Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Murder Mystery Arc

Sharon Wildwind

Murder mysteries are about the rights of the individual versus the rights of the community, the battle between good and evil, and the triumph of justice. While, in general, murder mysteries follow the traditional dramatic arc, with the protagonist’s fortunes rising, climaxing, and resolving, there are a few more twists and turns in a mystery arc.

A = a body is discovered. The book’s events are set in motion.
B = suspects, clues, and red herrings are investigated. The protagonist makes a tentative and often impersonal commitment, as in she’s a police officer. It’s her job to investigate; or, for the amateur, her best friend is in trouble, so naturally she’ll help out. Note that during this stage the protagonist’s ups and downs are shallower than they will be later.
C = a second body is found. The protagonist has failed to prevent this subsequent crime.
D = the protagonist makes a second, more personal commitment to see that justice is done. At this point her personal fortune becomes tied to the greater group good, and she makes a promise, at least to herself and perhaps to others, that she will carry through to the end no matter what the cost.
E = the clues and red herrings become more significant, with a greater impact on both the personal and public stakes.
F = the protagonist confronts a personal threat in bringing the killer to justice.
G = resolution. The protagonist doesn’t return to the original starting point — except perhaps in farces, see below. She has been irrevocably changed by the search for justice.

The above arc deals with the murder resolution. There are also one or more personal arcs that deal with the private fortunes of individual characters.  Personal arcs include romance and relationships, danger to family members, danger to the personal community, personal fortunes, and living conditions (house, salary, possessions, etc.).

The personal community is a small part of the larger community. It includes those people with whom the protagonist had day-to-day contact: friends, co-workers, and maybe a special interest that the protagonist has, such as rescuing abandoned dogs or running a store. It is terribly important to the protagonist, but isn’t important to the larger public community in the same way. For example, a police abuse scandal might enrage public opinion, but the police officer involved is concerned about how the scandal affects her partner, who is one of the people accused.

The personal stakes are played out in contrast to or in synchronization with the public stakes of righting of wrong and the triumph of justice. Mysteries from North America and England usually ground themselves in the need for justice to triumph. Mysteries by writers from other parts of the world may have a different view of justice or may reflect a society where justice is not possible or is not common.

Here are four ways that this interplay of public and private stakes can play out.

Public Stakes
Public Stakes
Private Stakes
Both the public stakes and the private stakes rise in synchronization. Justice is done and everyone lives happily—or relatively happily—until the next book in the series. Usually found in traditional (cozy) mysteries, but also quite common in many mysteries.
The public stakes and the private stakes operate in contrast. Justice is done, but the private stakes fall. The characters sacrifice personal happiness for the good of the community. When well done, can lead to an award-winning book.
Private Stakes
The private stakes rise, but justice is not done. Very rare in North American mysteries because it leaves the reader dissatisfied that the world is not put right. Not so rare in the rest of the world, particularly in countries that have a recent history of civil wars, dictatorships, or civil rights issues.
Both the public stakes and the private stakes fall. Justice is incomplete or is not achieved and there is a personal loss. Characteristic of mean streets, noir, and the suspended tragedies written in the past 15 to 20 years. Suspended tragedies often involve serial killers who escape, only to return in subsequent stories.

Mysteries are written on a continuum from very funny ones, which are in many cases farces or pastiches of the genre, to extremely dark stories, which leave the reader in doubt of their sanity or the sanity of the world.

The comments below related to lighter fare, also apply in farces. The difference between a farce and light fare is that, in farces, not much changes in the protagonist’s life as a result of their encounter with murder and justice. The personal loss often has a comic touch, such as Great Aunt Matilda’s portrait, which the protagonist hates, being destroyed when the she hits the killer over the head with it.

There was supposed to be a chart here comparing across the mystery spectrum for characters; discovery of the body; police and forensic details; suspects and interviews; the significant threat — where the personal and public arcs often intersect; the number of bodies; confrontation, revelation, and resolution in different types of mysteries. But with that amount of information, it didn't fit in the width allotted for the blog. To see and/or print a .pdf of the table, click here.

Quote for the week
The most difficult part of any crime novel is the plotting. It all begins simply enough, but soon you're dealing with a multitude of linked characters, strands, themes and red herrings - and you need to try to control these unruly elements and weave them into a pattern.
~ Ian Rankin. OBE, DL, Scottish crime writer, best known for his Inspector Rebus novels.

Just in case you find English honorifics confusing,
OBE is Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, given to Ranking in 2002 for services to literature.

DL is a military commission, a person chosen by the local Lord-Lieutenant, to assist them with their duties, as required. Deputy Lieutenants tend to be people who either have served the local community, or have a history of service in other fields.


1LLoyd said...

Good analysis. Entertaining and informative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Loyd.