Friday, September 18, 2009
When people read murder mysteries, they often do so because they want to find out who the murderer is. Of course, the murderer is important to a mystery, and we mystery novelists spend a great deal of time making sure that the murderer kills for believable reasons, and that readers can figure out who that person is - if they pay attention.
However, it's the victim who is very often the key to a murder mystery. That's especially true in what I've called private murders - that is, murders where there is a connection between the victim and the murderer (I discuss that in more depth in my blog from 11 September, 2009). In fact, in Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Hercule Poirot puts it very well:
"It is the silent dead in whom I am usually interested. Their hates, their loves, their actions. And when you really know the murdered victim, then the victim speaks, and those dead lips utter a name - the name you want to know."
Poirot's point is well-taken. In any good crime fiction, the victim dies because of something about him or her - because of the person he or she is. For example, in Christie's Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Celia Austin is a a young woman who lives in a student hostel and works at a hospital dispensary. One morning, she's found dead in her room, apparently of suicde by morphine tartrate. As the novel unfolds, and it turns out that Celia has been murdered, we find out that it's because of the kind of person Celia is, and her connections with others in the hostel, that she's been killed.
Another, perhaps even better, example of the role the victim plays in his or her own death is in Aaron Elkins' Twenty Blue Devils. In the novel, Paradise Coffee Plantation manager Brian Scott dies from a fall from a cliff. As forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver investigates the death, he finds out that Brian's death, which turns out to have been murder, is a direct result of the person Brian was, and the kind of person he was. I actually recommend the Gideon Oliver series. The novels are engaging, the mysteries are interesting, and the dialogue is very well-done.
Because the victim is so important to many mystery novels, many novelists (I'm one of them) like to let the reader get to know the victim. In that way, the victim becomes more real to the reader. Also, the reader can find out who would want to kill the victim, and can get a sense of who the victim is, and what he or she is like. That's why I introduce the victim in the first few chapters of my own Joel Williams novels. I like to let readers "meet" the victim before he or she dies.
Hugh Pentecost does the same thing. For instance, in The Fourteen Dilemma, we meet beautiful, innocent, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson and her family as they become special guests of the Beaumont Hotel. We learn something about the family, and we learn to care about Marilyn before she suddenly disappears and is later found murdered.
In other murder mysteries, of course, the victim dies very early in the novel, and her or his history unfolds as the novel does. We learn more and more about the victim as the sleuth finds out. That, in fact, is the essence of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. In learning about the victim, Samuel Ratchett, we learn how and why he was murdered. That's also what happens in Margaret Truman's Murder at the Kennedy Center. That novel begins with the murder of Andrea Fielding, a member of Senator Ken Ewald's staff. However, we don't learn her name or anything about her until Georgetown law professor Mac Smith gets involved and begins asking questions. We learn about the victim and her connection to the murderer as the story evolves. The advantage of that, of course, is that the reader stays interested. That kind of novel can keep the reader curious to know more about the victim.
Both approaches to telling the reader about the victim can work very well. In both cases, we learn about the victim, and we learn why he or she died. What's your view? Do you like to learn about the victim before she or he dies? Do you like to learn details as the story unfolds?