For a mystery author, the conflict usually starts before the novel and expresses itself – unpleasantly – as soon as the book begins.
My family calls this “jogger or corpse.”
When you read a mystery novel or watch a detective show on TV, the opening scenes often show a person engaged in mundane activity. She’s running through a wooded park. He’s brushing his teeth while watching the morning news.
This represents a divergence from other genres, which often open with car chases, bombs, or other disasters in progress. Why? Because every experienced reader knows the innocent person buying a latte on the corner will soon discover a body … or become one.
Mysteries require a murder – a killer, a victim, a crime scene laced with interesting clues and a background cast of suspects (all of them liars). Those opening scenes set the stage, and although the initial setting seems peaceful, we know that a killer (or body, or both) is lurking immediately offstage.
I love the opening moments of mysteries – my own or someone else’s. Those moments when all the world is a suspect and also a victim. The tension of wondering whether that jogger is murderer, body, detective or innocent bystander stumbling into an appetite-spoiling scene.
To me, that’s tension at its finest.
By way of illustration, and also temptation, I offer the opening paragraphs from my upcoming Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat:
Father Mateo strolled through the narrow yard, hands folded and face cast down in meditation. His shoulders bent against the pre-dawn chill. The first two weeks of May had been warm in Kyoto, but this morning the switch to his summer kimono seemed just a bit premature.
At the other end of the garden a shadow snaked over the wall and into a cherry tree with no more sound than a spring wind rustling leaves.
The priest walked on, unaware.
I see two people in this scene.
Are they jogger, detective, witness, bystander, or corpse?
What’s your favorite part of a mystery novel? Do you prefer the “jogger or corpse” style opening or or are you a fan of action-style tension in opening scenes? I’d love to know what you think!