Excuse me for being bloodthirsty but when I’m reading a murder mystery, I’m expecting the murder to take place as soon as possible so that I can start solving the puzzle.
As mystery author of the Shinobi Mysteries, Susan Spann, states in her article ’25 Things You Need to Know about Writing Mysteries’, mystery readers will not wait a hundred pages for a corpse – they want death by page 50!
My personal preference is within the first three chapters. Otherwise, I find myself getting impatient.
If you’re writing a cozy murder mystery like me, the word count can be anywhere from 65,000 words to 90,000 words. If your mystery is at the shorter end of that range, it’s even more important to get that murder on the page as soon as possible – by making it the ‘inciting incident’ of your story.
This is the case in the first instalment of Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. We follow our amateur sleuth as she feeds her cheeky cat, brushes off her harassing mother, shows up for work at the bakery, discovers a dead body and makes me hungry for baked goods – all by the end of the first chapter.
The first novel in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris, Real Murders also features the murder early in the book. Within the first few pages, the reader is set up for something terrible to happen when Aurora arrives at a hall for a group meeting and receives a chilling phone call. As the other members of the group arrive, she begins exploring the venue and soon discovers a gruesome scene. So within a few short chapters, we know who our victim is and we have a group of potential suspects ready for cross-examination.
Esteemed cozy mystery novelist of three series, Elizabeth Spann Craig, notes in her article ’15 Tips for Writing A Murder Mystery’, that if there are too many chapters before the discovery of the body, they are likely there as backstory. We all know that too much backstory at the start of the novel can result in an extreme snorefest for the reader.
I made this mistake writing the first draft of my mystery. At least one third of my first 3,000 words were backstory, which bogged the story down, slowed the action and delayed the discovery of the murder victim. Once I cut the backstory out, the story had a better pace and now the murder occurs at the end of the third chapter. That backstory can be drip fed to the reader later in the story.
However, some mystery readers aren’t as concerned about the timing of the murder if they become absorbed by well written characters. In the first novel of the Her Royal Spyness Mysteries by Rhys Bowen, Georgie doesn’t discover a body in the bathtub until the middle of the book. The first half of the story is about Georgie – a member of the royal family who finds herself suddenly penniless – trying to make it on her own in London. Although I found Georgie’s escapades to be funny and entertaining and the character herself likeable and engaging, I couldn’t help but wonder when the murder was going to occur. This also left only the second half of the book to guess who the murderer was.
Fellow mystery readers, I’m curious to know – how patient are you when it comes to murders in mysteries? Do you like to know who the victim is upfront? Or are you just happy to go with the flow? Please sound off in the comments section below.