February. The month of love. That time of the year when everyone thinks about romance and chocolates and flowers.
So I’m pondering murder.
(Come on. Don’t pretend you didn’t see that coming.)
Specifically, I’m thinking about one of my favorite pieces of a good murder mystery, a moment I like to call “the Find.”
It’s that moment, toward the beginning of the mystery, where the body is discovered, often by the main character.
What do I love about it?
It sets the tone of the book. Does the character trip over the body, landing eyeball to eyeball with a corpse? Then you know that humorous style will continue throughout the book. Does the heroine enter a dark room, her foot landing on something squishy with a strange crunch as chills run up her arms like baby roaches? I’m betting the rest of the book will embrace a suspenseful tone.
It reveals vital information about the killer. Was the body carefully wrapped and placed in the ductwork? The author is showing you the killer is cunning and meticulous. Was it dumped on the side of the road in a public place? Then you know they’re probably a bit reckless or were in a hurry.
The main character’s reaction is priceless. It tells you who they are. When faced with someone else’s death, what do they do? Run away screaming? Fight off the rats that are nibbling on the corpse? Throw up on the body? The Find is an incredible opportunity to reveal the main character’s personality, how he/she handles unexpected and gruesome discoveries.
Finally, the possibilities for locations are endless. I’ll be honest, it’s a favorite game of mine. Um, not murder itself, or body-dumping. Don’t run away! Let me explain: if I ever find myself bored in public, I start considering the best places to hide a body. How long would it take for someone to notice a body duct-taped to the ceiling? Would a corpse fit in the cabinet over there? If a body were lying on the skylight, how many people would notice the body-shaped shadow on the ground? What would someone do if they found a body in their own trunk? (Don’t worry. I usually don’t ask these questions out loud. Not in public, anyway.)
There’s nothing quite like it, the Find. It’s the first whisper of a delicious mystery wrapped in the initial pages of book. It’s like a dark, murderous surprise party. It could be lurking anywhere. You, as a reader, have the advantage. Unlike the main character, you at least know it’s coming. But when? Where? Only the author knows…
Whenever people ask what I do, I like to look straight at them, smile, and reply “I murder people.” I usually give them a moment to squirm before I add, “Fictionally. I write mysteries.”
I did the same kind of thing in high school. See, I went to a classical school. It was technically public, but specialized — no athletics, an emphasis on academics, cultural arts, and foreign languages. But before the school was transformed into a classical school, it was an alternative school. So whenever people asked what school I went to, I’d just offer the first part of the name and leave off the label “classical.” I could see the struggle on their faces as they attempted to reconcile the image of me with the concept of a delinquent.
So much fun.
It’s not that I like to make people uncomfortable. I simply enjoy challenging their assumptions, guiding them toward incorrect conclusions.
Is it any wonder I love to write mysteries?
People ask me sometimes why I chose such a genre. It’s not about the bloody death scenes or the psychology of killing (although I do have an undying love for psychology).
It’s about the subtle misdirect. It’s about offering pieces of a puzzle that can be put together a thousand different ways. It’s about a genre with the unique ability to make the reader part of the story as he/she becomes an amateur sleuth, gathering clues page by page. It’s about assigning meaning to every action, even though the reader might not be aware of it at the time.
I’m in love with a genre filled with secrets and lies, that relies on misperceptions and assumptions. It exposes a dark side of humanity and then ensures justice wins in the end. There’s a gentle beauty in that. Yes, a gentle beauty in murder mysteries. A hopeful subtlety in a genre filled with death.
It’s not all stabbing and shooting and bludgeoning, and all the other creative ways a person can die. That’s simply a small — albeit significant — part of the story. Mysteries reach beyond that, to explore how we handle death. And when we look at death, we also look at life. It’s impossible to consider one without the other.
For years, I wanted to write mysteries, but I wasn’t sure I had the skills to weave something so complicated, so intricate and layered.
And then I stopped caring whether I was good enough. Love won out, I suppose.
Like with any great love affair, my relationship with mystery has its moments of turbulence. There are days when I stare at my current manuscript and think “What kind of weirdo idiot chooses a genre that requires complex, complicated, convoluted plots?” This weirdo idiot, apparently. (And yes, I have a subconscious tendency to alliterate or rhyme when I’m annoyed. Apparently Dr. Seuss is my alter-ego. Who knew?)
But even on my worst, “why the hell do I do this to myself?” day, I wouldn’t trade my genre for the world. It requires me to stare evil in the face and subdue it. It forces me to think ten steps ahead and refuses to accept anything besides one hundred percent focus.
I guess you could say murder brings out the best in me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.