Thursday, April 26, 2012

When Should the Body Drop?

Nope--not talking about middle-aged spread here. This is about when the reader of a traditional murder mystery expects to come across the first victim.

Since authors are told to begin their novels in media res, literally "in the middle of things," some believe that in a traditional mystery the body should appear in the first chapter. Nothing can be a stronger hook for a reader than that, they argue. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a new book must be in want of a strong hook to keep them reading.

But is it always necessary to kill someone off in chapter one? Many don't think so. I just read a Carolyn Hart mystery where the body doesn't appear until page 81. It didn't feel like it took too long to get there. As she shows us, there are other ways to hook readers than by killing off a character.

In one typical story arc, we meet all the people in the closed community, learn about their mutual anger and distrust. Then the most hated character is found dead about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through and everyone is a potential suspect. Think Murder on the Orient Express. This only works if the reader is fully engaged by the setting and characters as Christie enables us to be.

A twist on this is that a popular character is the one to die, making the act more heinous and finding the culprit more imperative. But either way, we have to come to know the characters before we can feel strongly about the murder.

In another typical story arc, a body is found early on and there is one obvious suspect who, of course, turns out to be innocent and would have been railroaded were it not for the protagonist's tireless investigation. This sort takes less time to get to the murder, and the bulk of the story is unraveling who really dunnit.

There are even some where the dirty deed is accomplished before the story opens. This story line can pick up with the victim's funeral, or even later with someone being (wrongfully) charged with the crime. It's harder for readers to have a strong feeling about the victim with this story arc, so the author needs to make us care more about the innocent person who's behind bars.

If you think about it, you've probably read each of these stories many times. Yet, each time it's different because of new characters, setting, and plot details.

I think I'm like most readers who choose traditional mysteries for their characters and the puzzle. For a first book in a series, I like to learn about the setting and become invested in the main characters. I know I'm reading a mystery, and eventually one of these folks is bound to drop dead. Sometimes figuring out who the victim will be is as much fun as figuring out who dunnit.

What do you think? When do you like to see the body drop?