As a mystery writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how murder might occur interestingly. Where to bury the body? How to get rid of the blood-soaked clothes? In a mystery novel, you not only have to create one believable murder, you have to create two or three believable murders—to give your red herring characters something to be disproved from having done, and your reader a chance to be surprised. That’s two or more murders for every book we write.
Hang out with mystery writers at a conference sometime, and you’ll be glad to get away from us. Waiters in the bar? Don’t make eye contact.
The truth of the matter, though, is that crime scares me.
I write amateur detective novels. In these books, average people investigate crimes that are usually in some way personal to them. I’m not afraid to tell you what I would do if, like the characters in my novels, I discovered the body of a friend or colleague on the ground in a pool of blood.
I would call freaking 911. And so would you. After the screaming. Screaming comes first, of course.
Amateur detectives do all that, too. They scream and cry, and call for help. But then they somehow turn the injustice and anger they feel into a reaction I don’t personally understand: they start asking questions.
I have two journalism degrees, but in real life, I would be the least curious person at a crime scene. I can’t tell you how much I could look the other way. Oh, I would do my civic duty. I would share what I knew. And then I would go inside, lock the doors, and throw up spectacularly.
But that’s why mysteries are so interesting to me. Mysteries aren’t about gore or violence—though some books do offer such thrills, if you want them. Mysteries are far more about the puzzle, the intellectual exercise. Mystery writers are a dark bunch, to be sure, but what we have in common more than the macabre is the love of setting the trap, for the reader and for the killer.
Because in mysteries, the killers are always caught. Maybe not in one book or one TV episode, but eventually they get theirs. Mysteries in novels get solved, or they’re not mysteries. (They might be literary novels. Ooops, did I say that?) Mystery writers get to be the righter of wrongs as well as the puzzle master. A pretty sweet gig.
Of course in real life, mysteries go unsolved all the time. Sometimes for years, sometimes forever. There’s nothing you or I or any mystery writer can do about that. But that’s why real life crime is so frightening—we can’t control it. We can’t predict it. We’re helpless against crime happening against us for no reason (like in THE BLACK HOUR) or against someone we love (like in my work in progress). We can be victims, no matter how many Agatha Christie books we’ve read.
It’s satisfying to read mystery after mystery, though, because it’s tantalizing to draw near the abyss. It’s satisfying to cheat death. It’s satisfying to put baddies behind bars and, for once, to have justice served. Even if you’d really be hiding under the covers in real life, by following mystery protagonists into danger, we get to be braver than we ever thought possible.