Thursday, December 21, 2006

Plotting Murder


I don’t know how other writers go about plotting their murder investigations, but I use a variation on a childhood party game I think they call “hot potato.” I lay out a series of five or so suspects, each with their own secrets that they’re working hard to keep hidden. My hero’s investigation shines the light of suspicion on each. First, Colonel Mustard looks guilty. No, wait! It must be the Old Maid. No, no! It’s the Butler; I know it’s the Butler—and so on, until All Is Revealed at the End.

It’s a fun game, sort of like laying out a treasure hunt. But it all starts with the victim, and his—or her—life. Who is she, and what was going on in her life that made someone want to kill her?

There is a tendency, I’ve noticed, for mystery writers to create unlikable victims. The guy is such a lowlife and has so many people wanting to kill him, that I have a tendency to think, Good riddance! They should give whoever killed the jerk a medal, rather than sending him to prison for murder.

A turning point for me was my reading of Nelson DeMille’s THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER. I’d never felt such sympathy for a murder victim, and it occurred to me that mystery writers were losing an opportunity to generate some powerful emotions by always making their victims nasty. It’s easier, obviously, to come up with a lot of people who want to kill a guy who’s embezzling his boss’s business, cheating his wife, beating his kids, and betraying his country (look at the long list of suspects with reasons to kill the nuked ex-spy in England) than it is to come up with suspects with a reason to kill a nice person.

So who is my murder victim? In this book, it’s the nineteen-year-old daughter of a man named Lord Basil Irving. How did she end up as a prostitute? Who wants to kill her, and why? Is it her father? Her ex-fiancé? A man who fell in love with her? The slimy owner of the brothel from which she fled? Or is it someone else entirely?

I’ll talk more about creating suspects next time.

68 comments:

Anonymous said...

Having a sympathetic victim seems much more enticing to me. I think it would keep me reading longer, even though my vengeance gene does want to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.

nolasteve said...

In most mysteries the victim is already dead or is being set up. In the P. D. James books, that I am currently savoring, the writer follows the victim in interactions with the soon to be suspects. Each, in turn is given a reason to kill and the reader watches the detective uncover each motive pealing away the lies and deceit. Where the writer starts with the body, the reader and the detective start even and must build a list of suspects. I think the first type is more difficult to write in that the writer must maintain the reader’s interest while the detective discovers information that the reader already knows.

The innocent victim is always a challenge. The detective has to find a reason for the crime which then leads to the killer. The innocent victim is what makes the serial killer so hard to track down, needing a common link between the victims then trying to predict a crime.

cs harris said...

I actually like the old, leisurely, largely British approach to mysteries, where we get to know the victim before they're killed. The Brother Cadfael mysteries unfolded that way, too. Unfortunately, I think it would be very hard for a new author to get that kind of book published today. The beginning would be seen as "too slow." I agree they would be much, much harder to write.

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