To kill or not to kill. That is the question that we all must ask ourselves at one point or another. Well, at least, if we are mystery writers.
In a cozy mystery, there is usually no killing on the page. A body, delicately placed on a floor is the closest we get to murder. My mysteries (sometimes verging on thrillers) are not cozy. People die on the pages. The Bad and the Good.
So, if you read my books, you know people are going to die. My very first mystery, Mainely Power, starts with the murder of a security guard at a nuclear power plant. This is the type of killing that is easy for the author to get away with as the reader is not invested in this man yet, so the impact is minimal.
Of course, killing the baddies on the page is almost always acceptable. Whether they be flunkies or kingpins, those readers who don’t possess overly squeamish stomachs, get a thrill out of the villains getting their comeuppance. I have killed many of those over the years and have yet to receive any flak in that regard from readers.
As a matter of fact, I believe that readers probably cheer when the villain of Love in a Time of Hate is revealed and then dispensed. The baddie in this case has few grey areas, even if initially presented as a good person.
But what of the complicated antagonist who has redeeming features or has been driven to their bad actions by a difficult childhood, trauma in life, or had their faith and trust in the institutions of the world destroyed? These are more difficult to simply kill and often create a sense of unease or even disappointment in the reader.
Even more delicate of a proposition is the killing of a beloved character. This happens in Mainely Power, and I am still accused of being a terrible person for the murder I wrote upon the pages. As a matter of fact, it got me temporarily barred from Facebook, but that’s another story.
I kill one such cherished character in the upcoming December release of Cosmic Trap. I’m not revealing who but be advised. Death will occur, the stakes will be raised, and hopefully, the reader will be rapt within the pages. The same will happen with the next August release of Mainely Wicked.
My belief is that if you never kill any of the beloved and main characters, the risk and stakes are lowered, and the reader can coast along knowing that nothing bad as death will happen. This glossed over reality of life and death concerns me for its falseness. We don’t live in a world where only the bad die and the good live. You can only escape into a fictional world as long as that place is believable on some level.
What say you? To kill or not to kill?
About the Author
Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.
Cost has published four books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, due out in August of 2023. He has also published three books in the Clay Wolfe/Port Essex series, with the fourth, Cosmic Trap, due out in December of 2022.
For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost will combine his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry.
Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.
I remember when Lawrence Block killed Matt Scudder’s AA sponsor in a restaurant. The killer mistook him for Scudder because he was wearing Matt’s jacket. It was a moment that made me pause and thing ‘what just happened?’ That was in Everybody Dies which came out in 1999, but still is as fresh as it was when I read the book
A strong emotion is the reaction we are striving for as writers for sure…..
Such a great thing to bring up – great thing to think about. Since I’ve become a COLUMBO junkie these last two weeks (starting again in season one), there is that “comfort” that the bad guy will be found out (by Falk) and have to “pay” (usually just arrested) – but often the victim in the murder is “an innocent”. There is that disturbing feeling of that person being undeserving of having their life taken.
Ah, Columbo. I’d almost forgotten about him…I might have to find myself a few episodes.
If it works for the story and deepens the story arc, go for it, but there are cautions, and readers can be lost. I’m curious about the FB jail offense! Who knew social media could be collateral damage.
I had to appeal my sentence as they thought I was really threatening to kill somebody….
You know my thoughts on some of this, Matt, 😂. For me, the question is even more macro…not so much should there be death or no death but rather can there be a mystery plot about something other than solving a murder? I like to think so, but messing with reader expectations is a tricky business.
Yes, good characters (like good people) die sometimes. And it works. We need that once in awhile to bring on the feels. See: Harry Potter and most Stephen King books.
On my blog this week, I interviewed a cozy mystery author who grew up in Appleton, ME. (I connected with her on a SinC chat board. Only found out after she was a Mainer!) Anyway, in the book I read, she kills a nice-guy character introduced in the first pages AND has a side character—not the MC— who is a mystery author. I hope she doesn’t kill that author off in subsequent books. But you never know…
The beauty of us writing the book is we can do whatever we want. LOL. Kill. Don’t kill. We get to decide.
Love your sign. I’d buy them all!
Nobodies convinced me different yet….
Good question. In my first Joe Burgess police procedural readers do not find the victim sympathetic but tend to root for the killer. This puts my detective in a difficult place. As for beloved characters? One does need to be careful. Years ago, there was a spate of authors killing off their protagonist’s significant others. I started getting messages from readers that if I killed off Andre, they would stop reading my books.
I love the gray areas. That is a fun place to be in….And you can’t be susceptible to blackmail from your readers or where will it stop? LOL.