Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The "Body Count"
One thing that murder mysteries seem to have in common is….at least one murder. The whole point of a murder mystery is that there’s a death, the sleuth investigates the death, and the mystery surrounding that death is unraveled. The murder (or the discovery of the body) is a point of real suspense in most mystery novels, so mystery lovers are often very focused on that point in the novel. Because there’s so much suspense and interest in a story when the body’s discovered, it’s quite tempting to include several murders in the mystery. Multiple murders can add to the suspense and add substance to the story. Agatha Christie’s fictional detective, Ariadne Oliver, takes an interesting “author’s perspective” on this in Cards on the Table, when she’s talking to a fan about her writing:
I always think I've finished, and then when I count up I find I've only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again.
The question is, though: does a gripping mystery novel have to have a lot of murders? Is there such a thing as a suspenseful mystery novel with only one murder?
Sometimes, of course, the plot demands several murders. For instance, I’ve just read an interesting review of Rob Kitchin’s (his blog is here) debut novel, The Rule Book by Mack at Mack Captures Crime. I haven’t read The Rule Book, but its premise is that Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy is on the trail of a serial killer. That sort of plot is only believable with more than one body. The same is true of many Robin Cook novels. In those novels, the sleuth practices in one or another field of medicine (for instance, his Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are medical examiners). The sleuth notices a series of unexplained deaths that put him or her on the trail of a killer. Medical thrillers like Cook’s are also only really authentic if there’s a “body count” rather than just one death. In the medical world, one needs a pattern to investigate.
Sometimes, it’s not only the kind of plot, but the kind of murderer that are most authentic when there are multiple murders. For instance, Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant features a plot and a murderer that are all the more believable because there are several murders to investigate. In that story, the first of their Anasazi series, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole is called in to work with archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart to help determine the cause and manner of death of eight women and girls whose remains have been found at a new dig site. At the same time, but in the distant past, War Chief Browser, his deputy and best friend, Catkin, and Browser’s Uncle Stone Ghost investigate the same murders. Both investigations are a great deal more authentic (and chilling) because there are several murders. That’s made even clearer when we find out who the murderer is and, more particularly, why the murderer has killed. The story just wouldn’t be nearly as gripping as it is if there were only one body.
There are also many high-quality mysteries in which one murder leads to others. In other words, because of one murder, others occur, too. For instance, the killer may have intended just one murder, but is afraid someone has found out about the crime; hence, another victim. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. In that novel, a mysterious dead man is found in the home of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh, a teacher at an Institute for the Blind. When another character puts a few clues together and gets a little too close to the truth, the killer strikes again. The same thing happens in Christie’s Lord Edgeware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), where Poirot investigates the murder of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgeware. Edgeware is the only intended victim; however, one other character says more than is wise about the murder, and another stumbles on a vital clue. The murderer, not feeling safe, claims two more victims. In fact, Poirot says in more than one Christie novel that the best murderers – the ones who are hardest to catch – “leave well enough alone.” They commit only one murder.
It’s certainly the case that multiple bodies can make for a suspenseful, exciting mystery, but are they necessary? Is it possible to have a suspenseful novel with only one victim?
There are, in fact, many well-written mysteries with only one victim. For instance, Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is an interesting story about the murder of Sheila Grey, a New York couturier. When Dane McKell discovers that his millionaire father, Ashton, is having an affair with Grey, he forces a meeting to confront her, but instead, he falls in love with her. When Grey is murdered, the police suspect first Ashton McKell, then his wife, Lutetia. When it’s found out that Dane was also having an affair with Grey, he is arrested. In this novel, there is only one victim – Sheila Grey. What holds the reader’s interest isn’t the number of bodies, but the inter-relationships among the characters. It’s those inter-relationships, together with what Queen finds out about the victim’s personal life, that lead to the solution of the mystery and build the suspense.
There’s also only one murder in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, which centers on the shooting death of historian John Gwathney. Deere’s sleuth, interpreter Torrey Tunet, finds the body when she goes to Gwathney Hall to drop off young Sharon O’Faolain to stay with her Aunt Megan O’Faolain, Gwathney’s housekeeper, who’s a friend of Torrey’s. What keeps the suspense moving and the reader turning pages in this novel is Torrey’s habit of nosiness and getting herself into trouble; it also adds to the suspense that Megan O’Faolain is suspected of the murder, so Torrey feels she has to clear her friend’s name. Some interesting and quirky characters also add to the interest of the novel.
In my own Joel Williams series, the plot, more than anything else, determines how many bodies there are. In Publish or Perish, for instance, there are two murders. One of them is the “main” murder; the other occurs when one of the characters starts putting some pieces of the puzzle together. In B-Very Flat, though, there is only one victim. In that novel, the plot focuses as much on the secrets that all of the suspects are keeping as it does on the murder. So a lot of bodies wouldn’t add much to the plot.
In the end, to “borrow” a bit from Shakespeare, “the plot’s the thing.” If more than one murder is integral to the plot, provides valuable clues, or fits the murderer’s psychology, then multiple victims can add to the suspense. Otherwise, there’s a strong argument that having too many bodies takes away from the plot and becomes gratuitous. Multiple murders won’t save a weak plot, and can ruin an otherwise strong one.
What’s your view? Do you prefer mysteries where the sleuth ends up investigating a number of murders? Do you prefer mysteries where only one murder is at the center of the story?