Anne Louise Bannon is the author of the Old Los Angeles series of historical mysteries and the Operation Quickline series of cozy spy novels. You can find out more about her on her website, annelouisebannon.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.
A couple, three months ago, I was chatting with a good friend of mine who also is a big fan of my Old Los Angeles series. I was telling him about Death of the Drunkard (book #5) which was due to come out soon, and he asked if he first needed to read book four, Death of an Heiress. He’d obviously read the synopsis for that book, which says quite clearly that Lavina Gaines is the heiress in the title. Or I might have mentioned it to him. I don’t remember.
“You kill off one of my favorite characters in that one,” he said.
Oh. Um… Okay.
I was glad he’d gotten that invested in the series. And I want it on the record that I also liked Lavina Gaines. A lot. I seriously considered trying to find another heiress. But I needed a murder that would elicit sympathy for the victim and create urgency for my protagonist, Maddie Wilcox, to find out whodunnit. One of Maddie’s friends fit the bill and no matter how I tried to slice it, Lavina’s number came up.
I have noted before that I get considerable teasing from some of my non-author friends regarding my seemingly cavalier attitude about taking out my characters. But it’s only seemingly cavalier. There are plenty of characters that I don’t want to take out and feel really bad when I do. Really.
For example, Dr. Eunice Blakely, in These Hallowed Halls (book six in the Quickline series). I wrote that series in the early 1980s, and kept that setting when I rewrote the series a few years ago. So, I’m doing the rewrite on Hallowed Halls, and drat her, Eunice got even more interesting and fun than when she first appeared. She was a history professor who could drink her colleagues under the table and then some, while delivering a biology lecture on avian mating rituals. However, the plot needed the antagonist to do something really nasty and mean, and you can’t get much meaner than taking out a history professor with a passion for biology, real estate, and computers. Oh, and helping the female faculty and students at the college stand up to the sexist jerk of a department chair.
Because that’s the essence of the problem for us mystery authors. We write about murder, which, as Maddie Wilcox notes in the beginning of Death of the Drunkard, is the most heinous of all crimes. It is also the most dramatic and the most urgent to solve. You may be sad when you lose your favorite pen, but you’re not going to kill someone over it. You’re just going to get a new pen. We write and read about murder because those are the highest stakes.
Which means that sometimes I have to steel myself and build up the strength to take out a character that I’d prefer to keep around. Like the horse in Death of the Drunkard. Sadly, I needed a way to put Maddie in peril that the antagonist could make look like an accident. Runaway horses, with or without buggies, were incredibly common in the pueblo of Los Angeles in the 1870s. Alas, when horses take off running in a panic, they frequently break their legs, and unfortunately, back then, people didn’t think twice about shooting those poor horses.
So, I’m sorry if I snuff out a favorite character of yours. I promise, I do not do it willy-nilly. I do it because it serves the story I’m telling. And who knows? Maybe in the next of my books that you read, I’ll take out a character you want to see dead. I’d rather do that. Because I don’t like taking out the nice characters. I just sometimes have to.