Please join me in welcoming author Steven J. Kolbe. Steven is joining us today to share some insight on choosing the murder victim for a mystery novel. Be sure to check out his new release, How Everything Turns Away.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Title: How Everything Turns Away
Author: Steven J. Kolbe
In the suburbs of Chicago, everyone’s a suspect.
GUEST POST: How to Make a Murder Victim
It can be easy to short-change the murder victim. For a forensic-leaning writer, the victim can become just a body covered in clues. For a crime writer, the victim might be someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. The genre I find myself most drawn to is the straight-forward detective story with a healthy splash of suspense. Even this genre, however, is ripe for weak victims, ones who provide a dose of sympathy or a solid motive but not much else. So let’s look at a few classic victims and see what tips we can glean.
The Hated Victim: Samuel Edward Ratchett (aka Cassetti) from Murder on the Orient Express. Here is a book I love to teach because you really get to see how wrong almost every reader is. What makes Ratchett a great victim is that he’s a jerk. As more is revealed, we find out that not only do the other passengers dislike and distrust Ratchett, they increasingly have legitimate reasons to wish him dead. This creates numerous valid murder suspects, enough to keep this reader guessing until the last reveal. A contemporary example that I am enjoying is The Afterparty streaming now on Apple TV. Also, see The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.
The Guilty Victim: Everyone from And Then There Were None. This might be the greatest mystery novel of all time. Again Agatha Christie flexes her plot-muscles by weaving a series of murders so intricate they literally require a denouement explanation to understand what happened and why.
Plot: After eight guests arrive to a remote island, they meet a cook and housemaid, both of whom explain that the host, U. N. Nowen, will arrive later. One of the guests, Anthony James Marston suggests that the host, whom none of them know personally, is likely a play on the word, “Unknown.” Immediately after making this connection, he dies of cyanide poisoning. Slowly, the guests are picked off one by one, their deaths apparent payback for some crime in their past—but who is the killer? Will the guests be able to figure out who the killer before there’s no one left? Some contemporary examples are The Guest List by Lucy Foley and Only Murders in the Building on Hulu.
The Secret Victim: Elias Openshaw from “The Five Orange Pips” by Sir Conan Arthur Doyle. Secret societies, or at the very least mysterious, manipulative ones, were a favorite of Doyle’s. Here Openshaw is murdered for his involvement with an anti-Reconstructionist society from the American South. After he leaves, the secret society falls to ruin. I’ll let you learn about it yourself and the significance of the five orange pips, which hold meaning to the victim but not, initially, to the detectives. Doyle has a similar treatment of the early Mormon church in A Study in Scarlet. Contemporary examples include The Lovebirds, a romantic-comedy mystery that takes place in New Orleans. Also see the novels, The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem and, somewhat less contemporary, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.
The Innocent Victim: The Clutter Family from In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. As a resident of southwest Kansas (I actually teach about a mile from the Clutter house at the high school Nancy Clutter attended), I had to include this family. In real-life, sometimes a victim is just that. They didn’t do anything to explain or deserve their fate. While this is often the case, it doesn’t always make for a satisfying story. If there’s only one motive for killing them, then there can only be so many suspects. In the real-life case, Bobby Rupp, Nancy’s boyfriend, was suspected for some time, but once exonerated, he didn’t leave anyone else in the community to suspect—and in fact the killers weren’t locals. If you spend the time to make them sufficiently sympathetic, however, the resolution can be particularly satisfying. A contemporary example is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara, which investigates rampant crime and deplorable living conditions in the bastis of India. Also see Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.by David Grann.
This is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can help you get started on creating a victim of your own!
Steven studied at NOCCA and LSU in Louisiana before earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Kansas State University. He started his writing career as a lowly student worker for the prestigious literary journal The Southern Review. If you received a formal rejection letter in the mid-2000s, he probably sealed the envelope. He has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in various newspapers, magazines, and journals since that time.
He lives in Southwest Kansas with his wife and three children. His debut novel How Everything Turns Away is available from The Wild Rose Press.
SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS: