Jacqueline Vick is the author of the Harlow Brothers mysteries and the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. You can find out more about her at her website, www.jacquelinevick.com, or by clicking here, see her last post here, and buy her books here.
Mystery writers are told to get that murder on the page as soon as possible. Readers won’t wait. The multiple sources I checked agreed death should occur within the first chapter or two. I had that in mind as I finished rereading a favorite Robert Barnard mystery. In Death of a Literary Widow, forty percent of the book is over before the murder happens on page 81.
Contrary to current opinion, I relish a good setup. Somehow, getting to know the characters and setting before the murder happens feels like pulling back a rubber band. Tension increases, and when the homicide happens, we’re off! You wouldn’t run an obstacle course before first checking the layout, right? Learning about the characters feels the same to me.
This may be a minority opinion, but I’m in good company. Ever heard of Agatha Christie?
In Murder at the Vicarage, the corpse appears on page 40, several chapters in. By then, we know who Colonel Lucius Protheroe is and who would like to kill him, including his own wife and daughter. For a few suspects, we even know why.
Death on the Nile takes even longer, with the murder happening (off the page) on page 142. The body in Rex Stout’s Some Buried Cesar doesn’t make an appearance until page 59, four chapters into the book.
Does this apply to modern books? In Plantation Shudders, author Ellen Byron saves the body until page 38, the end of chapter three. However, in Dana Mentink’s Pint of No Return, Trinidad Jones discovers the corpse on page 29, at the end of chapter two.
Late arrivals might not work for a police procedural or thrillers. The detective’s job doesn’t start until there’s a body, and the writer of thrillers needs to start that ticking clock.
What do you think? Are you willing to wait through the setup before the character discovers the body? Or do you want your murder right away? In the first chapter or two. I’d love to know.