Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today with her thoughts on the difficult task of profiling a cozy murderer.
Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. PureBred Dead, the first in a new series, will be out in the spring of 2015.
I have started the second book in the Mary McGill and Millie mystery series and, as usual, am enjoying meeting my old friends and having fun getting acquainted with new ones. Well, they’re not all going to turn out to be friends, but they certainly are interesting.
All stories have two main characters and a few, sometimes a bunch, of “story friends”. The main characters are the protagonist (the good guy) and the antagonist (the bad guy). In fiction other than crime fiction, the bad guy doesn’t have to be a murderer. Or even a thief. The only requirement is he (or she) and the good guy cross swords. Figuratively, not literally, of course.
However, if you are writing a murder mystery someone has to get killed and someone has to do that killing. That’s a lot of responsibility for an author, making someone into a murderer.
If you are writing thrillers, your bad guy can be as evil as you want. Hannibal Lector comes to mind. He (or she) can be deranged, a serial killer, a drug dealer with no conscience…you get the picture. That is not true in a cozy or traditional mystery. The profile of the murderer is much more restrictive. The murderer in these stories is always someone who is part of the fabric of the victim’s life and often that of the protagonist’s. There will be more than one person who has a motive to kill, or at the very least dislikes the victim and the protagonist has to sort through all this to find the true killer. But, how do you identify someone who has killed, and may again? How do you define their personality on paper and make it real?
There really aren’t many things that would drive an ordinary person to murder, that most extreme of all human crimes. The more I think about it, and the more murderers I create, the more I come back to something I was taught in my early years of religious training and which had stuck with me all these years. The 7 deadly sins. When I was a child I thought of them in the same way I thought about measles. Something you might catch if not careful and as there was no vaccine, the way to avoid getting one was to be very very good. I was an adult before I realized they weren’t catching, but they could lead to murder.
Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The “breaking news” stories on TV and in the newspaper seems to reflect their persistent ominous presence.
So it seems, if I am to build the persona of a person who can kill, I need to incorporate one of these deadly sins. I decided to throw out gluttony and sloth. I’ve never heard of someone killing because he didn’t get the last ham sandwich, although I suppose it could happen, and sloth by its very nature suggests someone too indolent to get up the necessary emotion to attack someone, let alone kill them. That still leaves us with five.
Lust speaks for itself, so does greed, and they can overlap. You can lust after money or power, you can also be greedy for them, so much so that anything that stands in your way must go. Such a person might murder, but his personality is usually pretty aggressive and might be a little hard to hide in a cozy mystery. Wrath has often given way to murder, but usually in a tragic and often public way. No, this will not be in my murderer’s profile. Envy? That’s a possibility. But it seems to me that the deadliest of all is pride.
Pride goeth before a fall. Don’t know who said that besides my mother, but it was probably the bible or Shakespeare. Think of the possibilities. A pillar of the community with something in his past that, if reveled, would destroy his reputation. A person who’s perception of family and family values means everything in public. In private… A public official who campaigned on cleaning up local government but is quietly taking bribes. In each case, someone hiding a secret that could lead to murder. They aren’t the only examples of excessive pride. I can think of a lot of others and I’m sure you can as well.
So maybe I’ve found the profile of my next murderer. All I have to do now is figure out who that person is, what they’re hiding, and who they murdered.