just murder, that’s all

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.

Ten Ways Mystery Kills Other Genres

See what I did there? 😉 Let’s be honest: some genres are simply better than others. And naturally, I think mystery is the best, hands-down. Why is it the best? I’m so glad you asked…

1. Death! Mystery writers get to kill people. With finesse and skill and subtlety. And it’s socially acceptable.

2. No genre is better with details. Why? Clues! We have to make you suspicious without even knowing you’re suspicious. We’ve gotta make you doubt and wonder. And then when you’re done, you’ll look back and realize we slipped in all kinds of clues that you were supposed to only half-notice.

3. Mystery can include both romance AND death. We can make people fall in love AND we can kill them. (Although it’s limited to that order, since it’s not SciFi.)

4. No one is safe. Wanna feel like you’re living on the edge? Read mystery. We reserve the right to kill anyone at any time. Even your favorite. And you’ll never see it coming.

5. Cardio, anyone? Mystery can give your heart a fabulous workout when the villain is creeping up, knife in hand, behind the heroine, who is blissfully sniffing flowers. She leans toward that lovely red one, her hair falling toward her face, as he stretches out the knife toward the back of her neck… And you know by this point that we have no problem letting him injure her. We’re ruthless like that.

6. It pulls you in like no other genre can. Why? Because you, like the protagonist, are trying to figure out who the killer is. You’re in the story, analyzing the clues. In other genres, you’re simply a spectator.

7. Who can tell you about the most popular methods of murder? Anyone who loves this genre, that’s for sure. And mystery writers get to learn all kinds of dark things in the name of research. (Did you know there’s a murderpedia? Oh yeah. It’s good.)

8. It’ll keep you guessing. Constantly. Other genres may make you wonder a little but nothing can tie you up in a quandary like trying to guess the murderer. Once you’re sure you’ve figured it out, hello plot twist! And then you’ll feel guilty that the person you suspected is actually an incredible, selfless person. Or dead. Or both. (I refer you back to number 4)

9. We make you cautious. You know it’s true: after you read a book where the murderer turns out to be the sweet old lady who worked in the coffee shop, you start looking at coffee shop old ladies differently. We show you that even the nicest of people are capable of murder. Therefore, mysteries help you make smart, safe choices.

10. There’s no better catharsis. We’ll drag our main character (and you) through the ringer. We’ll make her stumble upon a bloody corpse, fall into the trap of a sadistic murderer, lose someone she loves, get shot/stabbed/etc… but we’ll still make sure evil loses in the end. It’ll be the best feeling in the world.

Okay, what did I miss, mystery-lovers? And those of you who disagree (*cough* romance writers *cough*), feel free to share the reasons you think your genre is better. Let’s start a genre war! Said the mystery writer.