What’s inside the mind of a mystery author? Murder most foul. Why murder, you ask? Are there not many crimes a writer can hang a plot on? There are many nefarious schemes out there, but most crimes seem worst when murder or the threat of murder accompanies them. In the case of robbery, for instance, your money or your life. Or kidnapping—your money or your wife!
For my money, murder, the unlawful killing of another person, is the best crime for a mystery, be it a police procedural, an amateur sleuth, or a private eye story. Robbery, for instance, might be mitigated by the need to eat—stealing a loaf of bread—or by the Robin Hood syndrome—rob the rich. And robbery is only a crime against property. Murder, the taking of a human life, is unequivocal and final. It has the most potential to arouse emotions in the reader. Always on the lookout for plot material, I made a list of reasons to commit murder:
1.) In the commission of a robbery—Bonnie and Clyde were robbers. They preferred rural stores and gas stations, but robbed banks too. When confronted or cornered, they were more than just robbers. Bonnie and Clyde were killers. (Nine lawmen.)
2.) Jealousy—Seduction, betrayal, love triangle, murder. Consider the tragic hero, Othello. Or consider a crime of passion—Pierre returns home from a hard day of drinking wine and finds Jean-Paul, his motorcycle mechanic, in bed with his wife, Marie. Enraged with jealousy, Pierre kills Jean-Paul. (Or perhaps Pierre kills Marie. Good motorcycle mechanics can be hard to find.)
3.) Revenge/vengeance—a perennial favorite. From Hamlet to Death Wish, revenge or vengeance is a great motive for a killing. Revenge could be considered the motive for most gang killings.
The Harvard Crimson reports that these first three, robbery, jealousy, or revenge are behind most murders. But as the detective pursues the truth in the original murder, the writer may introduce a second killing. If you kill once, you may kill again . . .
4.) To cover up a crime/to prevent the discovery of a crime—Subsequent murders may be necessary to eliminate witnesses. Do the crime yourself, or in secrecy. If a criminal involves another person in his crime, he may eventually have to kill again to keep the accomplice or witness from going to the police.
Throughout history, there have been many other reasons to commit murder that the inventive writer may use in his plots. For example:
5.) To gain power—think Shakespeare’s Richard III
a. Ambition—see Macbeth
6.) For pay—the hit man, something of a modern invention?
7.) Political assassination—Shakespeare again—Julius Caesar
8.) Greed or avarice—this brings to mind the classic, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
9.) Insanity—from the days of Jack the Ripper to Hannibal the Cannibal or Buffalo Bill, insanity covers the popular modern sub-genre of serial killer novels.
10.) Hatred, anger—I like this. To me it suggests a murder done in the heat of the moment. I tend to use this sort of crime in my stories because I believe a murder of opportunity is harder to solve than a meticulously planned murder, in which so much can go wrong, or in which the killer can leave many clues. A murder committed out of hatred or anger is similar to a “crime of passion.” But it’s not that kind of passion.
11.) Land, Gold, Women—Somewhere I read, “There are three things to kill over--land, gold, and women.” For some reason, I associate this with B. Traven, but I can’t find it.
12.)Sport—The idea for this comes from “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story by Richard Connell, in which a big game hunter hunts and kills human game, for sport.
13.) Initiation to a gang—Is this real? Or is the idea an urban legend? Random killings invite a massive deployment of police resources to solve, and it seems unlikely that gangs with profitable illegal businesses would want to draw that attention to themselves. Yet recent killings of teenage women in Houston and Baltimore may have been part of gang initiations.
I would end with an unlucky thirteen reasons to commit murder on which you or I or any writer could hang the plot of a mystery novel. But I can’t leave you until I mention just one more, kind of a favorite, for which I’m indebted to Alan Orloff [http://alanorloff.com/],author and friend, and to the Man in Black:
14.)In Reno, just to watch him die