Monday, June 7, 2010

Murder As Therapy?

By Eve Sandstrom  / Joanna Carl

I collect the books of Patricia Wentworth, a British writer of the 30s, 40s and 50s. In some ways her books are dreadful, but I think they are perfect bedtime reading. Her characters and plots are so predictable that they're as comforting as macaroni and cheese with a chocolate bar on top, and I've read each of her books so often that a single chapter knocks me out for at least eight hours.

I am currently reading one that I remember checking out of the library when I was in high school. My mother and I both read it, and I remember we laughed together at the solution to the crime. The reason? In Patricia Wentworth the reader can absolutely rely on one thing -- the villain will not turn out to be a sympathetic character. And this book had only one unsympathetic character, and that character was the victim. My mom and I were both stumped. (Spoiler: It finally turned out that the victim tried to kill someone else and accidently killed herself. Not very believable, but believability isn't the reason you read Mrs. Wentworth.)

Rereading this book made me think a bit about how victims should be selected.

On panels I often mention the emotional satisfactions of killing people fictionally. For example, I say, everyone who has e-mail has some so-called friend who daily sends us 'special' items -- jokes, political comment, cartoons, or poems.

The sender sees these items as inspirational or amusing.

I can guarantee that those items will not amuse or inspire the person who gets them. They will annoy and anger the recipient.

I continue this panel comment by saying, "In one of my books, I killed that person."

The panel audience never fails to respond with loud and prolonged applause.

Like Patricia Wentworth, I prefer to have both villain and victim be obnoxious -- people for whom the reader will feel no particular grief or sympathy. Does this prove I'm a mean, rotten person? I hope not. I think all it means is that I'm writing mysteries that depend on the puzzle to keep the reader interested and, yes, entertained. If the reader my books attract gets bogged down in the psychological aspects of grief, or of villainy, my mysteries are not going to be fun for them to read. If, for example, the detective's favorite uncle is the victim, he has to have died long ago, long enough ago that the viewpoint character has dealt with her grief and can get down to solving the mystery. I admit, I hate books where someone wonderful is killed and nobody seems to miss them.

Another writer, writing another type of book, may emphasize thought-provoking situations my readers would find too heavy. She may need a truly pitiful victim, maybe a child, to show how heartless the villain is. Or perhaps a cruel drug dealer who needs to be killed to justify her tough detective taking care of the matter. Or a serial killer for a serial killer who kills serial killers (sound familiar?) to handle. You gotta write what you gotta write. Each of us is different, as a reader and as a writer.

But there are still people I'm considering for the role of victim in future books, people my escapist readers would enjoy seeing dead.

How about those people who talk on their cell phones loudly in public places? Oh, sure, this is a minor annoyance. None of us is really going to kill somebody over this. Except in fiction. (The caller is overheard calling the wrong person, see? So the bad guy has to shut him up before he can reveal what he asked. Bingo! Down the elevator shaft.)

How about those guys with the loud cars who roar up and down the collector street near us in the middle of the night? No, annoying as they are, I don't intend to dig a ditch out there and flip their roaring cars over. Not in real life. But I could do it in a book.

How about snotty writers who tell others how to pick their victims. They probably deserve to face the fictional blunt instrument, too.

How about a writer who's getting a lot of hype for a first book, and thinks she/he deserves it because of its literary excellence. Almost always the book lacks literary excellence and the writer has been singled out for some other reason. I remember one who was the publisher's darling because of his unusual research technique. He's no longer publishing at all, but that first book had a heck of an ad budget, and he preened his feathers at every convention that year. When we meet these people we have to smile graciously, but it's sure fun to kill'em when we get back to the computer.

( I don't think this is simply jealousy on my part. I don't begrudge success for fellow writers most of the time. It's something about the way these particular writers handle it. Does anyone remember the New Yorker cartoon of the writer telling his girlfriend, "The worst part of my never making it big is, I could handle it." That's me.)

Anyway, when I disguise these people and shoot'em dead, it doesn't hurt them at all. And it makes me feel deeply satisfied.
JoAnna Carl is a pseudonym for Eve K. Sandstrom, who early in the present century was president of Sisters in Crime. She writes the Chocoholic books, which feature as a detective a young woman who is business manager for a chocolate shop in an exclusive Lake Michigan resort. The ninth book will be The Chocolate Pirate Plot, due out next October. In this one the victim was not selected according to the suggestions in the preceding blog, but it you want to live, she suggests that you don't tick her off.  Check out her web site here.


Roberta Isleib said...

Love your explanation of choosing murderers Joanna! and you seem like such a sweet lady in person...I'm just hoping one of my books doesn't end up as bedtime reading on your table:)

Sheila Connolly said...

(Hello, cousin!) I thought the conventional wisdom was that in a cozy, the victim should be at least moderately sympathetic because it's important that the protagonist care enough to get involved in the investigation. It feels good to bump off someone you hate (been there, done that), but why would our heroine care then?

I've managed to confuse myself in my WIP because I thought the victim was insignificant (heck, the guy has only a placeholder name), and then in the end he surprised me. And I thought I knew who killed him. Nope, wrong again. At least the candidates for killer are obnoxious.

If I'm confused, what will readers think?

Bonnie J. Cardone said...

"I've got a little list, I've got a little list and they'd none of them be missed, they'd none of them be missed!" Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner in The Mikado.

Very relevant and funny, Eve, you've just updated Gilbert & Sullivan!