Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kay Stewart - Suspicious Circumstances

Keeping the Mystery in Murder

The “what if?” moment that gave rise to A Deadly Little List came when my husband (and sometimes co-author) Chris Bullock and I were watching a touring light opera company perform The Mikado.

As the small cast stood in a line singing “Behold the Lord High Executioner,” that noble personage strode to and fro, swinging a no doubt fake sword over their heads.

What if? I thought. What if he swung and killed someone?

Now, there are two obvious problems with using that scenario for a murder mystery.

First, there’s no mystery. Readers would know who did it. Second, there’s no murder, just an accidental death. Or maybe it wasn’t accidental…. Natural death or homicide? Accidental death or homicide? Suicide or homicide?

Even the most seasoned investigators are sometimes baffled by a crime scene, as Saanich Police sergeants Nancy Melville and Richard Gosling brilliantly demonstrated in the highly ambiguous case they presented at Bloody Words 2011 in June. At the request of the family, workshop participants agreed not to publicize details of the case. Without breaking confidentiality, I think I can say that an elderly person was found dead of a head wound. The confused spouse claimed to have hit the person with an ashtray, but the ashtray showed no traces of blood. The back door was standing open. Untangling the forensic evidence to explain how the person died was a formidable undertaking.

I like to explore these ambiguous situations because they force my protagonist, RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk, to pay attention to detail, to learn when to trust her instincts and when not to, and to come to terms with mistakes she inevitably makes.

In A Deadly Little List, for example, a man is found dead in an isolated cabin with a gun in his hand, a suicide note nearby. The RCMP sergeant in charge accepts that the man has committed suicide. The attending physician argues that the man has been murdered. Danutia’s boss wants the case closed so as not to offend a powerful developer. In the absence of clear-cut evidence, what should she do?

In Sitting Lady Sutra, in contrast, it is clear that three women have been strangled. The question is, were they killed by the same person? My intention here is to create a situation in which to explore the differences between a planned, deliberate act of murder (first degree murder) and a “spur of the moment” reaction to a situation (second degree murder). This important distinction is sometimes difficult to make, not only in real-life courtroom proceedings, but also in the creation of complex fictional characters. It is all too easy to create cardboard villains who are “bad people”; it is much more difficult to create believable ordinary people who do terrible things.

And how that can happen is the mystery at the heart of murder.

Kay Stewart was co-chair of Bloody Words 2011 and is a past president of Crime Writers of Canada. Sitting Lady Sutra (TouchWood, March 2011) is the second in the Danutia Dranchuk series of mysteries. The first, A Deadly Little List, was co-written by Kay and her husband Chris Bullock, with whom she is working on the third novel. She lives in Victoria, BC.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hilary MacLeod - Old Fashioned Killer


I’m not CSI. When it comes to killing, I’m old fashioned. I like the old standards, the classics. A blunt instrument. A sharp object. A push off a cliff.

I know that forensics are fashionable, but I’m not that kind of girl. I like a nice clean killing, where it’s pretty clear how it’s done. The how, for me, is not the story – it’s why and who.

In “Revenge of the Lobster Lover,” I killed off my very first victim by electrocution. It was meant to be a simple “offing”. Chef meets lobster stunner, a faulty one which he grips in his hand as he goes flying back into a pond. There’s a concrete floor. Questionable wiring. I threw it all in, because it’s not easy to electrocute someone. No less than Louise Penny discovered for her book, “Dead Cold,” that it’s almost impossible to kill someone by electrocution. I found, like Louise, that I had to create the right circumstances.

That took research. Even so, I think most people would not have questioned an electrocution – not with all those warnings we get on toasters and lamps.

I did back and forth emails with a scientist for a geographical event in that first book. He said it couldn’t happen in the way I wanted it to in the place where the book is set. In science. But in fiction, he said: “It’s your story. You can do what you want.” So I did. No one’s called me on it.

I’m more interested in the scene of death than in the means. “Revenge of the Lobster Lover” begins with a lobster climbing up a corpse’s chest looking for food – and finding it in the dead man’s mouth.
“Mind Over Mussels” starts with a body on the beach, dressed like Jimi Hendrix, his head split open by an axe, gulls and crows feasting on the contents of the wound.

That’s the detail I like to pay attention to: the ugly aftermath of death – and before it, the moment of death itself. This, I hope, will give readers – if not gulls and lobsters – something to chew on that’s as meaty as a forensics feast.

The truth may be that I’m lazy, but I’m also not really interested in the intricacies of autopsies or plots that involve highly technical means of dispatching the victim.

Poisoning, stabbing, bashing to death are time-honoured and effective ways of getting rid of someone. Once that’s dealt with, as swiftly, as believably and with as little fuss as possible, I can get on with the story. How many suspects can I manufacture? How close can I come to giving away the identity of the killer, while keeping the reader in the dark until the very last?

I like to play it close to the line. I like to very nearly give it away, so that after they finish, readers go back through the book to check where the giveaways were. And to check up on me. To see that I didn’t cheat them of a clue, a way of knowing whodunit. It always satisfies me to hear a reader say: “I didn’t guess. I didn’t know until the end.”

That’s one task we must all accomplish, whether we do it forensically or otherwise.

And we have to satisfy the why. Hate. Revenge. Lust. Thwarted Love. Greed. Desire. Most of our nastier traits. Murder is a crime of passion, so I can’t get with plots that involve highly technical means of killing.

The police procedural is not my game either. It seems like work. It’s one of the reasons why I chose an isolated location for the setting of The Shores series. An isolated backwater on an isolated island. Police presence is spotty, and when it appears, maverick, so I don’t have to worry about procedure too much. I’ll worry about it even less in the future, as my Mountie of choice begins to “turn” and become more like the villagers than her colleagues far off on the other side of the island.

I said I was lazy. And old-fashioned. If you’re looking for forensics, you’ll have to knock on someone else’s door. Mine is open to story and character and, now that I’ve thought of it, to the image of a victim being pushed off a cliff. Or blown off by a wind turbine?

Possible? If it isn’t, I’ll do my best to make it so.

Hilary MacLeod is the author of two mystery novels in The Shores series: “Revenge of the Lobster Lover” and “Mind Over Mussels.” The third will be published in 2012. Hilary is a former CBC host, who currently teaches writing and announcing in the school of Media Studies at Loyalist College.