An interesting post by author and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about catching and keeping readers’ attention. Craig, who is a crime fiction writer, raises the very good question of when in a story the murder (or the first murder if there’s more than one) should happen. On one hand, having a body right away is a very effective “hook” for the reader. We want to know why the victim died and who the killer is. And readers who aren’t “hooked” quickly aren’t likely to finish the novel or try another by the same author. On the other hand, it can be a little more challenging to let readers get to know the victim if the body’s found right away, and the victim’s character is often critical to a novel. Of course, a skilled author can give that character a past and a personal story in the form of dialogue about the victim and clues that the sleuth finds. But it can be a bit challenging. Moreover if the victim’s found right away, there’s an argument that it’s harder to keep up the suspense and tension throughout a novel. That can be done effectively too but it is a challenge for the author. What crime fiction shows us is that a well-written story can keep the reader’s attention whether or not the murder or first murder happens quickly. There are just different challenges to making the story absorbing.
Many crime fiction authors choose to begin their novels with the murder, or at least have it in the first chapter or two. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center, Georgetown Law School professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith gets drawn into a murder investigation when Andrea Feldman, a campaign staffer for Smith’s friend Senator Ken Ewald, is shot one night. Ewald’s son Paul is accused of the murder and with good reason. But the gun used in the killing belongs to Ken Ewald who, as it turns out, also had a motive. The Ewalds ask Smith to look into the matter and try to clear the family name if he can and Smith agrees to at least ask questions. In this novel, we learn about the murder in the very first chapter. Just after that readers get a little background that leads up to the murder and then the story focuses on the investigation. In the end, Smith finds out that Feldman was keeping several secrets and that it wasn’t just the Ewalds who had good reason to want her dead.
Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil also starts with a murder. In this case it’s the shooting death of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius. Göteborg homicide detective Sven Andersson and Inspector Irene Huss are just beginning to look over the crime scene and get to work on the case when they discover that Schyttelius’ parents have also been murdered – shot just a few hours after their son. At first the murders look like the work of a Satanist cult. But it’s not long before there are enough clues to show that that evidence was planted to sidetrack the police. With that explanation discounted, Andersson and his team begin to look into the possibility that someone has a grudge against the family. But that explanation doesn’t seem logical at first. The Schyttelius family was well-enough liked and considered respectable. As the team digs a little deeper though, it turns out that there are all sorts of resentments, past history and so on that could have led to the murder. It’s only after the team finds out the family’s history that they discover the motive for the murder.
Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood begins with a death too. Orla Payne has tried in vain to interest DCI Hannah Scarlett in the twenty-year-old disappearance of Payne’s brother Callum. Her final, pleading call to Scarlett isn’t successful though because she’s drunk at the time of the call and what she says doesn’t make much sense. Shortly after that call though, and in the first chapter of the novel, Payne dies. The possibility that Orla Payne was murdered, combined with Scarlett’s sense of guilt over not pursuing the case of Callum Payne, leads Scarlett to look into both deaths. Then she discovers that Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who is doing research in the residential library where Orla Payne worked, referred the victim to her in the first place. As Scarlett and Kind, each in a different way, look into the death of Orla Payne and the disappearance of her brother, we learn about the Payne family history and how it’s woven into the history of the region and the history of other families in the region. In the end, we find out what happened to Callum Payne and how that relates to that history. We find that it’s also that history that led to Orla Payne’s death.
Of course, not all crime fiction novels begin with a murder. Some very compelling novels actually don’t. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of the murder of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who is shot during a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect in this murder is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, who was once engaged to Linnet’s new husband. But very soon it’s proven that Jacqueline de Bellefort could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Colonel Race, who are on the same cruise, have to look elsewhere for the murderer. What’s interesting about this novel is that Linnet’s murder doesn’t take place until the twelfth of thirty chapters. Christie uses the first third of the novel to develop the characters, set the scene and introduce the motive for the murder. And of course, this being Christie, there are also clues in the first third of the novel.
Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is another example of a book that doesn’t begin with a murder. In that novel, aspiring writer Dane McKell begins to suspect that his father wealthy Ashton McKell is having an affair. One night he follows his father and discovers that the woman his father may be involved with is well-known designer Sheila Grey, who lives in the same apartment building. He decides to confront Grey with what he knows and force an end to his father’s relationship with her. Instead, he finds himself falling in love with Grey and the two begin a relationship. Then one night Sheila Grey is shot. Inspector Richard Queen is called to the scene and he and his son Ellery begin to investigate. The most likely suspect is Ashton McKell but the police can’t find conclusive evidence against him. Then they turn their attention to his wife Lutetia who, it turns out, knew about her husband’s relationship with the victim. When she is cleared of suspicion Dane McKell comes under suspicion. But there is no real proof against him either. Then Queen discovers an important cryptic clue among Sheila Grey’s possessions that points in an entirely different direction. In the end, it’s that clue when interpreted correctly that leads to the killer. In this story, the murder isn’t committed until a third of the way through the story. The first third of this novel is spent developing the characters of the McKell family members and more importantly, that of Sheila Grey. The reader is introduced to the McKell family dynamic and how Sheila Grey fits into that dynamic. It’s an interesting way to build tension.
Anthony Bidulka takes a different approach to balancing the need to “hook” the reader with the benefits of having the murder occur a little later in a novel. In Amuse Bouche, we meet private investigator Russell Quant, a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). Quant gets a new client, successful business entrepreneur Harold Chavell. Chavell is upset and worried because his partner Tom Osborn disappeared right before their wedding, which had been planned for some time. Osborn has taken his airline ticket and gone alone on their planned tour of France but hasn’t contacted Chavell. At first Quant doesn’t know if this is a real missing person case or simply a case of someone who wanted time to think before making a permanent commitment. But Chavell persuades Quant to look into the matter and Quant goes to France. Despite his best efforts, Quant isn’t able to find Osborn. He’s finally called off the case when he gets a message from Osborn telling him to leave it all alone and to tell Chavell to stop looking for him. Not long after Quant’s return to Saskatoon, Tom Osborn’s body is found in a lake not far from the city. Now the missing person’s investigation has turned into a murder investigation and Quant’s client is the main suspect. So Quant continues to ask questions and investigate to try to clear Chavell’s name – if he’s really innocent. In this case the body isn’t discovered until over halfway through the novel. Bidulka uses the first half of the novel to introduce the characters, set up the possible motives for Tom Osborn’s disappearance and give the reader background on both Chavell and Osborn. The interest and suspense in the first half isn’t so much from the fact of the murder as it is the search for a missing person, the interaction of the characters and following along as a PI does his work.
And that’s the key to an absorbing crime fiction novel. There has to be something from the beginning to keep the reader turning pages. It doesn’t have to be the murder (or the first murder) but it does have to get the reader to want more. What’s your view on this question? Do you lose interest quickly in a crime fiction novel if there isn’t a body within the first chapter or two? Or do you also get “hooked” by other things? If you’re a crime fiction writer, where do you plant your murder (or first murder)?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stereophonics’ Hurry Up and Wait.