Monday, January 14, 2019

Choosing the Time of Death

When drafting a murder mystery, choosing the timing of the murder is critical to the pacing of your story. There are several methodologies for selecting the chapter where your victim will be found. Regardless of which chapter you choose, the murder should always happen somewhere in the first act; whether it’s in the beginning, middle, or end depends on your story. Each time has its advantages, so in this Mystery Monday post let’s take a closer look at why you would select one over the others.

Starting off with a bang.

This is the traditional mystery approach. You’ll find it in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. You’ll see it in modern mysteries like Karin Slaughter’s Triptych. You must start your novel with the crime itself; which means you have about five thousand words to set it up, paint the scene and leave your victim in a bloody heap.

The advantage of this approach is that you can get to the mystery solving right away. The general rule of thumb is that the more complex your mystery is, the earlier the crime needs to be committed. Killing off your victim this early can be especially useful if you have a lot of potential suspects to wade through or as a literary device to introduce your detective. For example, it’s a crime so ghastly that a specialist must be called in and your detective is the specialist in question. I’m looking at you, Patricia Cornwell.

You might have noticed that I’ve name dropped three of the most important names in mystery writing. There’s a reason for that: it works, really well. It sets up your story immediately by adding a sense of urgency in solving the crime. It also makes the story all about the crime, which allows you to explore the violence of human nature and the nitty-gritty details of how a crime is solved.

In Until the Devil Weeps, I sucker punch the reader with the crime right at the end of a very short first chapter. This gave me an entire novel to explore the effects of the murder on the victim’s family as well as providing a long ramp to build up to a big ending with a shocking conclusion. This approach does lend itself to a certain kind of story, one that revolves around the crime itself and the aftermath, making it very effective if that’s the kind of story you’d like to tell.

The slow burn.

With this approach, your victim’s fate is sealed smack dab in the middle of the first act and it’s one of my favorites. It has almost the same advantage of killing off the victim right away - in that you still have plenty of time to build a complex case to solve - but it has the added benefit of giving you some time beforehand to build suspense and establish your story.

This is also a great way to use the false flag mystery. You put one mystery at the beginning of the first act and then put the real mystery a little further on when you get to the middle. Dennis Lehane does this masterfully in A Drink Before the War. The detective is sent to look for a missing woman in the very first chapter, but the real mystery happens after she’s found.

Not only does this build some suspense and throw some red herrings around, it also allows Lehane to establish Patrick Kenzie as a detective and introduce the reader to the supporting cast of associates. This is a classic detective novel maneuver. Think Dashiell Hammett with The Thin Man. Or James Ellroy with LA Confidential.

I’ve used it myself in Devil Take Me Down, Chasing Those Devil Bones, and The Devil’s Luck. Like I said, it’s my favorite. It’s a great device if you have a bigger story to tell; one in which the crime is the vehicle for the events, but not the focus of the story. It also works well for a thriller crossover mystery like Devil Take Me Down. The book opens with a serial killer watching our main character; then focuses on our main character’s life, establishing her story; then BLAMMO!: someone dies.

By moving the crime a little further into the first act, you give yourself time for character development and to build up the suspense. The natural tendency for the reader will be to think that one of these characters they’re growing to like is going to be the victim of a horrible crime. It builds tension and adds a little drama to finding the victim, which is what makes it work so well.

The Big Build Up

This, my friends, is the trickiest of the three approaches because you run the risk of the reader shouting, ‘get to the point, already.’ I’ve only used it once in That Old Devil Sin and I honestly think the only reason it works is because I set up a minor threat of a mystery in the second chapter. 

With this approach, your first act is your playground. You can tell a story that has very little to do with a mystery and everything to do with the mystery you know is coming. This gives you all the time you need to introduce your detective, your victim, and your murderer, if you like. 

The best example of this by far is Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot is sent on a wandering journey before we finally get to the point and I have to admit that the first time I read it, I did have a couple of ‘get to the point, already’ moments. But once the murder happens, wowza.

The thing that makes it work is that Christie introduces you to every single suspect before we ever meet the victim. 

Umberto Eco does this equally well in The Name of the Rose. By taking his time with the murder, he transports the reader back in time and has most of the first act to establish the historical context of his novel. 

With this approach, you must have either an enormous cast of characters, a secondary story that is equally important to the mystery itself, or a vast world that needs definition for the reader to understand the context of the mystery itself. 

Picking the timing of your murder is as vital to your story as the crime itself. But with a little careful planning and forethought, it can drive your story forward and provide you with the space you need to craft the perfect mystery.