How Many Murders Before the Mystery is too Grim?

In January (I think) I sent a penultimate draft to an editor for a developmental edit. I was happy about the plot mechanics but a bit worried about the pace. He wrote back, “Jesus, you killed an ___ ______.”

I was so struck by the words, I included them in the final draft. He also complained about how many murders were in the book. He reasoned that if I was trying to capture the feel of the older detective books, then 2-3 murders would be ideal. He said more about the murders that I’ll get to in a sec, but let’s go over these estimates first.

Why 2-3 murders?

  1. Got writer’s block? Don’t know where the plot is headed? Why not kill somebody else? Because your work begins to resemble a sophisticated Friday the 13th. The murders become meaningless to the plot. Every murder should be done for a logical reason.
  2. It’s called detective fiction. The readers want to follow a case and solve it before your super sleuth does. They don’t want to experience the ‘thrill’ of finding corpses.
  3. Because things start to get grim after a while. These things are supposed to be entertaining.

The readers who bury their noses into a book about delicious murder aren’t at all interested in feeling bad about the deaths — or at least not that bad. I was reading Jo Nesbo’s (I’m not googling how to make the diacritic — it’s 6:30 in the goddamn morning!) The Snowman when I began feeling horrible about what I was reading. To be fair, he included dialogue between killer and victim. That scene where the killer chases a woman through the forest gave me the creeps in a bad way. The killer wasn’t murdering to hide a crime or for a specific reason (arguably). In this sense, specificity goes a long way in smoothing acceptance. It goes something like this: Todd accidentally killed your mother therefore Todd must die — great! Todd accidentally killed your mother therefore every Todd in a one-hundred-mile radius must die — shitty!

And what of the murders in my book. There’s one in The Opening Night Murders that becomes especially savage. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it was constructed completely with the plot in mind. To be sure, I tried to make the build up creepy. However, nothing about the… presentation (I can’t be specific) was done for lascivious reasons. It makes narrative sense in the end.

The editor deemed it (and the book overall) too grim. When I read it again, I felt he was correct. After some changes, I sent it back and he was ecstatic. He felt the book’s tone had improved and become more of an engaging mystery.

Here’s the thing though — I kept all the murders, and they all happened the same way. What did I change? I switched some dialogue around. There’s one nasty line of dialogue I put in the mouth of a background character so one of our beloved detectives didn’t have to say it. I also changed the description of the really bloody moment to make it more enigmatic. You don’t find out exactly what happened until the next chapter. I usually hate that in detective novels (I want to see what they see), but it seemed to work here.

In essence, I kept the murders while changing the tone. And yes, I still kill an ___ ______.(Jesus!)

The truth is, I don’t care how many murders are in a mystery. If they fit, they fit. I’d have to check again, but I’m pretty sure Death’s Old Sweet Song outmurders my new novel and it’s fantastic. London Particular has 2 and that’s the exact number the story requires to make sense.

I’m writing a third book. Originally, I had wanted to have one murder, one agonizingly replayed and examined murder. But then…Well, it just started making sense to kill more.

I’ll write that single murder book some other day.

2 thoughts on “How Many Murders Before the Mystery is too Grim?”

  1. Ohhhh, you give me so much to think about here. I absolutely agree about those 2nd/3rd murders that exist just to . . . move things along. My beloved Christie was guilty of this, particularly toward the end of her career, and so was the great JDC. Why do we need TWO blackmailer/victims in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side; the second one barely registers as a character. Why kill the servant boy in Death Comes As the End? Then again, Christie could be brilliant about it, as in A Pocketful of Rye where everything fits perfectly.

    Despite my ever-increasing disdain for gore, I have been known to enjoy a good serial killer mystery. But some modern authors are sadists about the whole thing. I recognize that murderous madness is unpleasant; I prefer that it not make me gag. Again, with Christie: Murder Is Easy, while not a great book, has a great killer/motive. However, most of the victims are completely unknown to us, so the crimes don’t matter, just the solving. In And Then There Were None, the crimes matter because the people matter more.

    Have you ever read Bill Pronzini’s The Running of Beasts? He does something wonderful there – very disturbing but totally bearable.

    Anyway, I feel for you in this contretemps with that editor; I only hope I have to deal with the same thing one of these days. I am gearing up for violence in your second book because you had some heavy-duty stuff going on in Goodnight, Irene! It’s why I appreciated your sense of humor there!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read any Pronzini. TomKat over at moonlight detective speaks very highly of him. I’ve read a lot less than most bloggers and fans. I have a lot of catching up to do.

    The unpleasant aspect becomes especially apparent when you read the first draft all the way through. You can have the best intentions going in (creating suspense, executing the mystery), but then you read it all and think, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

    The correct tone definitely helps the poison go down.


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