<<<Announcement – Before you start this blog, I have some exciting information! This week was not only release week for EXERCISE IS MURDER from FiveStar/Gale Cengage, written as Janis Patterson, it was also the week that Carina Press released its ‘Best of 2012 Staff Picks’ list. There are twelve books on this list, each chosen by a Carina staff member. Of those twelve books, TWO of them are mine – THE HOLLOW HOUSE, written as Janis Patterson, and TIMELESS INNOCENTS, written as Janis Susan May. I am honored and very humbled at such recognition, and thank the Carina staff most profoundly.>>>
There is a continuing debate in mystery circles about when the body should appear. One camp says that the body should be there no later than the first chapter, and preferably in the first five pages. The other camp, the one in which I am firmly ensconced, is that the body should appear when it is rational and appropriate to the story for the body to appear.
As an exercise, I began a mystery where the body appeared at the top of page two. The book actually turned out rather well, becoming BEADED TO DEATH, my October 2012 release from Carina Press. The poor victim didn’t fare as well, though. He didn’t even get a name until about halfway through the story, and no one at all seemed to care that he was dead. Although I enjoyed writing the book – which turned out to be strangely lighthearted – the dead man was really very little more than a plot device. A prop.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think a dead body – even a fictional one – deserves more respect than that.
In this week’s release – This Week! Squeee! – EXERCISE IS MURDER, I introduce a range of characters and there isn’t a death in sight until some sixty-odd pages into the manuscript. Of course, if you’ve read the cover blurb or a review, you’ll be able to pick out the victim from the get-go, but by the time of the death you’ll know this body as a person, not just as a device. Hopefully you will feel shock and surprise and outrage, as we all should at all murders. This is a person whom you knew, not just a stage prop lying around to further the plot.
As readers we want to know the people in books; we want them to become ‘real’ to us. There’s nothing more annoying than cardboard characters, even if they are dead when the book opens – or within a few pages thereafter.
I know that for a story to be feasible, it isn’t always possible to have a leisurely ‘get-acquainted’ time. To be strictly fair, though, neither is it always in the best interest of the story to have the body appear so late in the story that the murder seems an afterthought thrown in just to have the book qualified as mystery.
I guess the point of this rant is that the story must be paramount. Very little makes me angrier than pundits who pronounce ‘The body MUST show up no later than page … whatever.’ In storytelling there are no rules except what makes the story work – other than basic grammar and spelling. The finished product must be in a format that is comprehensible to the readers, after all.
Sometimes the victim character becomes known after he is dead. The writer peels back layers to expose the victim for what he was, good or bad. This works if done well, but then almost anything works if it is done well. That’s the hard part.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that we should care. Even if it is only in ink or pixels a murder is a horrid, violent crime. It is the untimely cessation of life and should be treated seriously, however lighthearted or farcical the rest of the book. To do less, to treat the victim as nothing more than a convenient prop or a plot device, is to desensitize ourselves and our readers to the enormity of a crime. No sane human being, writer or not, wants murder to be relegated to the status of a petty misdemeanor.
Neither do we writers want to be given rules about when the body should appear. It should appear when it is right for the story – not before, and not after. To do less is to deny the victim his right to personhood.
The character is dead; the least we can do is make them live.
Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in
Texas with an assortment of rescued