Monday, September 13, 2010


What Do We Think About When We Write About Death?

We write mysteries - rarely would we even consider writing a mystery without a death - or, to be blunt, a murder.

For some, it’s a “mild” murder, perhaps death by poison, perhaps even happening offstage so as not to be described in graphic details. Agatha Christie perfected the cozy murder of somebody who was usually unpleasant and almost perfectly deserved to be “absent” from the lives of others in her stories. For her, and for many cozy writers, death doesn’t really roil the plot so much as to give other characters front stage, often with wit and humor, certainly with gentility and conviviality. For others, myself included, death happens right up front - in seven novels, I’ve murdered with handguns, knives, rifles, shotguns, and once I even set a teenager afire by jet fuel.

Whatever the method and descriptive means, it’s about death as a basic plot element, around which and because of which we structure some kind of mystery requiring resolution. True, the mystery genre is one of the few remaining realms of fiction that celebrate right over wrong, good over evil. But also true, we’d not have much of a mystery without death.

I started thinking about death in our mysteries at the Bloody Words conference in Ottawa a year ago. During my talk at the Mystery Cafe, and also during a panel I moderated, I realized that US and Canadian authors had different attitudes about their murders. Most Canadian authors seem, how should I put it, more civilized?

At the time, I thought much of this had to do with the US becoming an increasingly violent country, where nastiness has become a political fact of life. Hollywood movies champion violent scenes, quite often at the beginning of the film as a way of grabbing attention. The news from Central and some of South America is often grim, particularly when stories began circulating about the mass unsolved murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, just across the US border from El Paso.

The geographical and political reality of these real world situations really came at me while writing my eighth novel, in large part because I set my mysteries in southern Arizona which these days is a particularly violent place because of Tucson’s proximity to the US/Mexico border, an area rampant with drug trafficking, home invasions, and people smuggling. (I also use a nation’s borders as metaphor for human dysfunctions.) My novel started out bleak and keeps getting bleaker with each chapter.

Looking at mysteries since Agatha’s, we can’t ignore the transition from gentility to violence. Here’s a good bridge novel: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The plot’s essentially a “locked room” mystery; a young girl disappears from a “locked” island. But the story line veers into violence, depravity, rape, serial murder.

We can see this transition mirrored in Hollywood. Noir mysteries of the 1940s and ‘50s feature a lot of deaths, but Hollywood codes forbid showing one person shooting a gun and the bullet striking somebody in the same scene (both together). Nobody died with blood or bullet holes; often then grabbed their stomachs and did an actor’s romp through death agonies. Fast forward Hollywood 2010; gore, rape, serial murders of the most violent nature.

(And then there are those really graphic mystery writers who give us plenty of forensic porn, so we not only read about brutal slaughter, but we follow the corpse(s) into extended autopsies and forensic ruminations.)

But these matters also really came at me (should I say, became more real?) when my mother died recently, followed by deaths of two close friends. I fell into morose musings on the reality of death; truth is, death changes life permanently. True, mom lived to be 100 and had a fantastic 100th birthday celebration. But she’s gone. My friend Frank died so quickly the shock of his passing has still not settled.

So I’m back at my novel and wondering if I should “settle” this time on a lot less bleakness and brutality. I’ve lightened the plot by adding a romantic element, a love story, some pure delight in an otherwise undelightful world. Still, my plot centers around death. My main character is a police detective who’s also served two army combat tours in Iraq. I’ve combined border violence with severe military combat, a choice I first made so I could write about returning US vets with physical or mental disabilities; alas, until very recently, no publishers (and Hollywood, for that matter) wanted much to do with Iraq.

This isn’t because of my age; I personally don’t much think about my own death. It’s more a matter of writing, of creating an absence of life as the means by which my story has meaning. And I wonder, do any other writers out there dwell as I do on our murders? If so, what does this say about us writers as people? Do we mainly consider death (i.e., murder) as a “necessary” plot element, deal with it, and then get on with the story? Or do our murders indicate there’s a morbid piece of our persona, an attraction to the dark side of the force?

David Cole is overcoming five years of procrastinations and is finally attacking his eighth novel, Ransom My Soul - a somewhat bleak novel of home invasions, drug cartels and human smuggling in southern Arizona, tempered (hopefully) with a fine romance and love story. David's short story,, is featured in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Press); he's also working on several non-fiction books about law enforcement, including The Blue Ceiling, a compilation of personal stories about women in law enforcement.


  1. Excellent,thought-provoking post, David. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I love picking out the murders. I realize that real murder is sordid and horrible and leaves emotional devastation in its wake, but in the mysteries we write, there's something liberating. Maybe I need help.


  2. of course we enjoy, nay, we THRILL at picking out the murderers . . . after all, it's the capstone of the entire plot design

  3. I seem to write about people looking ridiculous, bizarre in death, and that may say something about me. I don't like brutal, onstage stuff, and can hardly be convinced to kill a mosquito. I can't watch horror movies, either, though I came home once to my 12 year old daughter laughing out loud at "The Night of the Living Dead." I can't watch that stuff, I can't snuff out life -- except in fiction -- and smile as I do it. I don't plan these murders to be this way. I don't think about it. It just happens.
    But I often think about just the questions you ask. Why do murder, death, inform our creative selves?

  4. It seems violence in mysteries came along with the move from plot-driven to character-driven novels. With Christie, Rex Stout and the rest, solving the puzzle was the main thing. Now we have to climb into the heads of serial killers and not only watch them commit their horrors but try to understand what in their sad childhoods caused them to turn out this way.
    I hope the pendulum will swing back sometime soon.