Must a mystery have a murder? by John Lindermuth

Modern readers have come to expect one or more dead bodies in crime stories. But, with the increasing violence encountered in ‘real life,’ many are becoming offended with the amount of gore in fiction, which may partly account for the growing popularity of those novels termed ‘cozy’. In these books murder exists, though it’s mentioned after-the-fact and never seen in its most brutal aspects.

Still, the questions remains–must a mystery have a murder?

What’s most important for many readers in a crime novel is a puzzle. Why a crime was committed and who did it? And, if they can answer those questions before the author reveals them, more the joy. This is most evident in ‘classic’ crime tales which often didn’t focus on murder as the highlight of the menu.

Murder is absent from several of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes tales. Wilkie Collins didn’t need a murder to intrigue us with The Woman in White. And there’s no murder in Dorothy Saylor’s Gaudy Night.

Yet, as P. D. James tells us (Talking About Detective Fiction), “Readers are likely to remain more interested in which of Aunt Ellie’s heirs laced her nightly cocoa with arsenic than in who stole her diamond necklace while she was safely holidaying in Bournemouth.” Truth is, as abhorrent we may find it in reality, murder fascinates the human species and always has.

There are several murders in my latest novel, The Bartered Body, but they come late in the story and are not its main focus. Here’s a blurb:

Why would thieves steal the body of a dead woman?

That’s the most challenging question yet to be faced by Sylvester Tilghman, the third of his family to serve as sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, in the waning days of the 19th century.

And it’s not just any body but that of Mrs. Arbuckle, Nathan Zimmerman’s late mother-in-law. Zimmerman is burgess of Arahpot and Tilghman’s boss, which puts more than a little pressure on the sheriff to solve the crime in a hurry.

Syl’s investigation is complicated by the arrival in town of a former flame who threatens his relationship with his sweetheart Lydia Longlow; clashes with his old enemy, former burgess McLean Ruppenthal; a string of armed robberies, and a record snowstorm that shuts down train traffic, cuts off telegraph service and freezes cattle in the fields.

It will take all of Syl’s skills and the help of his deputy and friends to untangle the various threads and bring the criminals to justice.

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22 thoughts on “Must a mystery have a murder? by John Lindermuth

  1. radine says:

    An interesting discussion! Years ago I read a mystery I loved (forget title, something about a walking tour I think) that included no murder. I was intrigued, though not writing my own mysteries yet. True to regular form, in the first 7 of my Henry and Carrie “To Die For” novels someone always dies. However, in my most recent release, “A Portrait to Die For” no one is killed. There are harsh, scary moments but no death. And you know what is most interesting? When some who had read the novel were asked, they didn’t miss the body and, in fact, when thinking back, many never recognized they were reading (or had read) a “no body mystery.” Conclusion: Suspense, yes. A huge puzzle, yes. A crime, yes. A body, maybe not.

  2. amreade says:

    I don’t think that murder is a necessary ingredient of a good mystery, but I do think it can add to the urgency of a situation for a reader. It’s the ultimate crime against another human being and it can make a story move a little faster when there’s a possibility that a murderer may strike again before he or she can be caught. That being said, I agree that it’s the puzzle that engages readers, and it’s the thrill of trying to solve the puzzle that many readers enjoy most about reading mysteries. Great post.

  3. It comes back around to readers’ expectations of genre again, doesn’t it? Mystery vs. murder mystery vs. thriller… I think as long as the blurb sets up the right expectations, then the reader can decide what entertains them. Easier said than done on both our side and theirs. And skillful writing can surprise the reader by entertaining in unexpected ways, I know from being on both sides of “I usually don’t pick up that kind of story, but couldn’t put it down and can’t wait for more.”

  4. Phil Krebs says:

    For me, the factor that distinguishes a good mystery from a great one isn’t the presence of a body. It’s the interplay of the characters. The characters have to have a quality that compels me to care about them. They have to be interesting personalities set in a well crafted, unpredictabe story. That accomplished, the book for me is a winner.

  5. Thanks for providing this opportunity Pj. Hope the ankle is healed by now.

  6. carlbrookins says:

    John, you and commentators so far are neatly illustrating the deficiencies of genre labels and why I prefer referring to this kind of literature as crime fiction, Two points to press. It is literature, to be sure and these stories do not require a death, whether murder or otherwise. In a well-written thriller the threat of violence and/or death may be even more compelling than the actual act. Good writing, characters and their interactions are for more intriguing (and more difficult to accomplish ) than simply pulling the trigger.

  7. John,

    An excellent discussion and fine comments as well. I agree that a murder doesn’t have to exist, but there must be a compelling mystery with interesting, well-developed characters–and of course a crime of some kind.

  8. I don’t think that “a body” is necessary in a mystery and feel that the artful process of unraveling the clues in the crime is the most important. That being said, in a mystery series where there usually IS a body, readers might be dissatisfied if one doesn’t “turn up” in an addition to the sequence. I remember years ago reading a book by one of my favorite mystery authors, Marcia Muller, from her Sharon McCone series. I finally found myself not being able to think of anything else except “who is going to die and when?” No one ever did in that one (can’t remember the title…maybe the one when her identity was “stolen”?), and I had mixed feelings about that. Maybe the “no body” concept would be easier to pull off in stand-alones? Either way, reader expectations certainly need to be addressed.

    • Interesting how the lack of a body disturbed you in the Muller book. We do have expectations–especially in regard to favorite writers–and it’s easy to see how it was disappointing. Loved the comment.

  9. John, so glad to see you have another novel out. And your thoughts about the necessity of having a murder in a mystery. I’ve never given this much attention, but I will now. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thanks for stopping by Jan. Hope all is well with you.

  11. The way Agatha Christie psychologically draws me in is what makes her an author I reread. I like that you get to know the characters so well, that you know exactly what they’re capable of.
    I can only hope I do half as well with my first mystery. 🙂

  12. I’m glad to see this discussion on whether or not we need a murder in a crime novel, and especially the examples from some of the best writers. I’d add the work of Marian Babson, who wrote several mysteries without a corpse. As much as I like traditional mysteries, I also enjoy the work of writers who explore other forms of the genre, stories without dead bodies.

  13. EARL STAGGS says:

    Excellent post, John, and great comments from other readers. While murder seems to be the go-to plot for most mysteries, there are other paths to compelling crime fiction. A kidnapping, for example, and the rush to save the victim unharmed, or a caper story about the planning and execution of a major heist. A body isn’t necessary, but good writing is.

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