes, I think Watson is a much more appealing narrator. I think the Holmes stories might not be nearly as approachable, I suppose, if Holmes narrated them.

  3. Never thought of all the POVs in mysteries. I don't write in the that genre, but prefer third person from two - three characters max.

  4. Alex - I know what you mean. I write in third person, myself. For me, anyway, I find that it's easier to let the reader know what's going on "in the background" and with other characters if I use third person.

  5. I have to say I'm sad that I didn't get to see your character and now I'm forced to wait until tomorrow *stomps feet* but I am not disappointed what I came across!!

    This was such a great guest spot! I love learning new point of views, and how everyone writes differently. So many different genres, so many different ways to write!!!

  6. Michele, thanks for hosting Margot today.

    Margot, as always I learn from your post. I enjoy reading mysteries that features all of these POVs. I think that's one thing that makes the mysteries so intriguing is the different POVs authors use.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Jen - Thanks for being so gracious about waiting to find out about Michele's character : ). I want to know, too! And I agree; point of view and the way authors use it is such an interesting thing. It can really significantly affect a story's outcome.

    Mason - Why, thank you! And I agree; any of a number of POV's can make for a fascinating story. To me, it's a matter of which POV is the best fit for a given story.

    Documentary - Thanks for the kind remarks; I do appreciate your interest.

  8. I'm finding the multiple points of view are very common these days! I also like it from the killers POV. If not the whole novel, like that lovely AC novel, at least some chapters.


  9. Clarissa - You know, it's interesting how many multiple POV novels there are out there. I'm going to have to start thinking about that and see if that's a trend, or if it's always been that way. Hmm.... And yes, having the killer's point of view can add not just insight but interest and spice to a novel. So long as it's well-drawn, so that we can really understand the killer's personality.

  10. Margot, I think you've summed it up perfectly here: Whichever decision the author makes about point of view, the key is for the story to make sense for the reader and be easy to follow.

    You have to find what's best for the story. And if you're leaning toward suspense rather than straight mystery, those multiple POV characters, including the villain, make perfect sense.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  11. POV in mystery is intricate. thanks for posting some great information. Stop by my blog I have an award for you. :)

  12. Terry - Thank you : ). And you've put that quite, quite well: multiple POV can add a layer of suspense to a story, especially if A knows something, but B and C don't, and we follow them as they find out. Those kinds of strategies can really keep readers turning pages.

    As long as the author makes a conscious decision as to how s/he will use POV, there are several choices.

    Summer Ross - You're right; POV isn't always easy, especially if the author is trying to convey suspense, drop "red herrings," and so on. And thanks so much for thinking of Confessions... for an award. I'll be right over : ).

  13. I remember reading that A Christie novel told from the villain's pov. It was the first time I'd run into that and I was floored! I think I actually reread the entire thing right away - looking for the clues and the avoidances. Really cool! :)

  14. Jemi - Oh, isn't it cool? I have to admit, the first time I read it, I was completely taken in. And then of course, if one reads it over, one sees all of the many little clues that point to that killer...

  15. I agree with Rayna's comment: Watson is a more likeable and connectable character than Holmes and is therefore a great narrator for the series.

    That is the challenge with writing crime: quite often you are writing about the most heinous in society, and so there needs to be a character the reader can identify with and stay alongside through the story.

    Great article.

  16. Donna - Thank you : ). I like the way you put that, too: when we're writing (or reading) mysteries, we are delving into sometimes very nasty characters' lives. If we want to keep the reader engaged, or as readers, if we want to stay engaged, there has to be a character with some appeal. So point of view becomes quite important.

  17. I'm sorry I didn't get to post my character info, but I think we can all agree Margot did a great job! Thanks, Margot.


  18. Michele - Awwww... *blush* Thanks : )! And you are a most excellent blog host. Such great hostpitality : ).