When I began writing crime fiction, I remember lots of chatter about the perfect murder weapon. The undetected murder. The exotic substance that couldn’t be identified. I heard about poisons like oleander, foxglove, arsenic, and — moving up the hazardous bio-chemical scale — cyanide, sarin, and anthrax. Indeed, I flirted with ricin in one of my novels. I remember hearing the old saw about the perfect murder weapon being a sharp icicle and thinking it was pretty clever.
However, the more I write, the more the manner of death has become a distraction. I realize I don’t really care how someone is killed. The fact that they were alive one moment and weren’t the next is enough. The fact that a killer used what he or she thought was an undetectable poison (which, btw, toxicologists say that given enough time and the right equipment, “undetectable” is a myth) is superfluous and less important than the killer’s motivation and character. The passion or fear or hatred or greed that drives a person to commit murder is more compelling than how they did it. So I’m more interested in why they died.
There’s something else, too. Murder is a heinous act. It’s perhaps the most profane act one human can perform on another. Because I don’t treat it lightly, I’m finding it more difficult to appreciate humorous crime fiction these days. I’m not talking about black humor – that’s something I think we all embrace when trying to deal with the unacceptable. What I’m talking about are the bouncy, breezy stories that show an otherwise normal person solving crimes on their lunch hour or summer vacation.
I’m sure they’re done with the best intentions – to emphasize the counterpoint between the gravity of murder and the joy of life. Indeed, I’ve done it myself. My amateur sleuth, Ellie Fo0reman, has a dry sense of humor and isn’t afraid to be foolish. And even PI Georgia Davis takes a day of once in a while. Still, I find I’m less willing to write murder scenes. Maybe it’s because I’m getting to an age where life seems more precious every day. Maybe it’s because people, some of them friends, are being struck down before their time. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t sit right – at least for me — to deal with a death which could have been avoided and then giggle about it. That’s probably why Georgia came to be.
What do you think? Does the manner of death make a difference in crime fiction? What about humor? How far can you take it? Am I just being cranky?