‘Faked death’ stories offer everything – drama, nail-biting tension, psychological meltdown, escape. No wonder they are such a staple in fiction.

In John Grisham’s 1997 thriller The Partner, lawyer Patrick Lanigan becomes reviled above all other lawyers (a low bar, admittedly) because he fakes his own death, leaving a trail of tears and recriminations.

He makes off with $90million that wasn’t his as well, which only adds his list of enemies. And, he leaves behind a burnt corpse that creates the very real prospect of capital murder charges should he be found.

On his capture four years later, Patrick claims he pursued this drastic course of action because he knows something that no-one else knows. It was a secret he took with him to Brazil, where he has been hiding out, with his new lover.

As you might expect, the case is far from clear cut. He is not entirely the baddie. Although he’s not a textbook hero either.

The book, which I have just re-read (because I enjoy Grisham’s functional thrillers) was a reminder of the thrilling allure of the “faked death” narrative.

True stories of faked deaths

This allure is not wholly contained within fiction. Whenever there is a major tragedy with chaos and high death tolls – such as the 9/11 atrocity – there are opportunists who exploit the confusion.

Some fake dead relatives to claim compensation. Others choose to disappear themselves.

This is their chance to leave it all behind.

In 1999, a 38-year-old man faked his death in the Paddington rail crash to escape his record as a sex offender. It was, his trial heard, “a spur of the moment thing”.

The MP John Stonehouse faked his own death in 1974 to escape an investigation into his accounting firm and unresolved accusations of spying. He left a pile of clothes on Miami beach to give the impression he drowned (or was eaten by sharks). In reality, he was dashing to Australia to set up home with his lover.

The most celebrated case in recent years, captured in a rollicking ITV drama, The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, featured hapless John Darwin who was apparently lost at sea.

His wife, Anne, claimed his £250,000 life insurance to settle his debts, but had to lie about his fate to their sons. John turned up five years later and the whole blundering ruse was exposed, including the fact he had been living secretly in the house next door. They were jailed – and shattered as a family.

The thrill of escapism

These stories, fact or fiction, offer a certain thrill, especially in miserable times. Who hasn’t, for a moment, wanted to drop everything and everyone and run away?

Pseudocide, as it is called, is the subject of its own podcast examining past cases of the phenomenon, which favours the “midlife crisis” theory in many cases.

This is how it happens, at least in fiction.

The slow accumulation of worries and woes becomes a dragging weight on the protagonist. What if, as a “spur of the moment thing,” they could wriggle free, march off into the sunset and create the life they always wanted, with cocktails on the beach, an uncomplaining and willing partner, and the freedom to think their thoughts.

Escapism is a key currency of fiction. Indeed, it is the very act itself. When reading, you step outside your own life and become enmeshed in that of another character, perhaps in another time or another world.

The “faked death” narrative not only provides that high of escapism but doubles down on the sensation – and makes it the very essence of the story.

5 reasons ‘faked death’ stories are such a blast

1 What you leave behind

There must be trouble. The trouble must be big and all-consuming. The trouble paints the hero (or anti-hero) into a corner from which there is no feasible escape except for death (or the perception of it). These crises must come early in the book to set up the hero’s which guarantees drama, and dilemmas from the outset. No slowburn build-up here, it is a breathless rush to the key dramatic decision.

2 How you fake your own death

In The Partner, John Grisham sets up Patrick Lanigan as a smart, paranoid and cautious operator. He has thought of everything, from learning a new language, to arranging his financing, to fixing the scene of his death so there are no loose ends. This is the “manual”, the “how-to”, the enjoyable to do list that gives the reader plenty of useful tips. How would you do it? What might you overlook? Where might you slip up?

3 How to create your new life

And when the drama and tension of the escape has peaked, here comes the relief. The momentary pause in the tense drama when the faked death has been successfully executed and the hero can relax, for just for a moment, while the world – a million miles away – mourns or hunts them.

This was their vision – a simple existence, low on connectivity, high on self-care. No bills to worry about, no nine-to-five to curtail any freedoms. They become wood carvers, or bar tenders, or surf instructors. No worries. This is how the escapism manifests. The decision makes complete sense.

4 Those you leave behind

But, of course, their disappearance leaves a hole in other people’s lives. There are grieving families, there are suspicious business partners, and dogged detectives who slowly unpick your complicated life and begin to realise your death doesn’t quite add up.

After the thrill of the successful escape, the net begins to close. Perhaps you – for it is you now, in their shoes – perhaps you in your far-off retreat, with your mind finally clear, begin to have a new perspective on your actions. Clouds appear in the previously cloudless sky. You fret. You mourn those aspects of your former life you miss. You feel guilt.

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You wonder if the close shave you had with the local police was an accident, or whether, subconsciously, you want to be caught. You want to be found. Maybe, you think, you faked your death as a cry for help and now you want to hear the reaction to your cry. Maybe it will be different this time, you think, now I’ve been heard. Now they know how desperate I was.

This is the psychodrama of doubt and guilt plays out and it inevitably leads to…

5 The discovery and the return

In fiction (and so often in real-life), the escape is temporary. The death is only fake. You must face your nemesis. You cannot run away forever. The faked death was a sticking plaster on a wound that will never heal until there is a proper remedy.

As I have said, the discovery might come at your own hand. You might decide that enough is enough. The tension of the enclosing net, the slow inevitability of capture, the loneliness of your new life, the sheer weight of your secret might become unbearable.

The real reason you ran

Ultimately, it comes down to this – what the story is really all about.

You were only ever running away from yourself. Not your finances, or your crime, or your family, or a sticky situation. You were running away from yourself and when you got there – to your idyllic retreat – the reality slowly dawned.

You didn’t escape. You brought everything with you, in your head. You even recreated the previous woes only in a new setting.

Physical escape was a shortlived solution. The only way truly to escape from the weight of your existence is to confront your troubles head on. To accept the consequences, good or bad.

Better those painful lessons, than the never-ending nightmare of speculation and guilt and unanswered cries.

That is the satisfying conclusion to the faked death story. No wonder it’s a popular theme. There’s so much going on all the time.

5 examples of faked death stories

(Beware, spoilers will follow.)

1 Gone Girl

Not exactly, gone gone. Not permanently. Amy escapes her marriage and carefully orchestrates the clues to suggest her husband Nick is her murderer. The truth exposes both as monsters, deserving of each other in this beautifully wrought and gasp-filled thriller.

2 The Third Man

In Graham Greene’s classic story, businessman Harry Lime is in trouble and he reaches out to a friend Holly Martins for help. When Martins arrives in post-war Vienna, he learns Lime has been killed in a car crash. But details of the accident conflict and Martins begins to suspect Lime isn’t dead after all.

3 And Then There Were None

In Agatha Christie’s clever whodunnit, the set-up is a classic of the golden age. Ten individuals are summoned to an island from which there is no escape. They are all accused of murder, their sins laid out in detail and each carrying a death sentence which will be carried out imminently. The killer must be among them – but who is really dead and who is faking it?

4 The Adventure of the Empty House

In this celebrated short story, author Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life under pressure from the reading public. The story explains that Holmes did not die at Reichenbach Falls after a struggle with Professor Moriarty, three years earlier. He explains to Dr Watson that he faked his own death to outwit his pursuing enemies.

5 The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

In David Nobbs’ comic books (and the brilliant Leonard Rossiter sitcom), middle-aged Reggie Perrin has had enough of his dull suburban life, middle management job and the travails of British Rail. Like John Stonehouse, he fakes his own suicide at a beach and begins a life where he finds, despite his escape, nothing is much different, except the settings. He begins to plot his return.