One of the first ideas that come to me when I begin a novel or short story is the identity of the villain. As soon as the basic scene takes shape, the victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.
The selection of both victim and villain allow me to explore various questions, but in the beginning I was mostly interested in mastering the form and telling a particular kind of story.
In the cozy mystery, the victim tends to be “the person we love to hate,” the obnoxious neighbor or underhanded business partner, especially the philandering husband or the domineering departmental supervisor. No one misses them, or is sad to see them go. In my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, Beth O’Donnell made everyone cringe with her sarcastic and cutting remarks, a bully though diminutive in every other way. With the victim neatly dispatched emotionally for the audience, the reader concentrates on those around her. But as the series progressed I wanted the victim to play a more complicated role.
Setting a murder mystery in an exotic location (to us, the outsiders) offers new possibilities, and I took the opportunity to present a victim who was admired and mourned. Jean is an American nurse traveling through India on her way to Burma, or Myanmar, with a plan to be smuggled in to work in a clandestine clinic in the jungle. This will be her second trip, and she has come prepared with medicine and equipment. Who would want to kill her and thwart her humanitarian work? In Under the Eye of Kali, Jean disappears and is later found dead. Her openness about her plans seems to suggest smugglers or ordinary thieves could be the culprits. We care more about who the villain is because we care more about Jean.
In the first Pioneer Valley entry, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien finds a young woman she’s only met once dead in her woods. This is the first of two deaths, neither of which fall into the category of expected victims. The reader has no reason to hate either woman, and the convenient category of the cozy victim has no role here. There can be no ambiguity about the death of either woman, and thus no pleasure in the reader at the elimination of an odious character.
The choice of victim tells the reader several things, but mostly what our own values are as we come to know the character and gradually discern the shape of his or her life. We conveniently agree that the obnoxious victim in the cozy got what he or she deserved; we admire the sleuth who tracks down the killer of a virtuous person risking her life for others; and we agree there can be no justification for killing an innocent person.
Crime fiction or mystery fiction opens for discussion and exploration our basic principles and beliefs. In Modus Operandi, Robin Winks, the late reviewer of and writer about this genre, was eloquent on this point. “Ultimately one reads detective fiction because it involves judgments—judgments made, passed upon, tested. In raising questions about purpose, it raises questions about cause and effect. In the end, like history, such fiction appears to, and occasionally does, decode the environment; appears to and occasionally does tell one what to do; appears to and occasionally does set the record straight. Setting the record straight ought to matter.”