Kaitlyn Dunnett here. I recently had an interesting email exchange with a reader in Australia. Although she likes the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, she feels I tend to put Liss in too much danger at the end of the books. She pointed out, as our correspondence continued, that Miss Marple and Miss Silver are rarely in danger. They discover the identity of the murderer but don’t risk their lives to do so. Then she commented that putting the sleuth in danger makes it seem that the author doesn’t have enough faith in the interest and excitement of the story as it stands and has up the ante at the end to keep the reader’s attention.
Wow. Food for thought.
I responded that I felt most of my readers expect Liss to be in jeopardy before the villain is captured. If Liss is going to investigate a murder, she’s going to make an enemy of the murderer, who is trying to get away with his or her crime. That makes Liss a target. If she simply turns the information she finds over to the police and lets them make an arrest, the end of the book ending will seem anticlimactic.
The last chapters of my mysteries aren’t particularly violent. The most harm I’ve ever done to Liss is in Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones and even there she suffers no long-term damage. I wouldn’t consider the level of violence either excessive or gratuitous. But put my heroine in danger at the end of a book? Yes, I definitely do that, and deliberately, too. That applies to the historical mysteries I write as Kathy Lynn Emerson as well as to the Liss MacCrimmon series. To tell you the truth, I think I’ve always considered doing so to be a requirement of the mystery genre, whether we’re talking cozy or hard-boiled or police procedural. In fact, the covers of my Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet all reflect this by picturing an “action” scene, although not necessarily one at the climax of the story. It’s the degree of danger and violence that differs from one sort of book to another. So, the question remains: how much danger is too much in a cozy?
I don’t see myself doing without a confrontation scene between amateur sleuth and villain in which the villain temporarily holds the upper hand. For one thing, without it, it is difficult to have what syndicated columnist Joel Achenback dubbed “the obligatory spilling of the beans” at the end of the novel. As Achenback put it, this is “where the villain explains his diabolical plot to rule the world, a moment of braggadocio that will lead to his downfall once the hero escapes.” This won’t happen unless the villain plans to kill his or her listener right after confessing. I grant you that this isn’t the only way to manage explanations and tie up loose ends at the end of a mystery novel, but it is one tried and true device that ups both the stakes and the suspense. Of course we know Liss (or Diana or Susanna or Rosamond) will find a way to survive or the book wouldn’t be part of a cozy series.
Our email discussion also explored the acceptability of more violent endings when that violence is in keeping with the book as a whole. My correspondent found the endings of my books a bit more frightening than the rest of the stories warranted. This is a valid criticism and I’m going to have to take a hard look at this aspect of things at as I write the next one. Then she added yet another thought-provoking comment: my cliff-hanger endings arise out of the character of the heroine because Liss is “a bit too defensively sure of her own abilities on feminist grounds.”
I don’t think of Liss as a feminist, but I do write her as self-confident (except around her domineering mother), sometimes foolishly so. And she’s impulsive—her main character flaw. In the old days, there was a category called the “women in jeopardy” novel. It morphed into “romantic suspense” and along the way the kick-ass heroine emerged, a woman capable of getting herself out of danger. Sometimes she ended up saving her significant other, too. In these novels there is always a scene toward the end of the book where everything, even the heroine’s life, is at risk. I have trouble imagining writing a story without that climactic moment when the heroine defies the odds to thwart the bad guy.
But the question of how much danger is too much in a cozy mystery remains. In the most recent Liss MacCrimmon, Ho-Ho-Homicide, written well before this email exchange, Liss is definitely in danger of losing her life and she definitely experiences physical violence. I write about her fear but skip fairly delicately over her pain. I don’t want to read scenes with graphic violence, let alone write them. In next year’s entry, The Scottie Barked at Midnight, also turned in before this subject came up, Liss is again in danger, although this time it comes earlier in the book and it is not a threat of being stabbed, shot, or throttled. Instead, she ends up on her own in the middle of nowhere and is at risk of developing hypothermia if she can’t find her way back to civilization. Is she ever truly in danger of losing her life? Well, she certainly thinks she is. And that’s all I can say about it without spoilers.
I’m very glad one of my readers took the time to make her feelings known. Every once in a while it is good for writers to step back and take a long, hard look at why they structure their stories the way they do. Most of the cozies and traditional mysteries I read put the sleuth in some sort of danger at the end of the novel, but there are ways to maintain suspense and up the ante without doing so. As I start work on the tenth Liss MacCrimmon novel, I’m going to be considering all the possibilities.