Pass Me another Dead Body, Will You?

Back in the day, long before I ever thought I’d write novels, a woman named Karen Shaffer invited me to bring my signature good-will guerrilla art project, New Leaf, to Abingdon, VA for an arts festival.

There I met her husband, Charles Vess. If you’ve never heard of Charles Vess, he’s an amazing illustrator who became disenchanted with drawing Spiderman for Marvel Comics. When I met him, he had just finished collaborating with Neil Gaiman on Stardust.

He told me he got tired of brawn being the ultimate solution in the comic book world. He went looking for stories that were resolved through ingenuity instead. Fast forward some years, and Stardust is made into a major motion picture featuring both Michelle Pfieffer and Robert De Niro. What does Hollywood do to this terrific book? They tossed in a lot of the POW! BAM! that Charles had turned his back on.

I enjoyed the movie and have watched it several times. I do not enjoy it more than the book despite the appearance of Robert De Niro in a :-X (sorry, can’t tell you. I don’t do spoilers).

As I was considering my recent review of Elysium, I remembered this bit of irony, and it brought to mind popular plot devices (read: lazy shortcuts) that disturb me as a mystery novelist.

One of the most over-abused practices: “If the pace drags, kill someone.”

This has become so popular that even romantic suspense writers such as Amanda Quick now litter their books with multiple corpses. When she started her writing career, one dead body would do just fine.

I’m not a prude about dead bodies. My first two books were about a serial killer (it says that, right in the blurb). But there just aren’t all that many serial killers out there, and ordinary, run of the mill murderers do not normally leave a trail of bodies behind them to cover up their crimes.

So I’m in the middle of novel number three, and I’m thinking about pacing without the easy device of gratuitous murder. I read some experts.

What do writing gurus have to say about plotting? There are variations on the exact wording, but the common wisdom is that “A plot is a series of disasters that get progressively worse as the book goes along until the triumph (or not) of the final confrontation.”

Seriously? I like to think my characters are smarter than that.

This makes me think about Patricia Cornwell, whose books I used to love until the exacerbating negativity finally got to me. The last book she wrote, I’d finally had enough. Within the first two pages, Kay Scarpetta is fuming about some bit of incompetence engineered by Pete Marino. She’s kept this guy around for twenty years with all the stuff he’s pulled and she hasn’t gotten rid of him? Why does everyone she works with eventually betray her? Is she that big a bitch?

And what about Lucy and Benton? Why do we never see her having a good time with the two people she loves most? Does she really love anyone? Why hasn’t someone sent her to the therapist she so obviously needs? This is entertainment?

So, yes, a novel needs obstacles or it isn’t compelling, or even real. But I like some triumphs and good times, too.

Other devices that annoy me: undetectable poisons that kill rapidly in tiny amounts, over-reliance on a network of readily available informants, silenced guns that are actually silent, same day DNA tests, and protagonists who have more money than God so they can drive around in fancy cars and fly to Bimini to pursue clues at the drop of a hat.

Edit: My friend, Jacques, just reminded me about duct-work large enough for a football lineman to crawl through. Doh.

Edit #2: More of a movie convention, but still worth mentioning: Endless thugs that multiply like tribbles, especially the ones who teleport in front of you, no matter how fast you’re going or how many times you’ve eluded them.

Where am I going with this rant? I have a small request to make. While I might slip from time to time, if I ever become reliant on such silly devices, please put a drop of that undetectable poison in my coffee and put me out of my misery.

0 thoughts on “Pass Me another Dead Body, Will You?”

  1. The thing that has always annoyed me in a murder mystery is the all too often scene where the protagonist is about to shoot or stab someone when suddenly the police detective shows up just in the nick of time, when just a few seconds ago they were all the way across town at rush hour in New York city.

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