Mind Games and Murder

by Janis Patterson

I wonder if all mystery writers are irretrievably warped?

I spent last week at the Novelists’ Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida. It was held at the luxurious TradeWinds resort, a place of which dreams are made. The weather was good – a little rain, a lot of wind, but mostly warm and sunny. The resort amenities are incredible – this is our fourth time here and I still haven’t been able to do all the ‘resorty’ things I want to, such as going down the big slide and doing the paddle boats on the carefully maintained artificial creek or sing at karaoke night. (I’m not lazy – it’s just the conference is so intense and it’s so wonderful to be able just to sit and talk with other writers.)

The resort is perfection, and the staff works hard to keep it that way. (And I’m positive none of my dire imaginings have ever happened there in reality – it is a lovely place in every sense of the word.) I mean, even the brick walks are swept several times a day to keep the beach sand off. Everywhere you look there are staff members in their trademark blue and yellow Hawaiian style shirts going around making things perfect, just like little elves. The restaurants and bars are great and to get up early in the morning and watch from our balcony as the day is born to the music of the surf is heavenly.

So why are my thoughts swamped with murder and mayhem? You’d think I would just be enjoying the conference and my friends and the beauty, but no – so  far I’ve hatched a bunch of plots that involve poisoning, stabbing, international intrigue and smuggling, all located in this consciously perfect setting.

Violence and crime are terrible no matter where they occur, but it seems they are worse in places of such beauty and perfection, and therefore more alluring to the mystery writer. The vast number of employees, each in their yellow and blue Hawaiian shirts, are an invitation to a villainous outsider outsider to use the uniform as camouflage. After all, with the exception of our chambermaid, I don’t think I’ve seen the same employee twice.

Am I the only one who looks at the minutiae of life through such a murderous lens? In an arboretum full of beautiful plants I am drawn to the poisonous ones. In an art museum I find myself thinking not of the beautiful paintings, but of what a wonderful place it would be to hide a body. A shopping mall? Just too full of murderous opportunities to list.

People often ask me where I get my ideas – or, worse, offer to sell me theirs. Getting the ideas is not the problem; most of the creative people I know have many more than they can ever use. The problem is deciding which idea to use – and it takes a bunch that fit together seamlessly to make a good book. The bad part is that you can only fit so many widely different murders into one book!

Worst of all, when you are surrounded by such beauty and comfort and perfection the urge to indulge in a little villainous mayhem is far too much to resist. I think I’ve decided on smuggling… or maybe jealousy… or perhaps a disputed inheritance… as the inciting incident. Check with me next  year and we’ll see how the story turned out!

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.