Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | February 13, 2015

Where’s the Body?

Writing a mystery novel is hard enough, what with assembling suspects, creating motives, devising the method of murder, and planting numerous red herrings.

Most mystery writers find the opening especially problematic. We are told by writing teachers, blogs, and how-to books that we have to grab the reader’s attention right away. And let’s face it, nothing grabs someone’s attention like a dead body.

However, opinion is divided as to the optimum time to reveal the bloody corpse. Some say it has to be on the first page, while others suggest by the end of the first, second, or third chapter. But most agree that it should be as close to the beginning of the novel as possible.

As a writer of traditional mysteries, I prefer that the first thing my readers see not be someone bleeding all over the pub floor. And I’m not alone in this.

Ngaio Marsh often waited until the middle of her books before killing off a character. As for Agatha Christie, people rarely show up at Hercule Poirot’s office or Miss Marple’s cottage with an account of a gruesome killing. Rather, they present a suspicion, a fear that something nasty is about to happen.

My assumptions about my readers are twofold:

  • people read mysteries for the challenge of solving the murder, and
  • people want to have a relationship with the characters. This is also why many readers prefer a series.

IMG_4329With this in mind, I want to give my readers ample time to become acquainted with my characters, to observe their interactions and note any conflicts. Thus begins a gradual buildup of suspense as readers start to ponder when, where, how, and who will be murdered. Familiarity with the characters means that readers also have an emotional reaction when the victim dies.

Having watched the characters going about their daily lives, readers not only have a deeper understanding of the motives and opportunities for the murder but can easily assemble a list of suspects. And readers like nothing more than to be one step ahead of the detective.

Unlike a police procedural where solving the murder is — dare I say it — a routine event and it doesn’t matter if the detectives have an emotional connection to the victim (although some police procedurals will occasionally include this element), an amateur detective should have a vested interest in solving the murder, a clear reason for getting involved in something that’s better left to the professionals. He or she is usually familiar with the victim, the accused, and/or the location. Likewise, the fate of the characters should be of concern to the readers as well.

For me, the traditional mystery explores the disturbing reality that quite ordinary people are often capable of taking the life of another human being. Given the right circumstances, the middle-aged man you pass every morning walking his dog or the young woman who serves tea and cake in your local cafe has the potential to commit murder. Readers need to feel that they know these people well enough to consider them suspects, even if it’s only that on the morning of the murder they acted out of character. The dog walker took a different route or the waitress shouted at a customer. It’s the little things that can give the game away.

And that’s why I make my readers wait for the body.

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Responses

  1. Great observations! I completely agree. As long as the story still builds suspense, still succeeds in keeping me engaged, I prefer to get to know the characters first. Before they start dying. That said, sometimes it’s fun to get to know the victim slowly, as the sleuth learns more about him or her. But the victim has to be a real person at some point, not just a dead body.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jane. I agree that it can be fun to get to know the victim along with the “detective”. But I really like the immediacy and intimacy of getting to know the victim myself, rather than learning about him or her second-hand through someone else’s investigation. That’s why I write in third person subjective narration rather than first person. Then there is always joy for the reader when he or she knows something that the detective doesn’t and can gloat when the detective gets it wrong, which is a possibility in a traditional mystery.

  2. Hi, Alice —

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I agree with you and I know other writers who do as well. I wrote my mystery with this in mind. However, when I finally was offered representation by an agent, she kept saying that my murder was appearing far too late (page 64)! I didn’t agree with this, but she said that the editors she submitted to kept insisting the murder had to happen early. She said that one editor said of another writer’s work, “Doesn’t she know the formula.” Can you believe that?!!

    t kept cutting the beginning, and she still wasn’t satisfied until the body dropped at page 17. I wasn’t happy, but my agent kept insisting that if I wanted my manuscript to sell, the murder had to appear very early in the book.

    Personally, I think these very young agents and editors don’t give readers enough credit. We are willing to let the story develop as it should. But, can we get printed if those young agents and editors don’t agree? It makes you wonder if Agatha Christie could get published in this environment.

    • Couldn’t have said it better myself, Grace. Perhaps this is why so many of us are self-publishing — so we can retain control of how we want our books to unfold. I just finished Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home and that book breaks all the rules as far as dead bodies are concerned. Maybe you have to be a best-selling author before agents and publishers look the other way. I’ve always said just what you did about Agatha Christie. If Agatha were trying to get published today, she’d be told to include knitting patterns and scone recipes in her Miss Maple books!

      • I saw from your blog that you live in Oakville, Ontario. Each year, my husband and I travel from Virginia to Oakville to visit friends and then travel to Cobourg to observe Remembrance Sunday with the Royal Marine Association. We’ve always enjoyed our visits to Canada and find the people so friendly. The waterfront in Oakville is lovely. I hope the winter hasn’t been too hard on you this year.

        I also read Louise Penny’s excellent books and thought the same thing. I’ve been at the Malice Domestic Conference when Louise received one of her many Agatha awards. She’s writes the ways she wants to and is quite popular with the Malice fans.

        Grace

  3. Reblogged this on MARSocial Author Business Enhancement Crime Post.


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