Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.

12 thoughts on “Where? When?

  1. I have never considered this, but I find that I agree with you. When a death happens in the beginning, it’s about the shock or the gore or the sinister feeling. So, in a way, it kind of becomes a sensational, front page news, thing. Very interesting post. You have won me over!


  2. I don’t like books where a person gets murdered on the first page, and start with their point of view before the murder. I don’t want to bond a lot with the person that’s murdered, but don’t mind feeling a bit sorry for them. I prefer to bond witih one or two of the other characters in the book. I’m also not keen about books with multiple points of view.


  3. I agree with your emphasis on treating the crime of murder and the death of a human being with respect, outrage, grief, the full impact of such an event. The one who dies is more than a stage prop.


  4. Great post, Janis! I just finished a book where the murder happened during a conference and my protagonist is trying to find the killer before everyone goes home. The murder happens in chapter two after the reader has met the victim, who, is a nice guy, making it harder for my protag to figure out who could have wanted the victim dead. Fun stuff! I agree the murder should happen when it is right for the story.


  5. I completely agree with you, Janis! In my latest mystery, I had the body appear at the end of page 2–the last page of that chapter. I built suspense about there even being a body at all. My publisher wanted the body on page one, and wanted the entire chapter to end on page one. I was told the body needed to appear on the first page, and that the rest was too much detail about the setting. Oh, well!


  6. I agree. I find it much more satisfying to have the murder occur later. Part of the fun of some of the older mysteries was getting to know the characters and to anticipate who was going to die a violent death.


  7. I’m one who usually has a murder occur early in my mysteries, but not always. It depends on the story. I’ve never been told to move a murder up closer to the beginning, but I did have an editor tell me I needed to have a love scene earlier in a romance I wrote. As you said, it’s a do it or we won’t publish it suggestion. So I did it and it totally messed up the tension in the book. I’ve never been happy about that.


  8. I’ve done it all different ways–right off in the first chapter, somewhere in the middle, and in one, when the book was almost done. You did a great job with this post–putting it simply, the murder should happen in the most logical place.


  9. Your post is timely, Janis. For years I’ve been told the murder must appear in the first fifty pages–dogma without defense. In my WIP the murder occurs at the end of the first third of the book, when readers have had time to learn about him and care that he turns up dead. And that’s where it’s going to stay. Good post.


    1. My murder of a chaplain in my 2nd book isn’t only offstage, but it happened in the near-close of my 1st one. The 2nd book’s murder(s) tie with the chaplain’s is discovered later, and the one one happening in the first chapter relates to why the chaplain was murdered in the first place. I’m pretty certain I’m breaking rules a good few in the mystery reading community will be pissy with me for, but I stand by it; storytelling over structure is my credo :). Super post. Thank you for sharing.


  10. I have never really thought about this – mainly because I would never introduce a dead body early in any story! BTW – I love conferences as a setting for a crime. People that otherwise would not meet in person can be in the same setting, presenting a natural way for them to meet (and kill each other!).


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