The Mystery Genre and Death

A writer’s group I’m in recently had a discussion around the need for a body when writing mysteries, and writing like this in a time of violence. The question came up right after the shootings in Orlando. Following is my response, which I decided to share here.

Mysteries, to me, used to always be about the puzzle and trying to figure it out before the end. But as I read more, and got older, I realized I wanted to see lasting impact. I wanted the death, or loss, to matter more than just being the opening gambit. I know as I write, I try to make each ‘body’ have a connection to the protagonist that doesn’t end when the story does. I think that’s one good thing about mysteries typically being a series. You can show the impact, the changes in the person’s life, how they continue on. And that connection to the ‘body’ is part of the mystery genre.

I was an EMT for years and the part that made the job incredibly difficult was never seeing the end of the story. Did they put their lives back together? Did they continue on? Did they find some happiness? You’re deeply, intimately, involved in a person’s life at their most vulnerable point, and then it’s over with no ending. Once in a while you get a thank you note. Or, in one case I can think of, you stumble across a memorial at a specific site and know the family is still there and still grieving.

So in writing, I wanted to find the ending. I wanted my characters to be able to continue on, and yet be changed by what happened. I want the loss to stay with them because we never truly end our grieving, and yet to be able to find happiness and to function. I want the loss to mean something.

Because of all that, I’ve never liked mysteries where the body is a complete stranger that the protagonist happens to stumble across. I want connection, grief, loss, and survival.

The problem, of course, is the loss in mysteries is usually the result of murder, which people typically rarely encounter, and which implies violence. The violence is the part I have trouble with. I dislike the criminal investigative type genre that show murder in violent detail and gore. I don’t want to see that, which is why I don’t write procedural style stories. I don’t want to let that level of violence, or evil if you will, into my brain. And most of the time the procedural, and some suspense genres, have the murder committed by a random stranger, a serial killer, etc. which I also personally don’t like. I want the loss to be more important than the detail and gore. I want the ending to be more than just catching the murderer.

Of course these are generalizations. There are authors in the suspense genre that do a remarkable job of writing within the constraints of their genre and  yet making the murder, death, or loss mean something to the protagonist. Those authors I read.

For you readers and writers out there, what are your thoughts on death and/or violence in fiction?

4 thoughts on “The Mystery Genre and Death

  1. I guess I dont mind it either way since I also watch tv shows like that. Doesn’t mean I like the violence and gore, but I think it is a part of it that is there in real life. Just as a birth, something happy, isn’t all fun and cute, but painful and bloody…
    But then in a story, where the story is more important than the death, I dont need the whole CSI procedure if it doesn’t do anything to the story. It needs to be important to the protagonist, good or bad…
    And yes, I am all for wanting to know what happens after, I love epilogs to see how they went on, and to spin that happy ending on and on in my dreams…


    • Your comment made me think of procedural TV shows like NCIS. If it was simply the procedure, the show would become very boring after a few episodes. What adds depth is the character interaction, personal demons, and life. It’s the same with the books and why I don’t care for procedurals in books. I want to read about the personal impact. Not just the facts.


  2. I have too much (I don’t know a better word for this) comfort with guns on the page as part of a story. This feels like a problem to me when gun violence is in the news. I’m anti-gun because they create so much more violence than they protect against, yet I love westerns and wrote a ’20’s era story where a woman is more than comfortable shooting a guy in the thigh not just because he’s working with worse bad guys, but because she could.

    Am I feeding the monster when I write this sort of thing? Don’t people know that guns in stories are plot devices, like creating earthquakes or Godzilla to topple cities? Don’t they know that stories are springboards for thought, not blueprints for living? Would I be a better member of society if I only wrote for the people who can’t tell the difference? How can the answer be yes in a society that values art? I ask myself these kinds of questions more and more lately.

    I don’t write murder/mysteries, but when I read them, I prefer the kind you do. If their murder is central to the story, I want history — good, bad or ugly — and to know what their death means to the people who were in their lives. There’s so much to say/discuss on the subject of violence.


    • Wow, so many excellent questions raised here. These are dilemmas that face all writers, I believe. I especially love your point about stories being springboards for thought and not blueprints for living. Well said. I also like the question you raise about guns as plot devices. I don’t think they should ever be the ‘easy way out’ for a writer, but if utilized, part of the whole, so to speak. They should never be picked up lightly and without meaning to the story or to the character. I try to keep focus off the ‘tool’ used and rather focus on the loss, the impact, the emotional repercussions. Great comment and thoughts here.


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