DONE IN? DONE GOOD: Why It Has to Be Murder

In a recent post at The Invisible Event, one of JJ’s readers ended his response, full of interesting observations, with this: 

“Finally, a point that’s been bugging me for years. Why does so much detective fiction, especially the novels, focus on murder? Detective short stories, at least, tend to be a bit more diverse and focus on thefts and such, and not just murder, perhaps because it’s harder to do a murder mystery in a limited number of pages. One reason I like reading young adult mysteries (aka Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and so, so many Scholastic Reader Services books) is that they usually don’t feature murders, simply mysterious situations or events that need clearing up.

This paragraph brought up such a magnificent plethora of thoughts in my feeble head, thoughts that JJ’s reply to the response did not address, that I rushed to my keyboard to answer the response to the reply to . . . well, um – instead of doing that, I blatantly stole gently lifted the original comment and set it down here because, unless you’ve been reading this blog backwards, the topic of murder interests me! 

It’s true that most mystery fans of a certain age were weaned on the likes of the Hardy Boys, who seemed to live in a smuggler’s paradise, and Encyclopedia Brown, who from his garage headquarters caught kidnappers and con artists by analyzing balloons stuck in trees, ice cubes made of ginger ale, and non-melting chocolate bars. I read Conan Doyle, too, and the crimes found in the Sherlock Holmes stories were highly varied. And yet, the novels all dealt with murder, and although one could argue that Doyle should have stuck to short fiction where Holmes was concerned, a point of significance stirred in my head.

That point was driven home at the age of eleven when I read my first Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. No magic ice cubes here! No theft of the Rajah’s rubies. Just ten people mowed down in the prime of life. 

I was in heaven. 

That was when I was in fifth grade, and I took the lessons I learned to heart. I turned my back on Frank and Joe, graduated from Encyclopedia Brown to Inspector Fordney (Minute Mysteries – the grown-up version of E.B.), and committed myself to reading murder mysteries. All of this was exemplified in my first novel, The Mystery of the Bleeding Stone, written that very year for my fifth-grade class. The book is thirty-five pages of pure gold, chronicling the case taken on by Roger and Helen when they vacation with their parents in the (imaginary) town of Guettenberg, Alaska, and end up solving a double homicide!!!

Illustrations by the author!!!

I read the book with a critical eye for the first time in forty-three years today. True, it closely resembles an episode of Scooby-Doo (which, I must point out, premiered four years after I finished this tale) in that there pretty much is only one suspect, the much-liked “replacement storekeeper.” True, for some mysterious reason, Helen’s name changes to Jill on page 16. And I must admit that, while the assignment was to “write a story that uses one of the American states as a setting,” there’s not really a lot of “Alaska” in my version of that place. (The kids do get to visit “Anchorage, the largest city in the state of Alaska,” as a reward for getting knocked out twice and capturing a pair of jewel robber/murderers. 

Later in my reading career, I discovered that the presence of murder in a mystery novel was pretty much law. That law comes from S. S. Van Dine, who I might point out did not write The Greene Stolen Crayon Case or The Scarab Taken from Mother’s Jewel Case Case

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far to much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. 

Certainly some have tried to illustrate the falsity of this rule. In 1868, Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone, where a lot of people don’t so much run as float about a country estate, pondering the loss of the titular gem. And then, in 1935, an even larger number of people moped about Oxford in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, dodging anonymous letters and psychologizing each other. Originally published in two volumes, The Moonstone now runs 639 pages. The current edition of Gaudy Night is 544 pages long. My copy of And Then There Were None numbers 183 pages, and it is packed with ten murders! Now, my friends, which of these three titles is far and away the biggest best-seller???

Imagine Lord and Lady Farquhar inviting twelve distinguished guests for a weekend in the country. There is much running to hounds, games of whist, and cocktail-shaking when, before you know it, Lady Farquhar’s prize necklace, the Star of Ramarkhand, is stolen. Inspector Roundstable is on the scene. His men search the grounds while he questions the guests and berates the staff. Could the nephews, Ronald and Donald, both needing money badly, have taken advantage of their twin status to come up with a perfect alibi? Could one of the guests or servants be Le Masque, the notorious jewel thief, in disguise? Could Miss Amanda Fotheringay’s bouts of kleptomania have resumed? Is the new valet, Amon Ra, actually an emissary from Ramarkhand, come to reclaim his country’s property?

This is all perfectly fine, as far as it goes. The problem is . . . it doesn’t go far enough. It would be okay for a comedy of manners or any straight novel, where crime, even murder, is merely one in a long string of events. Myrtle Wilson is run over and killed toward the end of The Great Gatsby, and while the identity of her assailant is initially unknown (for about a hot minute), we’re operating in a land where crimes are not elevated to the central problem of a story. If the story is short, it doesn’t really matter what the crime is because you’ve only really got the time to present the problem and solve it. The number of characters and, hence, the number of potential culprits is, of necessity, small in a short story; thus, the quality of the tale usually hinges on one special twist – of identity, motive or method. 

The general sense one has about Golden Age detective stories was that the puzzle was everything, and that certainly seems to be borne out if one reads plenty of crime novels from between 1920 and around 1936. I believe, however, that the idea that people wanted to read something approaching a 60,000 to 75,000 word logic problem is a facile one. We are all looking for emotional stakes, and murder supplies that in spades, far better than a theft, blackmail, or nasty letters. The same might hold true of a kidnapping because, even here, we are dealing with the emotional ramifications to a group of people of the loss – even temporarily – of a human life.  

This idea is borne out when one looks at the enormous popularity of the Crime Queens over the men who wrote mystery fiction. Part of the reason for this is that women writers embraced the psychological effect of murder, while their male counterparts often found ingenious ways to avoid it. This can be easily illustrated by comparing my four favorite authors, Christie, Carr, Brand, and Queen. 

All four of these writers crafted ingenious mysteries, with clever twists and surprise endings. However, both women maintained a fine balance between the puzzle and the people. A Christie or Brand novel tended to begin with the characters in the case, highlighting their relationships and examining in advance the tensions out of which motives might arise. As I detailed in an earlier post, we get to know the likes of Emily Inglethorpe, Linnet Doyle, or Simeon Lee before they are killed.

The same holds true for Brand, who takes great pains to showcase the qualities and feelings that bind a group of people together, making us like them all even as she foreshadows the tragedies to come, as in this early passage from Death of Jezebel

Isabel prattled gaily on, and all unconscious of their doom, the little victims played. The kill had been selected. The killer at hand. The bystanders were gathering at the scene of execution: and Isabel with every careless word knocked yet another nail into the highly complicated structure of double murder . . . “ 

It is only murder that can stir the passions of these folks, not theft, not deadly fits of pique! Brand knew this, setting the stage for death at the start. Christie knew this, inserting little murder mysteries in her espionage thrillers to soothe the wounded nerves of devoted readers at a loss as to where M. Poirot or Miss Marple has disappeared this time. 

By contrast, Ellery Queen had written nearly a score of novels before he decided that feelings matter. (Arguably, it was pressure from the women’s magazines that wished to serialize his books that pushed Mr. Queen in this direction.) From 1929 to 1936, Queen avoided the emotional impact of murder by stressing the horror factor (a woman is killed in a hospital as she prepares for a life-saving operation, a group of men are crucified, a scientist is murdered seemingly by a strange crab-like monster) and/or the puzzle element, beginning with the arrangement of the body (a woman’s corpse is displayed in the window of her own department store, a man is found in a room where his clothes and all the room’s items have been turned backwards). It also helps that nearly every character in the first thirteen novels by Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross is essentially a stick figure upon which is hung various quirks and motives. 

John Dickson Carr believed in atmosphere over standard novelistic techniques, like characterization. He imbued his books with a combination of Grand Guignol spookiness and madcap humor. He lessened the emotional impact of murder by focusing on bizarre mechanics (why shoot a man at point blank range when you can fire a bullet that resembles a knife into the cracks of a locked hut surrounded by mud in the haunted courtyard of an abandoned mansion?), and while, by and large, he did a good job of explaining away the extreme artifice of his murderers’ methods, his work, like Queen’s, forms the epitome of why people accuse classic mysteries of being less of a reading experience and more of a game. For those of us who believe that it’s a very good – nay, an exceptional – game, the lack of emotional realism over somebody’s death seldom matters. 

Well, that’s not quite true. It matters less to me because I balance my mystery reading between the cleverness of the Queens and Carrs with the cleverness combined with emotion of the Christies and Brands. However, no matter the psychological stakes, I still believe that murder will out for a mystery novel to truly satisfy. The other crimes, the secondary matters of theft and such, ably serve the purpose of supplying complications and subplots to the tale. 

It all comes down to Simon, Jackie and Linnet . . .

A great example of this is the matter of Linnet Doyle’s pearls. Death on the Nile is the story of three people, of one marriage preempted so another can take place, and of the resulting issues of vengeance and death that follow. Given the attention paid on this eternal triangle, when Linnet dies, it would follow that either her husband murdered her for her money, or his ex-fiancee/Linnet’s ex-best friend killed her for revenge. Who else stands to benefit from her death? Only her attorney, who has embezzled her funds. And there’s the poorly developed tale of a terrorist whose secret message Linnet intercepted. And then there’s the guy whose presence in the novel I always forget – I think he works on the boat and might date the maid? – who hated her for some reason I forget. The rest of that lengthy list of passengers is, as reality itself would have it, a conglomeration of personalities who are basically innocent and removed from  the main action – and this doesn’t suit a writer of Christie’s stature at all! 

That’s where the pearls come in, forming the strongest subplot of the story. This is a necklace of rare value, coveted by friends and strangers alike. When they disappear, they supply a motive for a whole slew of personalities, providing several layers of mystery and a satisfying array of red herrings for Hercule Poirot to muck about in. The pearls are great – but I say this with a huge caveat: had Linnet actually been killed for her pearls, the whole book would have been relegated to a nice B-rated Christie. And – horror of horrors – if the theft of the pearls had been the only crime, then this tale would have merited ten or twelve pages at the most. 

To say that only murder can generate the chaos to normalcy and the emotional devastation to a closed circle required to sustain our interest through a novel-length mystery is to embrace a long- and widely-held belief that I think is elevated when we examine how the mystery novel has changed over time. The emphasis shifted long ago from the puzzle to the people. Modern crime novels stress the word “novel” – the crime leads us into an examination of the characters involved, and the carefully laid plot laced with clues has given way to something looser that satisfies different people in a different way. When one comes upon a modern author renowned for a focus on the puzzle – let’s use Paul Halter as an example – one doesn’t feel he is writing “modern” mystery novels so much as hearkening back to a classic mode of storytelling. 

And yet, whether we’re looking at Halter or (Reg) Hill, at Philip McDonald or Val McDermid, the work still revolves around murder. The key to why this is so may have something to do with the burden placed on the genre by society. In a 2009 interview with NPR, P.D. James described this:

The theory is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety and depression, and we’re in a very depressed state at the moment . . .(The crime) is not solved by good luck or divine intervention. It’s solved by a human being. By human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance. In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.

A crime that stands in for the evils of the world, whose solving can ease, to some extent, the social anxiety of its readers, has to be worthy of that mantle. It has to be a big crime, with huge consequences to its community – a crime that throws the world within the novel into upheaval. I suppose a figure like Robin Hood did something like that to his world, but Robin Hood’s identity was known to the reader, and his motivations were always noble. In fact, to “solve” the case of Robin Hood by ending his career would have meant that evil had vanquished good. Or, let’s say that Robin Hood was evil, that he stole many things from fine rich people in order to replenish his personal coffers. I maintain that, in order for this story of Robin Hood to make a worthwhile mystery, he must 1) kill people, too, and 2) be the secret identity of a supposedly innocent member of the community of the novel. 

The second point is obvious: we want an unmasking at the end of a mystery or it becomes a novel of adventure only. The first point has to do with the raising of stakes within both the novel and the reader’s stake in it. If people merely lose their possessions, what are the emotional stakes? At worst, a reduction to poverty? A state of anxiety provoked by someone breaking into their home? How much sympathy will these “victims” garner from a reader who has no pearls to dangle in his fist as he reads? 

What motives for these crimes are we to consider? Greed, yes . . . anything else? Insanity? The “pride of the super-criminal?” The options are limited. But with murder, the options are limitless. Why rob and kill? Why attack these people? Is it just for the property, or have these people earned the position of a target? All the potential complexities! I feel like we have graduated from an ABC one-off to a Netflix series . . . 

Finally, JJ’s commenter hearkened back to the olden days, of children’s books that offered mysteries galore and yet eschewed murder. By all means, let’s celebrate the work that we enjoyed in our youth that, best of all, provided a gateway to the more adult adventures of GAD and modern crime authors. However, the era of imagining that children must be protected from sudden death is long gone, as folks as diverse as R. L. Stine and J. K. Rowling proved over their careers.  Modern children’s and YA authors like Robin Stevens, Maureen Johnson and Karen M. McManus trade in death committed in front of children, challenging tots and teens to solve these murders. I’ll be coming out shortly with a review of the third in the marvelous Adventures in Trains series. This journey finds 12-year-old Hal Beck traveling through southern Africa with his Uncle Nat when a murder – an impossible crime, no less – occurs on the luxurious steam train. One aspect I find interesting about this third outing is how the emotional stakes have risen above those Hal experienced in his previous cases (a theft and a kidnapping, respectively). Judging by the short preview of the fourth title in the series found at the back of the book, authors M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman have been preparing their very young sleuth for just such an occasion – the solving of the ultimate crime. 

I guess it’s as true for every sleuth, young or old, as it is for a mystery reader: when you’ve tasted murder, there’s no going back. 

13 thoughts on “DONE IN? DONE GOOD: Why It Has to Be Murder

  1. I concur with the emotional stakes explanation and add one more— a murder has an advantage in that it removes one potentially significant (and indeed potentially MOST significant) viewpoint— that of the victim. So often in a whodunit, we are of the belief (or at least suspicion) that if only the dead person could tell their tale, so much would be clear to us. So, the elimination of their testimony through murder provides an important obfuscating element.

    It’s not the core “advantage” of murder, but it is one more benefit, I believe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you, Scott – I think it’s key that the loss suffered in a murder mystery is organic, intelligent and in a dynamic relationship with a group of people who are significant to the story. Ultimately, that relationship will be clarified over and over again, exposing some secrets, some reversals . . . and a murderer or two. Something that has struck me lately as so weird about Murder on the Orient Express is that, at least initially, only two characters have a relationship with the victim. This leaves us with a hole that we don’t find in your typical country house mystery. Thus, the thing that pulls us along at the start is the murder itself – its violence, its plethora of clues, the whole, in fact, of part one of the book. We barely meet the suspects until the true identity of the victim is revealed and the past crime is added to that narrative pull that (just barely) gets us through the lengthy first round of interviews. It’s a challenge for Christie, one that would have never worked if the book revolved around any other type of crime.


    • a murder has an advantage in that it removes one potentially significant (and indeed potentially MOST significant) viewpoint— that of the victim.

      Good point.

      In the 1920s and 30s the crime had to be murder because they hanged you for murder (or in the US they fried you or whatever). That means the detective has to get it right. If his solution is wrong an innocent man gets hanged. That makes the detective’s work matter a great deal. The detective holds the power of life and death.

      And it means that if you’re one of the suspects and you’re innocent you’d better hope and pray the detective doesn’t decide that you’re the murderer.

      The crime has to be a capital crime.


  2. Of COURSE it has to be murder, darling… can’t be anything else. The more, the merrier. I love both the who dunnit and the how dunnit. Love mysteries, procedurals, sometimes luck enough to find both in one.

    Great piece Brad. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Re procedurals . . . There was a period way back when that I really got into Ed McBain. Each book covered a wide swath of cases, from murder to petty pilfering, and it seems to me that every crime was fun. At the same time, it was the procedural aspect of each book and finding out what was up with each of the regular cops that was the real pleasure, more than the cases themselves. I don’t remember any puzzle aspect to the cases, either. As I said, it’s been a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent analysis. I think it is interesting that murder has become such the norm in the mystery genre, that it seems like a challenge for the writer to construct a plot where a murder doesn’t happen. I have not yet read it but I have heard that Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise is an example alongside Sayers’ Gaudy Night . At this point, the writer who is able to construct a mystery plot without a murder, or one that delays the murder as much as possible, is one who is eschewing the conventions of the genre and trying something new.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only read one Tey (Miss Pam Disposes), which I loved but which divides people. The focus is less on the murder and more on the impact it has on the main character herself. After reading your comment, I found Curt Evans’ review, and it made me want to read it even more!


  4. “The pearls are great – but I say this with a huge caveat: had Linnet actually been killed for her pearls, the whole book would have been relegated to a nice B-rated Christie.”

    Cf. The Mystery of the Blue Train, in which another heiress at the center of a web of romantic intrigue is killed… but it *was* for her jewels all along. And it is indeed a B-rated Christie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Blue Train mystery had such potential, but it was in the end, blase. There were not enough clues in the antecedent really to solidify the connection between the perp and the crime; Katherine’s “intuition” re: Ruth’s ghost was a cheap device; the romance was silly. It was obvious that one of the suspects didn’t do it, so it was a rather left-field denouement. I agree that killing Ruth for her jewels was a waste of a good murder. Given the perpetrator’s past and skills, the rubies could have been purloined without violence.

      DOTN on the other hand, presented a very solid story based on greed, betrayal and an ingenious plot that went wrong very quickly, probably because it’s a dumb idea to kill someone on a cruise ship — too many witnesses.

      Liked by 1 person

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