Behold the Corpse

Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to talk about why we need to know as much as possible about that dead body.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017.

I write murder mysteries, as by now most of you know. You also know, and expect, that in a murder mystery, sooner or later a corpse will appear. Usually sooner. It’s hard to have a murder mystery without one.

In some mysteries, and especially thrillers, the murdered person doesn’t play a central part of the story. The fact of the murder does, but often the thrust is about solving the crime. Why was this particular person the victim, does this murder fit with any other similar crime, how do the police go about solving the crime, all facts that are important in crime stories and in real life. But often, the corpse is more of a prop than a real person.

The death of just about anyone leaves a rip in the fabric of many lives. Murder makes that rip larger and more damaging. The writers of cozy and traditional mysteries know that, and use that to build their stories. No serial killers who choose their victims seemingly at random, no terrorists who shoot or blow up people to make a political or religious statement, no gang violence or drive by shootings. The corpse in a traditional mystery is killed because he or she knows the killer personally and has done something, seen something, has stumbled across a piece of information that threatens the killer.

Therefore, the protagonist (hero or heroine) needs to know more about the victim. So does the author.

When writing a piece of fiction, one of the first things an author does, is get to know the characters. They might write out a description of them, or invent a family history. Take them back to their childhood, exaine the relationship they had with their parents. Of course, you have to know what characters you want in the story before you can do this. I’m afraid my approach  is a little less well organized.  I often have no idea who the corpse is when I start a book.  I saw the opening of Purebred Dead in my head before I put a word on paper, but had no idea who the man lying in the Christmas manger was. I certainly didn’t know he was the town drunk, a veterinarian stripped of his license, hated by many of the townspeople because of the heart breaking ‘mistakes’ he made. I did know who Miss Plym was, in Curtains for Miss Plym, when Mary and Millie found her dead behind the dressing room curtains because I’d been thinking about her for some time, usually around 3:00 in the morning. But it took a while before I discovered why she’d been murdered.  Which brings me to my point. The reason for murdering someone, at least in a traditional mystery, springs from who the person is. Was. So, the author needs to build the personality of the victim as carefully as he/she does the rest of the cast. Who hated Cliff enough to kill him and put his body in the Christmas manger? A lot of people hated him but most of the pain he caused had taken place some years ago. What had happened recently that retriggered that hate? Or was it a recent hate? Why put his body in the manger? What was he doing with the small puppy? What kind of man had he turned into since the loss of his license? Lonely? Bitter? Vindictive? Our protagonist needs to know these things before he/she can begin to figure out who would have wanted him dead so badly they killed him right before the Christmas Posada was due to arrive. See what I mean? We’re never going to meet Cliff alive but before the story ends, we’ve gotten to know a lot about him, and how he affects other people.

We usually focus on the murderer (the antagonist or villain) and the person trying to solve the puzzle (the protagonist or hero/heroine), and since the story is going to revolve around their conflict, the hero trying to find out ‘who done it’, and the villain trying to make sure he/she doesn’t, that makes sense. But there are three, and depending on how many bodies, four or five people in this conflict and we need to know every one of them. Their relationship to the murderer has to be made clear, at least by the end of the story, and what kind of threat they presented.

So, ladies and gentlemen, behold the corpse. Why? Because lying there, dead on the kitchen floor, shot in the back, a knife in his/her chest,  beacon of poison beside him, he or she and what he was like when he was alive is the beginning of our story.