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?


  1. I'm far more interesting the quirks and hidden layers of the suspects than I am in a body count. One murder is enough if you've got enough subterfuge to carry the reader through. Of course, as you say, if you're dealing with a serial killer, then the number of bodies will be higher. One of the most chilling aspects of Elizabeth George's "WIth No One as Witness" was experiencing the killer ensnare victim after victim as Inspector Lynley and Havers inched closer and closer to the solution.

    You're absolutely right, Margot. (with apologies to the Bard) "The plot's the thing"!


  2. Elspeth - There's nothing like well-written layers to the suspects and their backgrounds and motives to keep the reader's interest. Without interesting suspects and other characters, even a good plot falls flat. You're right, too: George does a fabulous job keeping readers on the edge of their proverbial seats in With No One As Witness, and a lot of that has to do with the killer's growing list of victims *delicious shudder of suspense*.

  3. You mystery writers are a mystery to me, how do you do it? Amazing.

  4. Elizabeth - thanks for the compliment :). How kind! I won't speak for other mystery writers - there are some incredibly talented ones out there. But, speaking strictly for me, it helps to have help, modeling and support from other mystery novelists. A little insanity also helps ; ).

  5. I love your photos Margot :-)
    WE are so used to the mysteries being murder mysteries, that if there are no bodies, we feel a bit short-changed. In the PUNTER'S TURF by Peter Klein there is this quote: "The sad thing about Frank, which so often happens, is that further crimes are committed to conceal an original crime." - Frank committed 2 murders to disguise his penchant for young boys. I thought there was a lot of truth in why crimes come in multiples, why the perpetrator rarely stops at a single crime.

  6. Kerrie - Thanks for the compliment; I have a lot of fun, I admit, with those photos. I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're right; we do get very used to mysteries involving at least one murder, so that when there isn't one, we feel let down. I know that a mystery that doesn't have at least one body has to be extraordinarily good for me to really love it.

    You also make a good point about why perpetrators usually commit more murders. They are hiding the original crime. Often the second murder is of a person who knows about the original crime or finds some important evidence about it. Sometimes, it's just that fact that helps the sleuth put the pieces together; the second (or third, etc.) murder turns out to be a clue in itself.

    Folks, Kerrie's excellent review of The Punter's Turf is here.

  7. I've always written two...lazy of me, I think. It's the perfect remedy for a saggy middle (very much like Ariadne Oliver!)

    Too many bodies exasperates me. Just one is tricky to write....but can be rewarding to read.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. Elizabeth - I would hardly call you a "lazy writer!" You do make a well-taken point, though; it can be much easier to keep the suspense level high in a novel when there's more than one murder. It's a very effective strategy, provided that the second murder is relevant and really adds to the plot.

    As you say, too many bodies is exasperating, and I think part of the reason for that is that they can detract from the core of the story if they aren't really key to the mystery.

  9. I haven't read many of the books in your post. I do think that there is a standard "boilerplate" crime fiction plot that involves a murder/dead body at the start, then a lot of investigation,then a dead end and then....er....another body! And that is what is needed to find the clues, etc. Hakan Nesser played with this concept in "Woman with Birthmark", an almost academic exercise in how to determine the killer from triangulating the similarities between the crimes/victims. Many other authors are less talented/sophisticated than Mr Nesser, and one can really see the wheels grinding round as one reads through the book.
    I think there are also issues of believability when you have more than one death in a book. In the "golden age" I think the readers were more forgiving and prepared to go along with all these plots - but I think these days readers can be a bit more discerning and the author has to work harder to be creative about "additional bodies" to keep the reader on board and believing in the world of the book.

    I am afraid I can't think of any good examples right now, but I know I have read excellent novels in which there is only one death, and other excellent ones where the body-count is higher than that. Above all, I like a good plot, characterisation and atmosphere. These are more important to me than body counts, so perhaps this is why I read more detective and crime fiction than I do thrillers. I admire an author who can keep you gripped to the end without having to dispatch too many characters!

  10. Maxine,
    Thanks for bringing up Woman With Birthmark . Nesser certainly does a good job of using multiple deaths effectively to build up the tension and to put the clues together, since there's really little other evidence in that novel to track the killer.
    (Folks, you can read Kerrie's review of Woman With Birthmark at Mysteries in Paradise.)
    I agree with you, too, that a good plot, strong characters and an engrossing atmosphere go a lot further than a long list of corpses does. It's interesting, too, that you mention the difference between readers during the Golden Age of detective fiction and today's readers. You've got a solid point that today's readers expect much more authentic and believable plots, and that includes the number of bodies. It's simply not enough to have a death in a novel. There has to be a reason for the death. The death has to fall out naturally from the plot. That may be difficult for an author to do, but in the end, I think it makes for a better book.

  11. Great question. I think the body count itself doesn't matter to me as much as the plot twists. I really enjoy stories where there are credible plot twists that surprise me. And actually, now that I'm thinking about it, this tends to happen more with books with single murders rather than multiple.

  12. Belle - You're absolutely right. Plot twists hold the reader's interest a lot more than does a high "body count." And you have a point, too, that well-written mysteries with good plot twists can easily have only one murder. If the reader is challenged, there doesn't need to be more than one.