Deb Susan Asks: Jogger or Corpse?

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.

Instant stakes.

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!

6 Replies to “Deb Susan Asks: Jogger or Corpse?”

  1. I’m a fun of the jogger or corpse opening too! Although some authors have made me care too much about the corpse! Well, probably not really too much because it makes me definitely root for finding the killer. But sad. Also – AAAAH. I want to know what awaits in the cherry tree!

  2. Am I going to be reading your book with one eye closed? I’m the gal that leaves the room if I think someone on TV is hiding behind the curtains!

    Oh, the things I do for Debs! 😉

    1. Hmm…I think you’ll be OK. There’s definitely a lot of action and suspense, though. Couldn’t be otherwise with a ninja in the driver’s seat!

  3. Jogger or corpse — I *love* this expression. My husband and I watch lots of murder mysteries (both old school British ones like Inspector Morse and the Inspector Lynley Mysteries and newer ones like the Danish version of The Killing), and they all start with that quiet tension where you wonder, “Is that guy about to get whacked? Or is he going to find a body?” Can’t wait to read your book!!

    1. I love that too! I am reading a mystery right now that takes awhile to get to the corpse and everytime someone walks onto the page I’m thinking, “him? Is he the one who gets it?” and it makes the shorthand you’ve invented especially useful!

      I once read a mystery where the jogger goes for a run in central park and investigates something totally weird looking/smelling, and you think, oh, there’s the corpse! But it’s just a pile of garbage bags dumped illegally. And then he shrugs his shoulders and turns around to run home and bam gets shot. It was HILARIOUS. I mean, in a weird morbid way. Anyone know what book that was?

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