Yes, I kill people. But only fictional people, characters in my mystery novels. And I don’t kill any character lightly. I actually prefer to write mysteries that don’t involve murders, because with a murder, the crime is over, there’s no hope for a happy outcome, and all that’s left to do is to prosecute the killer. As a private investigator, I worked on a death case, and it was sad and painful to interview everyone left behind. I much prefer to write about kidnapping or disappearances, because the outcome could go either way. But, as a mystery writer, I have found that now and then I simply have to kill a character, or readers would stop believing that could happen in my books.
Most of the time, I would like to kill off a despised character, the one who abuses animals or humans or takes advantage of everyone to make money. But who would grieve over those deaths? If dozens of people have motive to bump off that despicable person, then frankly, as a reader I can’t get very invested in discovering the killer because it seems like a public service, and I’m not sure that I want to see the perpetrator identified and punished.
No, to create suspense and interest, most often a mystery novelist needs to kill someone who the reader cares about. And, call me crazy (and many of us authors are), but it’s hard to create a likeable character and then kill them. It hurts. The most painful one for me was Alex Kazaki, a scuba-diving wildlife biologist that I had to bump off in the Galápagos (Undercurrents novel), long considered a magical place for all wildlife biologists. I really liked his gentle humor and kind heart, and I remember the day I concluded that I needed to kill him. His death still haunts me, as it does my series protagonist, Sam Westin. Alex left behind a wife and baby who loved him dearly.
Latina wildlife photographer Jade Silva died near the Arizona-Mexico wall (Borderland). She was gutsy. She was talented. I still feel that her death left a hole in the world, but I’m grateful for her last photo of a rare jaguar imprisoned by the border wall.
Then there are the clueless, who die doing foolish things because they are naïve or misguided. I had to kill one of those people off in The Only Clue because he didn’t understand how dangerous a silverback could be. Even a gorilla who knows sign language is still a gorilla. And I had to bump off two women in Bear Bait for two completely different reasons; neither of them deserved that. My novel Backcountry was inspired by the real-life murders of two women hikers, and as a hiker, those still-unsolved deaths are especially close to my heart.
I killed two beloved parents in my Run for Your Life trilogy, leaving my then 14-year-old protagonist an orphan. And—oh dear God—I included a dead infant in The Only Witness. Although that wasn’t murder, it still hurt me to imagine that tiny corpse buried in the field.
And now it occurs to me that recently I’ve killed even more, in a horrific avalanche, in the novel I’m currently writing. I guess it’s a blessing that they were all strangers to me. But I feel sorry for their relatives, whom my protagonist may meet in the novel. Yikes, my death tally is growing.
Being a mystery novelist can be a weird, emotional roller coaster ride of grief, fear, and—hopefully—eventual triumph. Am I alone in experiencing all these emotions while crafting my novels? Am I crazy?