Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Let Me Count The Ways...

by Libby Hellmann

When I began writing crime fiction, I remember lots of chatter about the perfect murder weapon. The undetected murder. The exotic substance that couldn’t be identified. I heard about poisons like
oleander, foxglove, arsenic, and -- moving up the hazardous bio-chemical chain -- cyanide, sarin, and anthrax.
Indeed, I flirted with ricin in one of my novels. I remember hearing the old saw about the perfect murder weapon being a sharp icicle and thinking it was pretty clever.

However, the more I write, the more the manner of death has become a distraction. I don’t really care how someone is killed. The fact that they're alive one moment and aren't the next is enough. The fact that a killer used what he or she thought was an undetectable poison (which, btw, given enough time and the right equipment toxicologists say is mostly a myth) is less compelling than the killer’s character and motivation: the passion or fear or hatred or greed that drove him or her to commit murder.

In fact, all the falderal about intricate death scenarios boils down to this: (NB: The first 15 seconds are all you need to watch)

There’s something else, too. Murder is a heinous act. It’s perhaps the most profane act one human can perform on another. Because I don’t treat it lightly, I’m finding it more difficult to appreciate humorous crime fiction these days. I’m not talking about black humor – that’s something I think we all embrace when trying to deal with the unacceptable. What I’m talking about are the bouncy, breezy stories that show an otherwise normal person solving crimes on their lunch hour or summer vacation.

I’m sure they’re done with the best intentions – to emphasize the counterpoint between the gravity of murder and the joy of life. Indeed, I’ve written some myself. My amateur sleuth, Ellie Foreman, has a dry sense of humor and isn’t afraid to be foolish. Still, I find I’m less willing to trot her out these days. Maybe it’s because I’m getting to an age where life seems more precious every day. Maybe it’s because friends are being struck down long before their time. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t feel right to deal with a death which could have been avoided and then giggle about it. That’s probably why Georgia Davis appeared.

But enough from my end. What do you think? Does the manner of death make a difference in crime fiction? What about humor? How far can you take it? Am I just being cranky?


Jude Hardin said...

I think the manner of death does matter to an extent. Sure, dead is dead, but some murders just seem more brutal and horrible than others.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I really prefer off camera death. And making it breezy feels wrong. Maybe it worked in 1955 when the world was a different place, but now the two seem at odds with each other. Save the humor for the chick lit or essayists.

Dusty said...

In fiction, the murder weapon needs to suit the murderer. I'm a little old lady, so I wouldn't try to cosh a ninja--I'd feed him that elderberry wine. And sometimes the trick is that the murder is supposed to look like an accident or suicide, so that makes the method important. As for the tone of the tome, it just depends on what you're trying to do. Christie and Doyle always fooled me. Other detectives, I'm always way ahead of them, but I enjoy the ride because of the characters or the style of the writing.

And if the "victim" is sufficiently vile, then, the real tragedy is that some other human now has the stain of murder on his heart and the prospect of prison hanging over him.

Yes, real death is, generally, a bad thing. I keep thinking of soldiers. But there are also lots of children being murdered now, and that's an indication of the species spiraling down.

The author has a different view of the book than the reader because of the difference in time (a year for you, a few hours for me) and the depth of involvement.

The end of it is just like your writing prof told you: Write what only you can write. I will add: And be at peace with that.

Dana King said...

Totally agree, Libby. I cannot abide a cozy anymore. What I write is often funny, but the killings never are, except in the context of the characters' comments--which should always be appropriate to the character. Every Man should not have a witty comment after killing his first man in a life or death situation, though a cop may, if he's that kind of character. Humor can also be used before the killing, to make the death that much more abrupt by its contrast to what came before. Too often death seems inevitable in crime fiction, as authors forget that right up until he's dead, that guy had plans for tomorrow.

Maryann Mercer said...

The manner of death does make a difference. Often it sets the tone for the entire story. All murder is outrageous but a stabbing seems more personal than a sniper's bullet somehow. I find as I get older that I don't need all the gory details. My imagination works quite well thanks to reading and the media. I deplore 'convenient' deaths--ones where you get the feeling the author is just racheting up the body count, but even in cozies, there has to be a motive that makes sense. Agatha Christie wrote the best 'cozies', nothing trivial about human nature no matter what the time period. I think that's important as well; the psychological reason for the crime.
I also believe that humor is important, but in the sense that the characters are human. Giggling over the corpse? No. And in my opinion, Ellie and Georgia both deal with death in their own ways, neither of which is either trivial or foolish. It's the human factor, the imperfect way we all have to cope with things we don't quite understand but can't avoid.
Good thoughts, Libby.

Anonymous said...

I think as readers (as I am) and as writers we can be cavalier about death in general. It's not real in books in which we immerse ourselves. But I think if one truly experiences causing the death of someone (or something) there is a realization of the horror of what has been taken away. It's not the same but last week I desperately tried to avoid hitting a cat with my car but it jigged when I swerved and I hit it. Awful, horrific. And it doesn't go away. I can't imagine the degree it would be if a human were involved. It won't stop me from reading and enjoying crime fiction but perhaps this incident for me has lent a better understanding of the *crime* that is murder. And I think the better writers of crime fiction convey that.