Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

I’m probably going to get into big trouble here. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances write murder mysteries. A vast number of my friends and acquaintances read murder mysteries.

Still, I’ve gotta say it: Something bugs me about murder mysteries.

The other day lonelyboy1977, a blogger I follow, blogged about “the one trope I love to hate.” The trope he loves to hate is the love triangle. It’s not the trope itself he hates. It’s the way writers who use it tend to fall into ruts. Rather than develop their characters and plots, they let the trope do the work.

In real life, murder is a crime. In fiction, it’s a trope. In murder mysteries, it’s a sine qua non. Without a murder, it’s not a murder mystery.

Aside: OK, now I’m curious. Are there any murder mysteries out there in which murder doesn’t happen? Recommendations welcome.

No, I don’t for a minute believe that writing and reading murder mysteries makes a person insensitive to murder. I get the distinction between fiction and real life. Even when it’s set in a real place, fiction creates an alternate reality. My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries about Martha’s Vineyard, the place where we both live. They’re fun, they’re well-written, they’re true to the place in almost every detail . . .

body outlineExcept for the dead bodies that keep turning up. Homicide is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard. If murders happened on the Vineyard as often as they do in Cynthia’s books, the Vineyard would be a very different place. More of us would lock our doors. Fewer of us would go for long walks in the woods alone. Every time someone was murdered, we’d be surreptitiously studying our friends and neighbors for clues: Did you do it?

And perhaps wondering ourselves: Who out there is itching to kill me?

Why is the murder trope so popular with writers? Well, duh, writers write murder mysteries because there’s an apparently insatiable market out there for them. But how about from a strictly writing point of view?

fingerprintToss a murder into the meandering stream of daily life and plot happens. I’ve blogged before about how I’m plot-impaired. The number of online how-to-plot guides out there tells me I’m not alone. I’d probably be better at plotting if I were better at killing characters off.

The task I’ve set myself, though, pretty much precludes that option. In my fiction, I’m exploring Martha’s Vineyard. In creating my alternate-reality Vineyard, I’ve limited myself to the materials lying around in the actual place. At present I’ve got a loose dog, a child trapped in a bad family situation, and a protagonist who gets sucked into trying to rescue both of them. The dog almost gets shot and there’s one character I wouldn’t mind killing off, but so far no one’s died or committed murder.

What I’m curious about is how the murder trope influences the writer’s imagination. Murder is such a sure-fire way to get a plot going — does it push other possibilities out of the picture? The same goes for other tried-and-true tropes, like the love triangle. If something works once, we’ll usually do it again — and again and again and again.

Till it stops working.

Which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Here I’m going to take a giant step backwards. As the late Grace Paley said, and I’m forever quoting, “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

My feet aren’t in the mud of murder mysteries, and I’ve already said enough. But I’m curious. And I hope some of you murder mystery writers and avid readers out there will weigh in.

Murder weapons

Murder weapons in waiting

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5 thoughts on “Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

  1. I am a massive reader of murder mysteries; and now, after writing two other-genre novels, and entering the “senior” age group, I’m entertaining the thought of writing one. But coming up with a plot for it is harder than anything I’ve undertaken!

    Two reasons: (1) the logistics of committing a crime and not getting caught, then getting caught; and (2) the need to account for law enforcement.

    I really don’t want to spend months of research and interviews with the local constabulary, learning laws and procedures and discussing the technicalities of weapons and death. At the same time, I need to learn enough to write around them. This pretty much forces me into writing a “cozy” mystery, wherein police are either doing their job in the background or are involved (in a manner usually unheard of in real life) with the principal characters.

    So, on one hand, a mystery plot is simply defined: who done it? On the other hand, there are layers and layers of plot, subplot, clues and red herrings, people with motive and opportunity, relationship dynamics among them, careful pacing to reveal the mystery step by step to both the central character and the reader, etc. I marvel that some authors can not only do this, but do it time in a series or multiple stand-alone books!

    I may ultimately be defeated by the structural challenges of a murder mystery. Having only just started to wrap my mind around them, I’m not sure yet how far I’ll go. If I complete a story, it will take a long time just putting the pieces together, never mind doing it well.

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    • Good points all — thanks for the thoughtful reply. If an author does choose to get into the legal, law-enforcement, and/or forensic details, the mystery is integral to the setting as well as the plot. I can’t help wondering how many published mysteries these days really do have “layers and layers of plot and subplot, clues and red herrings,” etc.Some do for sure, but so do good non-mysteries. That kind of intricacy generally doesn’t appear complete in a first or even second draft.

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  2. I think there are several things that make murder mysteries attractive to readers and writers. One is the structure–something Wrong happens and is eventually set Right, which, in these baffling times, where everything is colored in a shade of gray, can be satisfying to both a reader and a writer. Of course, these books can vary in complexity from Ruth Rendell and P.D. James extemely complex and psychologically astute musings on crime and punishment to thrillers and to cozy mysteries. Cozies are interesting in that they’re often consider “gentle” or “safe” by readers, even though there’s nothing safe about murder. If a writer is good at his or her craft, it rarely stops working, because most readers want a book that essentially the same as the previous, just a little different. It’s why we love series. 🙂

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