Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who do you kill, when, and why?

When I began writing my first mystery, Consulted to Death, I’d been working as a TV news producer for a decade and was dismayed and discouraged by the control consultants often had over news content and on-air presentation. I channeled those emotions into my sleuth, TV Assignment Editor Casey Brandt, and killed off Richard Plenty, a sleazy consultant out to feather his financial nest at the expense of others. I even had him stabbed in the back. Talk about therapy.

To complicate the plot and pique reader interest, I had the killer frame Casey for the crime, and I gave almost everyone in the newsroom a motive for the murder. Then, to allow readers to invest more in the outcome, I killed off a nice guy. That also muddied the plot waters and sent waves of suspicion out in new directions. With so many suspects, detecting was a challenge.

When I tackled the sequel, Driven to Death, I decided to kill off a nice guy and point the arrows of suspicion at a man who was guilty of so many other crimes it seemed that he must be the one. Separating out real motive from myth also created challenges. Forcing Casey to concentrate too hard on the guy “it has to be” allowed the real killer to get away with another crime.

In the third book of the series, Dated to Death, I used the technique of a murder that isn’t discovered for years. I killed off a snobbish prom queen. (I’m not admitting that was also therapeutic, but I will tell you that I didn’t go to my prom.) Again, there were plenty of suspects because she’d made herself unpopular. She was also living a secret life.

By now, you probably see a pattern emerging.

If I killed off a “bad” person who “deserved to die,” I found myself with a huge suspect pool and an enormous supply of red herrings. But readers might be so delighted that “he got what was coming to him,” that they might not give a fig about motive and method and all the plot points in the middle. They might even skip to the end and then put the book aside.

But, if I killed off a “good” person who “deserved to live,” I could be more certain that readers—outraged by the cruel fate I’d inflicted on the victim—would go along for the full ride. And I could also be certain that there would be plenty of outrage among my characters, and perhaps even some vigilante justice or at least a rush to judgment supported more by emotion than evidence. In addition, in digging for motive, I’d be able to go deeper into both the character of the victim and that of the killer.

More specifically, the character of the first person to be knocked off in each book set the tone for the rest of the book.

When my husband and I wrote the Devil’s Harbor mysteries—The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, we intentionally killed off people who weren’t well-liked. That had the effect of creating plenty of suspects, lies, and alibis for our amateur sleuth, reporter Molly Donovan, to sort through. And, because these are comic cozies and not deep character studies, those lies and alibis were often outrageous.

When I wrote Hemlock Lake, a mainstream mystery, I took the opposite approach and killed off people who were well-liked or at least fairly harmless. My intent was to make the killer seem even more heartless, vicious, and focused, and to make readers keep turning the pages to see if he would be brought to justice. At the same time, I dove deep into the protagonist’s past and psychology.

Right now I’m working on the sequel and I’m continuing in the same vein. I’ve chosen to take out a man who wanted only to do good but accidentally crossed the path of a killer attempting to keep at least three other murders a secret. When I finish it in the spring, I’ll be ready to kill off someone who had it coming and Mike and I will start on the third Devil’s Harbor cozy.

All those who comment will be entered in a drawing for one of Carolyn's books, so let's hear what you have to say!


  1. Carolyn - Great explanation on the difference for a reader between when an author kills off a "good guy" vs a "bad guy". Also, your prom was the big loser by not having you there for entertainment! Susan :)

  2. You've hit on the biggest problem for mystery writers. In THE INFERNO COLLECTION, my first victim was semi-sympathetic, but after that they weren't. In THE DROWNING POOL, second mystery featuring amateur librarian sleuth Kim Reynolds,
    the victims weren't sympathetic. I don't think there was as much interest in the solving of the murders. The third mystery in this series will be out in May and it's more of a mixed bag. Let you know what happens.

  3. Thanks for that, but I think I'm more entertaining--and less self-conscious--now.

  4. Jacqueline, I'm glad you think I hit the target. When Bobbye suggested the topic I thought, "What the heck do I know about this?"

  5. When you killed off a woman character I really felt for in "Hemlock Lake," my interest in seeing the killer brought to justice sky-rocketed. But in the Devil's Harbor mysteries, because they are riotous fun reading, my sole desire is that you not kill off someone on my All Time Favorite Characters' list, which means don't you even think about killing Elsbeth or Henri.

  6. You wonder, if writing these books for theraputic reasons wasn't an option, what path Ms. Rose's life might have taken. As her co-author and the person in the bed next to her for 26 years, I will tell you I've learned to sleep with one eye open at all times.

  7. Elizabeth, not to worry, Elspeth and Henri will survive the third book. As for my husband, well, time will tell. (LOL)

  8. Mike,
    All significant others consider ways to off their partners (don't they, or am I saying something about my character?) I know from experience we don't mean it. But, it's such a nice way to craft murders for our books. I have a friend who has told me about making a quiche for her husband. One side is poisonous and the other isn't. Guess she can't really use that now that I've spilled the beans.

  9. Another thing we have in common--I didn't go to my prom either ;) I simply cannot wait for the sequel. And now that you mention it, that driving need for justice did really pull me along with HEMLOCK LAKE...

  10. There was a prom? I must have been hanging with my cigarette smoking buddies down at the pool hall when that happened. Carolyn always says it's a lucky thing we didn't meet in high school There's no way a high-acheiving honor student like her would have hung out with an underacheiving hoodlum wanna be like me.