Monday, September 20, 2010

IT’S NOT a Murder Mystery!!

A beginning writer with whom I am acquainted wrote on her blog yesterday a plea to bestselling authors not to forget that you need to have a body by page 50.

I am not a bestselling author, but I had to respond and say “Huh?”

Now I hear what the blogger is saying. She is saying that she likes “murder mysteries” and when she picks one up, she expects there to be a murder right off the bat. Or at least suspense leading to one. But in a couple of bestsellers she has read recently the body isn’t only lacking at the beginning. So is the suspense.

I’ll accept that you need suspense, but I will still argue you don’t need a body.
Crime novels are not formula driven. At least they certainly shouldn’t be. Surely a well-established popular author needs to be able to expand the concept a bit. How else do you keep things fresh and interesting?

I think of one book I absolutely love. It’s by a successful British author. (I will not name the author or the book as what I am about to reveal will spoil the ending.) Not only is there no body, because the plot is about a kidnapped child, but there is no resolution. The criminal is not caught. How true to life is that? The police officers have to deal with their failure. I found the ending startlingly satisfying: sometimes they do fail. The body, in fact, far from appearing before page 50 appears on the last page. The child dies.

For much the same reason, I absolutely loathe the phrase “murder mystery”. I think it does a gigantic disservice to the entire field of crime writing. It assumes two things: one there is a murder, and two there is a mystery about it. A crime novel need not have to have either of those elements. Most crime novels do feature a murder, because murder is the ultimate transgression. But not necessarily. A kidnapping, as pointed out above, can provide an enormous amount of tension and suspense. Ian Rankin’s fabulous book, Open Doors, is about art theft.

And, of course, plenty of crime novels are not mysteries. In suspense and thrillers particularly there is often no mystery about who the bad guy is or what their aim is. The suspense comes from hoping the evil one will be thwarted in their ambitions and/or watching the characters deal with the fallout.

In Winter of Secrets there is a body very early. The book is indeed a 'mystery'. But the police do not know how or why this person died, and the centre of the novel lies the question: is this a murder or not?

Perhaps I am sensitive to this at the moment as the book I am currently working on (Not a Molly Smith) is neither a murder nor a mystery. No one is killed at any point in the book and there is never the slightest doubt about who the bad guy is. It is a chase/adventure story. Yet, I certainly classify it as a crime novel. As does my publisher, with whom I’ve discussed the plot. I wanted do something different, maybe a bit edgy, but remain totally faithful to the fact that I consider myself to be a crime novelist.

I think that when we as writers call our books “murder mysteries” we are cutting ourselves off from the huge number of readers who don’t like traditional mysteries (maybe they once read a cozy and hated it) but like psychological suspense or adventure novels. Perhaps they even like character-based books that have the characters dealing with a crime. They just don’t think they like mysteries.

P.S. Negative Image, the next Constable Molly Smith book, due out on November 2nd has the discovery of a body on page three. You can read it for yourself: the first chapter is posted on my web page.

1 comment:

Barbara Fradkin said...

You're so right about not wanting to box ourselves into creative corners. Crime of some sort is at the centre of a crime novel, but beyond that, there should be no boundaries to the genre. I always cringe when I read (usually from beginning writers, who may have been advised by "how-to" books) that there should be a body on the first page, or at least the first chapter. Bodies are no substitute for good suspense.