Body, Body, Who’s Got A Body?

by Janis Patterson

On one of my email loops there has been a discussion about whether or not a cozy mystery has to include a murder. Both yes and no answers are plentiful and while the discussion has not been acrimonious, it has been lively.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. I am most definitely not a fan of excessive blood and gore, but it would have to be a most outstanding puzzle to hold my interest without at least one body. That said, I don’t like seeing someone dispatched ‘onscreen’ with fulsome details of the exploding blood spattering the walls and every dying scream lovingly recorded, etc. That is the pornography of death and the reason I don’t read some of the highly regarded mystery/thriller writers. The writers can be wonderful craftsmen and most are deservedly very popular… I don’t blame anyone who likes them; they’re just not my cup of tea.

Let’s face it, it is exceedingly difficult to have a believable and attention grabbing/holding mystery without a body. In our discussion only a few people could think of even one – and I was surprised that there were as many as were mentioned. Almost everyone said without hesitation that to be a mystery, there had to be a body.

Apparently that’s one thing on which everyone will have to agree to disagree. I unashamedly align myself with the “there has to be a body” contingent. Even in a light-hearted humorous tale, the act of murder is a heinous one. It creates a high stakes situation that almost no other situation can. (I’m not talking about those find-the-whatever-or-the-world-will-end-scenario; those are an entirely different kettle of fish!)

I have a friend who was once contacted to ghostwrite a contract series of ‘wholesome’ mysteries; the company would give her detailed outlines and she would write the books according to their specifications. The books were short and the money fairly decent, but she turned the contract down. At the time I was incredibly cash-strapped (even more than usual) and incredulous that she would turn down what seemed like easy money.

“There is no way,” she said, “I could write those stories like that and make them interesting to people. There wasn’t any murder. There wasn’t even any crime.”

A mystery? With no body OR crime? What, I had asked, was the mystery? Her answer floored me. It seemed that the mystery was who was ringing all the doorbells in this quaint little village and then running away. A mystery? Really? (Remember, these were books for adults, not very young readers.)  Then she really blew me away when she gave me the ‘solution’… the mysterious bell ringer was a cat.

A cat? Really? Didn’t these people ever hear of motivation? Or goal? Or conflict? Now I have a cat who opens doors like crazy – turns the knobs with incredible dexterity – when she wants to get into the other room, usually to chew on something or find food she isn’t supposed to have. What motivation could a cat have for ringing a doorbell? To be invited in for tea? In a different era, to sell Fuller Brushes or Avon? Cats are smarter than most people admit, but that goes beyond any cat I ever heard of!

Now that was years ago, and I don’t know if that book was ever written; nor do I wish to be scornful of it. If someone can get joy out of reading such a story, more power to them. Tastes differ. I would just have a difficult time finding any interest in such a tale. For me, a mystery has to have something at stake – something worthwhile that can justify expenditure of such time and energy.

Mysteries – good mysteries – don’t really need to have a murder, but they do need a good mystery.

10 thoughts on “Body, Body, Who’s Got A Body?

  1. Well I don’t think a good mystery needs a murder. One of my favorite books, is the caper novel by Jeffrey Archer – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. I’ve re-read it several times even though I know the outcome.


  2. My next cozy has a cat and maybe I’ll have him ring doorbells! Seriously, I’ve seen this topic discussed in cozy FB groups. Personally I feel a murder has higher stakes and more danger: the killer has good reason to silence the sleuth, but a burglar will just hide the loot and lay low. A murderer needs a stronger motive for the crime than, say, a thief who just wants money for a drug fix. The mystery of the motive can be a good puzzle.


  3. I think a mystery is just an unexplained happening. “Who killed Mr. Boddy?” is only one of many possible questions. Whether a mystery without a murder is gripping or not depends on the skill of the writer. Come to that, I’ve begun more than one murder mystery and stopped because I really didn’t care WHO killed Mr. Boddy! 😀 My cat says he thinks any mystery with a cat in it is a good one, even if nothing happens in it except that there’s a cat. I think he’s biased.

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  4. I think cozy mysteries don’t necessarily need a murder, but we do kind of expect it. I wrote a YA mystery with my younger son years ago entitled WHERE IS ROBERT? It was a true mystery but didn’t involve a murder. However, all my adult mystery novels involve a murder(s). But like most cozy readers, I’m not into a lot of gore. Killings themselves are not described.

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  5. Mysteries usually do have a body, but it probably depends on what type of mystery. A suspense story could keep the reader concerned about whether or not the hero/heroine will survive a possible threat to well being.

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  6. The challenge I enjoy in writing mysteries without murders is coming up with a different type of wrong-doing in each one–something that is threatening to someone’s well-being in a way that will keep up the suspense. Sometimes it’s a crime; sometimes it’s more private bad behavior. I don’t think I’ll have a cat ringing doorbells, though!

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  7. Janis, I agree books with excessive blood and gore are disturbing and unnecessary, and you aptly label it as ‘pornography of death.’ It is by the way and I avoid certain wonderful writers because I don’t feel comfortable with graphics, but a mystery with a murder is also plausible for many reasons. I think Hitchcock directed some and many other writers, cozy or not, have penned wonderful tales of suspense without a body.

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  8. I saw those conversations but was so busy I didn’t take the time to read them. I’m in the boat of a murder makes a good mystery. It gives you multiple suspects and motives for why there was a murder committed. But I’ve also read some good mysteries that didn’t have dead bodies but they were well crafted and suspenseful. I can’t imagine a story with a cat ringing the doorbell as being that suspenseful. I agree with the blood and gore and for even going too deep in the mind of the murderer… I’ve put down half a dozen books that I liked but when they started getting too scary for me I had to quite reading them. I’m a wimp when it comes to gory or scary. Good post!


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