Omniscient point of view

I don't do book reviews on this blog, since I'm firmly situated inside a glass house.   Despite which, I do occasionally receive a book or two from publishers, always with the firm understanding that I'm most unlikely to do anything other than read and enjoy the stories.

I want to mention though a book I received a few months ago from the nice people at Bloomsbury, because this book illustrates a very interesting technique that's rarely seen in detective stories.

The book's The Third Rail by Michael Harvey, and the technique is omniscient third person.  The Third Rail is a hardboiled PI detective tale starring an Irish ex-cop in Chicago.  All relatively standard stuff, you might think.

I was chugging along happily, rather liking the book's voice, watching the bodies pile up at a rate that would make even Nicolaos wince, when about halfway in, something unusual happened.  A bad guy decided to kill a whole lot of people (I'm tiptoeing around spoilers here...).  As each victim died, or was seriously injured, the book stopped to tell you what the victim's life would have been like if he or she hadn't been hurt.

Here's an example:
His fourth [shot] punched through the chest and burst the heart of forty-seven-year old Mitchell Case, a second-rate accountant who would never find out about the first-rate affair his wife was having, not to mention the malignant tumor percolating inside his skull.  Case's Corolla was traveling at twenty-eight miles an hour when he was struck.  The car hit the divider, jumped it, and plowed into a van heading north.  That driver, eighteen-year-old Malcolm Anderson, would never meet his daughter, Janine, because she'd never be born.

And so forth.  By the time this scene finished, it was a busy day at the office for the morgue attendants.

Now The Third Rail is written in close third person, which is the most common point of view.  But this scene has flipped into omniscient third, deliberately and to great effect.

Point of view is how the book tells its tale via a narrator.  (I'll call it POV from now on.)

First person POV is an "I" book.  I pulled out a knife.  I waved it around, because I thought it would scare her.  She laughed at me.  The Athenian Mysteries are written in first person from the point of view of Nicolaos.  In a first person book you always see inside the head of the narrator.

Close third person is a "he/she" book, in which we see inside the head of the narrator.  Fred pulled out a gun.  Jane thought he looked ridiculous.  She laughed at him. 

Distant third person is a "he/she" book in which we follow a particular character but don't see inside his head.

You surely know that in third person, it's easy to switch from one narrator to another.  In one scene we might be viewing the action from Jane's point of view, in the next scene we might see through Fred's eyes.  Changing narrator is a normal POV switch.

But here we have something else again.  This book does a POV switch into omniscient third. The new narrator is a godlike being -- not one of the characters -- a godlike being who looks down from above, and tells us what's going on. As you can see from the excerpt, omniscient narrators not only know everything, but they can also see the future, and the past, and look into alternate world lines.

Omniscient third is very rarely seen in detective fiction because, since the omniscient narrator sees all and knows all, including who the killer is right from the start, it's going to be a very short story.  You could, in theory, have an omniscient narrator who deliberately hides his knowledge from the reader, but that would mean the omniscient narrator is also an unreliable witness.  At this point the author feels a migraine coming on and has to take some headache pills and have a good lie down.

So all in all I thought Harvey did a great job of switching into omniscience, on that one big set piece scene, and then switching out of it.  By limiting his omniscience, so to speak, he managed to get the benefit without the usual drawbacks.


Unknown said...

Well...this just highlighted how little I have been taught in english class. I had no idea there were different types of 3rd person! But now that I do, it's very interesting to think about how they can be used for effect.

Lexi said...

I have a weakness for authorial interjection myself. It's so out of favour I doubt I'd use it, but I enjoy it in an author like Stella Gibbons.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Shannon, welcome to the blog.

I'm afraid in Australia they cease to teach English in about year 7, as far as I can tell, after which all they teach is how to write meaningless essays in which you parrot back the ideology-du-jour of the education department. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Stuff like close third person etc falls under the heading of writing craft. There are quite a few writer sites around that talk about it. If you search this blog for posts tagged "writing" you'll find other waffling from me.

I think though the best way to learn craft is to read great books and think really hard about why they work, and in particular, what they have in common.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Lexi, yes, I've seen it done recently in parody only, but it was super common back in the 1800s. Where the author speaks directly to the reader and says, "And now, Dear Reader, Evil Bob has tied Cynthia to the railroad tracks, and here comes the Boston Express..."

It's a fascinating voice because technically, it's actually omniscient first.

That's so out of fashion I think you should totally try it. A book written like that these days would either go down in flames or be a bestseller.

Unknown said...

Hmmm, yes that seems like an accurate description of most of english. You do get the occasional fantastic teacher however, and they teach really great critical skills so I do find myself thinking about why I like (or don't like) the books that I read. Thanks for the advice about craft, I'll try to find more blogs.

I've spent a lot of time in the last few days reading through your blog anyway. Considering that I'm not sure whether I want to be a writer but definitely interested in Ancient Greece (and Rome), it has been fascinating me. Please don't be too alarmed if I comment on posts that have been dead for 2 or 3 years!

Gary Corby said...

Do please feel free to comment all over the place. I had to turn on comment moderation for older posts to suppress the spammers, but I'll push them through pretty quickly.

Hunting Violets (Resa Haile) said...

I am surprised (not saying you're wrong, but surprised) to see you describe the Holmes tales narrated by Watson as close third-person point of view (and also the Poirot narrated by Hastings). Most people, I think, would consider Watson and Hastings first-person narrators. We get their thoughts and feelings and are told what they do, even though they describe actions by the "real" hero. Also, we are often in Poirot's thoughts and the thoughts of other characters in the third-person (or non-Hastings) novels. I was wondering how you chose to designate these (various) narratives to the categories you did. (I imagine *The Great Gatsby* would go with the first concept.) Thanks.

Gary Corby said...

Resa, you're absolutely right, and I'm absolutely wrong on those examples. I'm re-reading what I wrote and wondering what I was thinking.

I shall fix! Thanks for pointing that out.

Hunting Violets (Resa Haile) said...

Three years late, but you're welcome.

Hunting Violets (Resa Haile) said...

I also have to say that omniscient is my favorite POV, and it's used to great effect in many detective novels ("The Poisoned Chocolates Case" by Anthony Berkeley, for example). No omniscient narrator reveals every single thing that everyone thinks or does (this would be both impossible and undesirable), so I don't think there's a problem with it at all.

Gary Corby said...

Three years, one month, and eight days. Resa, you have set a new record.

Also I'm very impressed you thought to come back!