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?