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.