A Motive for Murder

Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to discuss the the importance of motive in murder mysteries.

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 and was a finalist for best canine book of the year in the Dog Writers of America annual writing contest.


According to my dictionary, the definition of motive is “a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious.”  The sample sentence used is  ‘he had a motive to murder.”

Hummm. Makes you think, or at least it made me think. I write mysteries, and by the very nature of what they are, someone gets murdered. I also read mysteries but sometimes the motive seems a little thin.  I’ve been told that the police, the real police, not the ones we make up, don’t rely on motive but on facts. Whose fingerprints were on the gun, who was seen in the neighborhood, etc. But your fingerprints could be on the gun because you were the one who put it away in the drawer and of course you were in the neighborhood, you live there! And…you had no motive.

I don’t wish to cast doubts on the methods of the police. They have spent years working them out and have many ways to evaluate evidence, which is certainly vital to finding out who committed the crime, that are not available to the amateur sleuth, like the ones who populate my books, or to me. But it seems to me motive is also pretty darned important and shouldn’t be brushed aside. Here is a list of unpleasant fictional deaths that may not have been solved, or at least not as quickly, if motive hadn’t been considered

A man lies dead on the oriental carpet, an empty cup of something beside him. From the looks of his clothes and the vomit on the carpet, it seems he died in agony.

Another town, another state, a man lies dead in the back room of a bakery, his head bashed in by the industrial rolling pin that should be hanging on the rack on the wall.

An old woman is dead, sitting in a chair in a makeshift dressing room of the annual church rummage sale. She is in her nightclothes, complete with fuzzy pink slippers. She is old enough to have died of natural causes, but she didn’t.

The list goes on. I seem to have littered the landscape in my 8 books with corpses. What did any of these people, and the others I have killed off, do that resulted in their murder? What was the motive? Interesting question because therein lies the plot.

There are a lot of ways to kill people, and a lot of reasons for doing it. In real life, the ways tend to be unimaginative and very tragic. The motives are often thin to non-existent. What but uncontrollable anger makes someone shoot another driver? What makes someone beat an old person to death so they can steal their Social Security check? The newspapers are full of these stories, we see them every night on the evening news. But we never hear the stories that led up to these unhappy events. And there is one. There is always a story. The age old motives still apply. Greed, jealousy, fear that another kind of transgression will be exposed, coveting another’s wife (or husband), revenge. They still drive people to murder, and it is these stories the mystery writer tries to tell.

Why would someone poison another person with a sweet sticky drink and leave them to die in agony on the living room carpet? Or run a barbeque skewer through a harmless pet store owner? Or hit an old, retired doctor over the head with the arm of a grave marker angel? What happened before the horrible event? What set of tragic events occurred that led to the inevitable end? The job of the mystery author is to tell that story. But to tell it in such a way that we eventually understand what happened, what series of events led to murder, and to tell them in a logical sequence of events so that you, the reader, finally understand what happened. The story may start years before the actual murder is committed, or it may have started a week ago, but it doesn’t matter. What does, is the motive. A mystery story is a puzzle. Bit by bit it unravels before you until you are finally at the center of the puzzle. You have found the motive. And, you have found the murderer.

An Excerpt from Curtains for Miss Plym by Kathleen Delaney

The scene is in a closed pet shop where Mary has managed to get herself and Millie locked in with the murderer.

Mary threw herself across the aisle to where Millie lay, trying to get between her and Caleb, the water dish somehow still in her hand. Without conscious thought, she raised it and brought it down on Caleb’s outstretched hands, smashing them hard against the display stand. Caleb screamed again, but his hands no longer reached for either of them. Instead, he stared at his bashed fingers.

So did Mary, but just for a moment. Millie was whining and hadn’t moved out from under the wreckage of the food bowl stand. Mary gasped and pushed at Caleb to get to her.

“No, you don’t. He grabbed her with one hand, the other hanging limp by his side, blood dripping from his fingers. “Hit me, will you. You’re a dead woman now. I don’t need you. I’ll go back and tear your house apart until I find the money, and by the time anyone finds you, I’ll be long gone. You and that rotten little dog.” He grabbed Mary by the front of her shirt and swung her around so she was facing the dragon tank. “Lucky you it’s empty.” He thrust her, her head pointed right at the glass side of the tank, and her feet came off the floor. She tried to kick but couldn’t get any traction and then she was on the floor in a crumpled heap. Caleb once more gave a terrified howl. Mary heard a dog growing and snarling, a dog that couldn’t possibly be Millie, but was.

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