Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Taste for Killing

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In the first mystery I ever wrote (thirty years ago, unpublished and unpublishable today), I killed off the wife of a young man I knew, in fictional guise, of course.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 Death Will Get You Sober had only one victim. I didn’t start talking with other mystery writers about our craft and how it has changed in recent years 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 spat out a single murder seed….


Joyce said...

It's amazing how quickly those seeds sprout, isn't it?

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, how many people did you end up killing? There's definitely a trend toward more and more dead bodies, even in cozies. One no longer seems enough for even the gentlest crime novel. Adding more murders does help keep the pace brisk and raise the stakes. Personally, I like books in which one or more victims are "good" people, because that makes the reader care more about finding the culprit.

Remember that otherwise sane people will pay to have victims or other characters named after them. During the charity auction at Bouchercon in Madison, I sat in open-mouthed wonderment as the bidding for naming rights in mysteries went up, up, up. I think one person paid $800 for the privilege of having a character named after her in a Donna Andrews novel, and bids for naming rights in other novels also brought in hefty sums for the designated charity.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, that would be telling--you'll have to read the book and see. ;) I'll show more restraint in future books, I promise.

paul lamb said...

Vague, unformed thoughts ahead:

I don't buy the notion that mysteries have to have murders in them. I realize that's the convention, and I realize that Van Dine said a story must have a murder to keep the reader's interest, and I realize publishers are loathe to depart from formulae that work, but I have to say that I am sick to death of formulaic murder mysteries.

I think there can be plenty of mystery in life without murder, and with well-portrayed characters, I think these "ultra-cozy" mysteries can hold reader's attention just as well as blood splatter patterns. Look at #1 Ladies Detective Agency as a prominent example. Or Aunt Dimity. Or Hetty Wainthrop. There is plenty of evil that people can do along with murder.

I think there is a coming "forensics fatigue" and readers are going to be looking around for something else. Well told stories with credible characters pursuing the "other mysteries" in life can fill that void.

(he steps off soapbox now)

Sandra Parshall said...

Paul, my first book, The Heat of the Moon, doesn't have a murder in it, and NY editors rejected it because of that -- not enough danger and suspense. Poisoned Pen Press published it, it received rave reviews and won the Agatha Award, so how bad can it be? :-) PLenty of readers have told me they read it in one sitting because they "just had to know what the secret was!"

paul lamb said...

Sandra, I'm number 10 in the queue for Heat of the Moon at my local library. I think it's time to use one of those bookstore gift cards I got for the holidays!

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