Friday, August 21, 2009

Motives and Suspects

Why do people commit murder? Of course, there are well-publicized cases where murders are committed solely to create terror, or because the murderer is psychologically unhinged. There are also serial murders and other kinds of murders where there is seemingly no real connection between the victim and the murderer, other than what may be in the murderer's mind. But the vast majority of murders aren't like that. They are committed by ordinary people who, if you asked them, would probably tell you they would never kill. Yet, when circumstances drive them to kill, they do.

The best murder mysteries are about ordinary people who become murderers and victims because of their characters and because of the events in the story, and the choices the murderer and victim(s) make during those events. In Agatha Christie's Hickory, Dickory, Death, Inspector Sharpe asks, "Is nobody incapable of murder?" "I have often wondered," is Hercule Poirot's reply. In that particular novel, nearly everyone in the youth hostel where two of the victims live might kill, given the right motive. The same is true of the suspects in Colin Dexter's The Dead of Jericho, who all live in the same neighborhood as the victim, and most of whom have hidden motives for murdering her. Caroline Graham's Death of a Hollow Man is similar in that a group of otherwise ordinary people all have motives for murdering the victim, an obnoxious leading man in an amateur dramatical society. In my novel, B-Very Flat, five different suspects have motives for killing Serena Brinkman, the victim.

What really makes a mystery intriguing, at least for me, is figuring out which of the suspects has allowed her or his motive to get the upper hand. Agatha Christie was a master of the psychology of crime, of matching the kind of murder with the kind of suspect and motive. In my novels, I try to do that, too. What I also try to do is tell the story of someone who, for that one point in time - the crime - has allowed that motive to rule over the limits most of us put on our behavior. We might get jealous, angry, even desperate, but in most cases, we don't act on those feelings. Yet, some of us do.

What draws a murderer across that line between thinking about the act of murder, or even wanting to murder, and actually firing the gun, pulling out the knife, or poisoning the drink? Sometimes it's fear. In my novel Publish or Perish, fear has a lot to do with one of the suspects' motives; he fears he'll lose his job. In B-Very Flat, one suspect fears that the victim will reveal a potentially dangerous secret. Another fears losing an important musical competition. Another force that can drive an otherwise "normal" person to become a murderer is gain. In Agatha Christie's After the Funeral, all of the suspects stand to gain considerably when a wealthy patriarch dies suddenly. That gain is so important to some of them that you can imagine them being pushed to kill. Robin Cook's novel Foreign Body focuses on the kind of gain and greed that can lead to murder. So do his novels Seizure and Chromosone 6. Sometimes the motive for a murder is revenge or anger; Colin Dexter's The Daughters of Cain explores this theme.

As a writer, it's important to me that the motives my suspects have are real-life motives. Murder is an extreme action, so the motive for it can't be something trivial like passing anger or jealousy. Otherwise the story isn't believable. It's also important to me that the reader learn what those motives are. To me, it's not fair to the reader if a motive isn't revealed until the last chapter, when the murderer is named. It makes for a better story if the motives develop as we learn about the suspects.

It also makes for a more exciting story if any one of the suspects in a mystery could have committed the murder. James Yaffe's A Nice Murder for Mom is an example of this. So is Judson Pentecost's The Fourteen Dilemma. Maybe the most famous is Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table. In that novel, a dinner party host is killed while his guests are playing bridge. Only four people could have killed the victim, and any one of them could have done so.

That's one important reason for which I like character development in a mystery novel. I like to find out about the characters, so that I understand what might push them to kill. I like to know them well enough to imagine them as potential murderers. That's why I like it when writers give readers insight into the suspects. I like to know something about the people involved. Dicey Deere does that. So does Caroline Graham.

What do you think? Do you think it's true that anyone might kill under the right circumstances?

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