08 September 2012

A Taste for Killing



by Elizabeth Zelvin

Books have always provided a way for both readers and writers to live vicariously. They sweep us off into another place and time, invite us inside the heads of people we’re unlikely ever to meet, and make our hearts ache and soar for strangers who exist only on the page. But only mystery writers routinely get to kill. A mostly law-abiding and compassionate bunch in RL, as Internet users call real life, we are not merely permitted but required by our trade to knock off at least one victim in every book. We even get to choose our murderees, so we can seize the occasion to get rid of those who displease us blamelessly and with great satisfaction.

In the first mystery I ever wrote (thirty years ago, unpublished and unpublishable today), I killed off the wife of a young man I knew, in fictional guise, of course. She was not a very nice person, and her existence was the reason that particular friendship never blossomed into romance. In the long run, I can say now with perfect hindsight, it was for the best, since we have remained friends all these years. He’s now married to someone much nicer—and so am I. But man, it felt good to let my murderer kill her. (Hmm, maybe I’m the one who’s not so nice. But mystery readers will surely understand.)

The victim in a mystery is not necessarily an unsympathetic character. Murdering a good person can elicit a strong desire for justice in both reader and protagonist. Or the victim may be deeply flawed but likable, so that the protagonist cares enough about his or her death to be driven to find out what happened.

The first draft of my first book had only one victim. I didn’t start talking with other mystery writers about our craft and how it had changed until after I finished the manuscript. I learned that the leisurely build-up, letting the reader get thoroughly acquainted with the characters before anything happens, is passé. Editors and especially agents nowadays want to be gripped on the first page, preferably by a body. I also learned that many traditional mysteries solve the problem of “sagging middle” in a book-length story by killing off a second character—often the prime suspect, so that his or her death forces the investigation to take a new turn.

The basic premise and circumstances of the plot did not allow me to kill off my original victim any sooner. I brought the death as far forward as I could by eliminating a lot of backstory—another thing I learned from other writers. But to kick-start the action, literally, I had my protagonist stumble over a body at the end of what at that time was Chapter One. I then needed a reason for this new death. That led to other victims. At the same time, I added suspense to the ongoing investigation by killing off some of the suspects along the way. I found that murder was addictive. By the time I was through, my simple one-victim mystery had turned into one of which Edgar-winning author Julie Smith (who kindly gave me a great blurb) said that my characters “maneuver their way through a forest of bodies.”

A forest? How did that spring up? I only spit out a single murder seed! In succeeding books in the series, I’ve kept the body count down to an initial victim with motivation for plenty of suspects and a mid-book body or two to keep reader interest up and confuse the issue. In my whodunit short stories, I’ve rationed myself to one victim and three suspects. Now I’m wondering if I’m getting too predictable. Hmm, maybe it’s time to break a rule or two again.

6 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

First time I saw a recommendation for killing off a sympathetic character, and it makes a lot of sense. Salient post, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Leigh, in an unfinished ms I abandoned for reasons having nothing to do with the motive, the core question was "Who would kill a man that everybody loved?" In a series, I think varying the character of the victim makes things more interesting.

Eve Fisher said...

I killed off the nicest guy in town in "Death of a Good Man" - and his innocence was, in a sense, the motivating force behind his murder. "Only the good die young..."

Dixon Hill said...

Great piece, Elizabeth.

Gotta say, I love vicariously killing-off folks who bug me. In the first mystery I ever wrote (unpublished) I envisioned one of my wife's old boyfriend's as the bad guy. After the good guy whipped him in a fair fight, the bad guy (surprisingly perhaps) got garroted by an unknown assassin.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Elizabeth,
I just had an e-mail exchange with Deb Coonts about this. It's always cool to kill off the loathsome, and even more satisfying if it's some jerk from your own past life who needs payback, but it's often more interesting to kill off somebody sympathetic. (Or, back to front, to make the heavy sympathetic.) Somebody---I don't remember who---once remarked you shouldn't kill off a character you don't care about.

John Floyd said...

Liz, I think it was Jerry Jenkins of the Left Behind series who said, when a fan asked him why he killed off one of his main characters, "I didn't kill him--I found him dead."