Thursday, January 17, 2013

Creeps, Criminals and Crimes

I’m an avid reader of mystery and suspense stories. And liking the occasional change, I decided to do something different from my usual historical romance and write a mystery series. A daunting task considering the term series implies multiple books. Nevertheless, I felt up to the challenge and set about plotting the particulars.
The creation of the hero and secondary characters evolved smoothly enough. The choice of time period and location required only a minimum of time and research. But I was brought up short when it came to defining the criminal and crime. Someone slippery and a little odd would do. As to the crime, I preferred something clever and unique. To that end, I scoured my backlog of good suspense and mystery novels and noted an interesting phenomenon. Criminals and their dastardly deeds have gotten bloodier and more bizarre over time.
It seems some authors, in an attempt to astonish and shock, keep setting the gore bar ever higher. Such an approach may come with a price. Once the victim is literally turned inside out, the offenses so foul and gratuitous, what more can be done to horrify and sensationalize violence? Every reader has his or her own tolerance level of icky. Once that’s breached, the reader turns away.   
Credibility is important. A fictional criminal must be plausible and convincing to the reader. Although random, senseless crimes are difficult to understand and happen all too often in real life, a reader wants to understand a character’s reasoning. It explains why some writers offer sketches of the criminal’s point of view, especially when the character is a psychopath.
Consider the abundance of serial killers in so many stories. The innovative and sadistic ways in which these creeps inflict pain are staggering. Yet when the reader is given a character that is so twisted, but with no window into the warped mind which promotes such repellent behavior, the reader begins to think: unbelievable, not realistic, who would do such a thing and even worse—ridiculous. Ridiculous is a death knell to any book.  
A typical mystery needs a bad person doing bad things. Maybe the character is an ordinary Joe who, when forced into a corner, opts for a bad decision which results in criminal consequences. The choice of who does something and why is critical.
Suspenseful mystery doesn’t require great heaps of blood and gore to fascinate and hold the reader’s interest. Psychological suspense works just as well—at least for me. Supply an implied or real threat. A unique question to be answered. Believable characters. A compelling motivator offered in a distinctive style and voice. Any of the above will hook me.
In the final analysis, I decided a mystery with a strong psychological edge and a minimum of gore is what I want to write. It’s back to plotting for me. Wish me luck.
Until next month, happy reading!