Monday, October 24, 2011

Do You Need a Dead Body?

What I'm reading: Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues, by Michael Brandman

I've hit Milestone #1 in my giveaway. You can't win unless you enter, so check the Deals & Steals tab.

Last week, on The Graveyard Shift, Lee Lofland shared some important information about property crimes, and how patrol officers work to solve them. He presented a lot of good information, including how useful fingerprints are (usually they aren't), and how people talk to cops. Take a minute to read it here.


But my takeaway from his post, and one that was followed up in the comments of the post, was that there's a lot of police work that has nothing to do with solving homicides. If you tell someone you write mysteries, odds are pretty good they automatically hear "murder mystery."

Can't you have a mystery that doesn't include a dead body? There are certainly enough other crimes out there, and they'll impact the lives of your characters even if nobody dies. And for me, it's always about the characters.

When I wrote FINDING SARAH, I thought it was going to be a mystery. But it began with a robbery (Anyone know the difference between a burglary and a robbery? The terms aren't interchangeable.) which brought a detective onto the scene. Now, maybe I got away without having the detective solve a murder because I discovered, thanks to my beta-reading daughters, that I was really writing a romance.

It turned out that there was a dead body in FINDING SARAH, but it wasn't part of the central plot. In that book, I was more concerned with pushing my characters to their emotional limits, and the opening robbery was simply a catalyst.

HIDDEN FIRE, the sequel, however did start with a murder, and solving it hung at the center of that plot. But here, the characters were established in the other book, and it seemed logical for me to test Randy with a homicide, since that kind of a crime was almost unheard of in Pine Hills.

(And that's another issue, touched upon by a recent guest. Small towns really don't have that many homicides. You are asking readers to suspend disbelief if you have a series set in a small town where people are dropping dead right and left.)

WHAT'S IN A NAME? had no dead bodies. NOWHERE TO HIDE started out with a simple missing persons case, although it escalated to murder well into the book. WHEN DANGER CALLS and WHERE DANGER HIDES also bypassed the central dead body issue.

Maybe it's because in the mystery sub-genres of romance, an author has more leeway, since the relationship between the hero and heroine has to be central to the plot, as important as solving the crime, or preventing world domination, or whatever other mayhem brought them together.

What's your take? If you're a mystery reader/author, do you think a book that centered around a non-homicide crime would keep a reader's interest. Or do we demand our detectives solve murders rather than bank robberies or breaking and entering?

Tomorrow, my guest is Susan Oleksiw, and she's talking about one of my favorite topics: characters. Come back and pick up some new tips.

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23 comments:

Mario said...

Nice post. Joseph Finder's financial thriller "Paranoia" has a lot of suspense and tension but there is no dead body.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Terry (as usual). I often see questions about if and when you need a dead body in a mystery. For me it's the "suspense" that keeps me reading, the "Will they ever find/stop the villain" question that I want answered.
Maris Soule

forensics4fiction said...

You're correct Terry that most crimes don't involve a dead body but I doubt many readers would plow through 400 pages about check fraud or a recovered stolen vehicle. There are other interesting crimes like kidnapping, missing persons, industrial espionage, etc but nothing grips my heart like a murder.

Terry Odell said...

Mario - thanks for the example.

Maris - if you care about the solution, it doesn't really matter what the crime was -- or so I think.

Tom - I would read a novel about any of those subjects IF I cared enough about the character. Make the stakes for the character personal, make me understand his goals and motives, and I'm with him all the way.

Jody Lebel said...

I'm actually tired of murders and especially serial killers. All you need is a good villian and a good victim...any crime will do.

Jody

Rich Friedeman said...

The Ladies #1 Detective Agency have a fair amount of mystery but pretty lightweight crimes. If you want to look at the more serious end of things, Lehane's Gone Baby Gone is as gritty and intense a mystery as you'll get, but is about a missing child.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think you're right that you'll have more leeway in genre-blending books than in some others. I know with my imprints, I've got to drop at least 1 body.

Terry Odell said...

Jody - I agree. And sometimes I don't even need a 'good' villain.
When Danger Calls is more about terrorists in general without pinpointing a single individual.

Rich - thanks for the suggestions

Elizabeth - of course if your publisher is publishing "murder mysteries" then you have to go along with them!

Sheila Connolly said...

As you hinted, we cozy writers who set our books in a small town push the boundaries when people die under suspicious circumstances every couple of months. The real town I modeled my Orchard mysteries on has had three murders in the past ten years; I gave them four within one year. I decided to give them a break in the most recent one, so the only murder there took place somewhere else--in 1795! Nobody has complained.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I know the bestsellers always seem to have serial killers and grim murders, but truthfully I prefer a cozy with humor and romance. So I don't need dead bodies littering the landscape. I think Lawrence Block wrote a couple of mysteries without murders in them back in the day that were very entertaining.

Karen C said...

I like murder mysteries, but I also enjoy thrillers and suspense so I think I'm agreeing with you Terry - give me good characters and storyline and I can do without the dead bodies.

And, after 40 years in the financial services industry, I'm not real interested in reading about check fraud no matter how much I like the characters! :O)

Enjoyed the post, Terry. I had to go look up the definitions - couldn't remember.

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - but cozies often center around a dead body--at least the ones I've read.

Karen - I can understand how you don't need to read about what you've spent your working hours doing. Most cops don't read cop books, either!

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - I think that's an excellent way around the dead bodies cropping up all over the place in a small town!

jenny milchman said...

I think even in very dark suspense a dead body isn't necessarily necessary. Some of the things we humans do to each other can get a lot worse than murder...

Excellent topic, Terry!

Jan Christensen said...

It's great this came up right now for me because I have a series of mystery short stories coming out soon from Untreed Reads. They are really capers about a burglar who is always being pulled into escapades by beautiful women. His wife objects to this. So far, two of the stories don't have any dead bodies, but one does. I'm hoping the characters and situations are compelling enough to keep readers' interest high.

Live Out Loud said...

Great post. I love reading mysteries and I've noticed they are all murder mysteries, yet the mystery TV shows I watch often don't have a dead body - but they're still called mysteries. (Meaning the connotation of 'murder mystery' is there for books but not TV.)

I'm fine with no dead body as long as the investigation/crime is solid enough to keep the characters going along. I love character-heavy books so, if I adore the characters, I'll follow them just about anywhere.

And I, for one, have no problem suspending disbelief for a small town setting, riddled with dead bodies!

Terry Odell said...

Jenny, thanks, and I agree. A good writer should be able to find another dark, compelling theme.

Jan - you'll have to compare results with the murder vs non-murder stories.

LOL - good point. I wonder what would happen if someone adapted a non-murder tv show into a book. Would they kill someone just to make it 'conform.

Terry Odell said...

I want to thank everyone for their comments. I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one who thinks a murder isn't a "rule" in a mystery, and there should be other options.

Stacy Green said...

What an interesting post. I tend to gravitate toward murder mysteries, but I've read books with no dead bodies that were still strong. If the suspense keeps me guessing then I'm all good.

Diana Hurwitz said...

Mysteries also involve solving other types of puzzles (and I love them all): thefts, "treasure hunts", spying, reovering a missing inheritance or missing item such as art, missing people/kidnapping, finding someone (birth parent, child they didn't know they had), mystery of why a family fell apart, historical mystery (how/why something happened the way it did). It can be a race to stop something from happeneing. There are many forms of mystery but when writing and selling one you have to decide which kind of audience you want to reach. Murder mystery fans will be disappointed if there isn't a body. There are specific guidelines if you want an agent/editor to pick it up. As to small towns, I used to live near one that was weird murder central. It may stretch credibility a tad, but it happens.

Terry Odell said...

Stacy - thanks for your comment. Most books on the mystery shelves these days DO seem to have dead bodies.

Diana - I'm pleased to see that others feel that there are more crimes than murder, and that books can be written about them. This post was triggered in part by comments on another mystery reader/writer group I belong to and the consensus there seemed to be "show me the body by page 3" which troubled me.

petemorin said...

Hi Terry,

My debut novel, Diary of a Small Fish, has no body, and perhaps not even a crime. It's about a guy who's accused of a crime when no crime has been committed, period. It's about the gray area between law and ethics - and a dirty prosecutor.

But then, maybe that's why my agent couldn't sell it as crime/mystery.

My second novel has the standard dead body on page one. Although the presumptive mission is to find the murderer, it's really about official corruption in law enforcement.

I'm working on a short crime story now where the initial crime is jaywalking.

I wish you were around Goodreads when the group discussion focused on whether a "true mystery/crime" novel permitted romance at all.

Cheers, all.
Pete

Terry Odell said...

Pete - thanks. I think the upsurge in indie publishing gives those "in between genres" a chance to find a home. Readers normally aren't so persnickity about rigid boundaries.

Sorry to miss the Goodreads discussion. I have trouble keeping up with things over there. But feel free to pop me an email if you think I have something to offer.