I’ve come, over the past week or so, to realise that the best murder mysteries are, ultimately, about serial killers.
Not, necessarily, the Gory Cornwall or Hannibal-The-Cannibal type of serial killers; even the better Agatha Christies, for example, seem to work even better when the Nemesis has a couple of victims.
The classic Murder mystery pits a sleuth against a murderer. There’s a first murder - a hook; something to attract the attention of both the sleuth and the reader. Normality has been upset; the natural order has been broken, and must be restored. And if there’s one murder, and the detective can investigate and, eventually, unmask the killer, then it can be a good story.
But what makes it a Great story is when the stakes are upped. Anyone can kill - people do it all the time, not out of some insane genius mentality, but because they’re too stupid not to; they get angry, or greedy, they forget how complicated it is, not just to effectively murder another human being, but to get away with it. And so, very often, they are, in rather short order, caught and locked up.
But, in a story - as in real life - if they get away with the first murder, and then proceed to commit a second murder, they move up from being merely a murderous idiot, to a murderous idiot who has learned what Miss Fullerton, in Christie’s novel of the same name, states: “Murder is easy.”
The stakes are increased; the challenge upped. We are no longer walking alongside a detective as he (or she) seeks an idiot who committed a murder; we’re seeking a maniac who has killed, killed again, and, if not stopped, could, in theory go on killing. There’s more than the restoration of the natural order at stake now; there’s the risk of the total - and permanent - collapse of the natural order.
So yes, all good murder mysteries are, ultimately, about the hunt for a serial killer.
This weekend, I remembered what it feels like to spend two hours plotting a mystery novel, read back what you’ve done, and grin the Cheshire cat grin that only comes with knowing that it’s really getting there.
I now have a killer, a first victim (well, first one we find out about), as well as two victims prior to the opening of the book, a final (third) victim, and a second victim - a character who didn’t even exist until about 2 o clock on Friday and has, since then, been born, fleshed out, fitted into an entire world of my making, and neatly (well,
almost neatly: there are one or two minor points to iron out) killed off.
I love murdering innocent old ladies and obsessive gay fans of disco divas.
My secondary romance plot is coming along nicely as well; the only thing that seems to have dropped off somewhat is the involvement of the sleuth’s sidekick, who is supposed to have a big part, but seems less that entirely necessary. Hmmmm.
Also of concern is the fact that I still want to write first person, but so much of this could benefit from third - but then it wouldn’t be so much fun, either for the reader, who gets to play the game along with the tec, or for me, who has to figure out how to slowly expose the plot to the eyes of just one character.
But it’s coming along; and more importantly, it’s all coming back to me with the wonderful feeling of familiarity, fear and excitement; like sex with a new lover, proving that, whilst it may not be entirely easy, murder is Fun.