Bringing out your dead: When to drop the first body.
Conventional wisdom dictates that mystery/crime novels offer up a body early on. Think about every episode of every incarnation of Law & Order. There’s the discovery of the victim, then the iconic “DONK DONK” (also called the “clang”) followed by the theme song/opening credits. Then the detectives are on scene and the process of discovering whodunnit begins.
As a reader, I’ve been known to say “If I don’t see a body by page 30, I give up on the book.” I chose a mystery or crime thriller because I want a dead body and a bad guy and a chance to solve a puzzle. Give me a body. The exception to this rule are writers that I know and trust will tell me a great story. Writers like Ruth Rendell, Tana French, Chelsea Cain, Minette Walters, or Susan Hill can pace their books however they want–I want to go where they take me. Hmm, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Let me check something… Okay, yeah, I do have some male mystery/crime writers I read without question: Benjamin Black, Colin Harrison, and Michael Robotham.
As a writer of mystery/crime novels, so far I’ve followed the rules on pacing: In Schooled, the body of Callie Caldwell is found by a security guard on page 2. In Pwned, I left it a little later, having Lexy stumble on the body of co-worker Declan Brown all the way on page 6. In Griefed, I was back at the front of the book; Detective Malick is called out to the suspicious death of Fletcher Grey on Page 2.
Lexy Cooper #4 is going to be a little different. I’m about thirty pages in, and…no body. In fact, the murder hasn’t even happened yet. Why? Because for this story the reader needs a prior knowledge of the victim and his/her history before he/she is killed. It’s essential for the reader to understand the conclusions made by the investigating officer and everyone else in the Lexyverse.
So what the hell is happening in those first thirty pages? It’s Lexy stuff. It’s catching up to where she is since the events in Griefed. And it’s laying the groundwork for the characters and events in the story. It’s…pretty dark. But I’m going to let Lexy go as low as she needs to. Why? Two reasons:
- Protagonists that never change and are unaffected by the things that happen to them become stale and boring.
- In my experience, any time you ask yourself Gosh can I take my readers there? Can I get away with that?, the answer should always be YES.
Drop the first body very early to grab your readers’ attention. Unless you have a good reason and have built a character or series strong enough that readers will give you the benefit of the doubt.