Friday, December 28, 2012

Sometimes There Is No Why

by Sheila Connolly

Recently the wildly successful mystery writer Lee Child wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, titled "A Simple Way to Create Suspense."  While what I write is hardly similar to his books, what he said made a lot of sense to me.  It can be boiled down to this:  Ask a question. Then don't answer it.

At a regional conference, Dennis Lehane recently spoke about a related idea.  As an example, he suggested beginning a book with the protagonist—call him Joe—opening the refrigerator trying to decide what to eat.  Immediately we want to know:  what did Joe decide?  If the author never tells the reader what Joe ate for lunch, we feel cheated, because we humans are hardwired to look for answers.

In both Child's and Lehane's examples, the opening question, trivial or not, creates a sense of tension.  Child takes it a step further by deliberately withholding the answer.  As he wrote,

        "Someone killed someone else:  who? You'll find out at the end of the book.  Something weird is happening:  what?  You'll find out at the end of the book.  Something has to be stopped:  how?  You'll find out at the end of the book."

Keeps you reading, doesn't it?

This is something my editor and I have been wrestling with in the edits for my next Museum Mystery, Monument to the Dead.  Someone dies in Chapter 1, but it seems to be a natural death.  Then other people are identified as having died the same way, but all were called natural deaths.  Question 1:  are these deaths natural, or is someone killing them?  There is no evidence of murder, and nobody has investigated these deaths.

But to say they were murdered, someone has to ask:  why?  Who would want these people dead? There's no obvious reason for killing them.  So my protagonist and her allies go to work trying to find links between them.  And they do find a primary connection, but that doesn't explain the "why". That's because the "why" makes sense only to the killer, and it's not obvious to anyone else.

My editor (with whom I have worked on many books) wants to make this a more typical cozy, with a body up front (got that), and a cast of likely suspects who are first to be identified and then eliminated one by one.  I don't have that. There is really only one person who would have a motive for killing these people, and it takes the whole book to identify that person (and it's my protagonist's very specific knowledge that finally points to the killer).

I read an official FBI report on serial killers that states that motive is not the first thing an investigator should look for. FBI profilers caution against working to identify motive rather than looking for the killer.  And in most cases that makes sense. Follow the evidence first.

But I'm trying to twist it around in my book, because there is very little physical evidence to be had:  the victims are long buried, the autopsies cursory, the crime scenes cleaned up.  For me, the "why" is the important question. And I do give an answer.

The tragic recent events have left everyone asking "why?"  Why would anyone decide one day to start killing innocent children he didn't even know? Why would some guy set his house on fire and start shooting at anyone who came to put the fire out? Investigators are digging for every piece of family history, where the weapons came from, et cetera, et cetera, and reporting every shred of tangible evidence to the hungry press—because people want that "why." 

But what if the "why" is never answered?  Lee Child has got it right: we want the answer.  These awful events will linger in our memories, because that missing "why" will haunt us.

Lee Child, me, and this other guy


Leslie Budewitz said...

Good post, Sheila. Thanks. I wouldn't worry about telling an atypical story, without the usual identification of multiple suspects who are then eliminated. In cozy world, that's the usual pattern, but the occasional variation in a long-running series is not only acceptable, but to me at least, welcome.

Sandra Parshall said...

I want to read this book. You created quite a challenge for yourself -- a murder with no evidence for the police to gather and puzzle over -- and my guess is you've handled it well. Let us know who wins, you or your editor. I hope you triumph, because we need less formula and more thought in the books we write.