In the middle of a crazy schedule where I’m still doing promotion for Every Last Secret, I’ve received edits and deadline for the sequel, Every Broken Trust, and I’m writing the first draft of a third novel, because that’s the way this writing-career thing works, it turns out. Right now, I’m working out who’s going to die and why in this new book. I’ve written enough to have several different options to choose from.
One of the questions I’ve encountered during events to promote Every Last Secret is, “How do you decide who to kill in your books?” I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of giving a less than serious answer to this one when it pops up.
This question is made for jokes and humor—“Whoever’s pissed me off lately” and “You know that guy who hops lanes without signaling and cuts you off in traffic?”—and I’ve too often settled for what will please the audience and make them laugh. But it’s a serious question and deserves better than that.
How do you decide who to kill off in your books? I would like to say I have a rule to live by in this circumstance, only pedophiles or crooked politicians, but I don’t. Some of the people who die in my books are perfectly nice, ordinary people, some are crooks, and some are truly evil (they usually only die at the very end while trying to kill my protagonist). Isn’t that the way it happens in real life?
We’d always like to think that a murder victim must have done something to bring it on himself or herself, and the media will dig to try to find connections or past bad behavior to explain it. This happens because none of us reading or hearing about a real murder wants to think that it happened to someone just like us. We want to think that, if we’re living a good, law-abiding life, nothing bad—certainly not as bad as murder!—will happen to us.
Of course, murder happens all the time to criminals and those who run around with criminals. We’d like to think it happens to the truly evil also. Though that’s something we’re less sure of. A lot of really evil people doing really evil deeds seem to continue and prosper for a long time. They usually get caught only by accident—which makes us wonder how many other truly evil people are out there getting away with their foul actions. That’s a little creepy, but we can live with that. It’s why we have mysteries and thrillers, so we can see the Big Bads getting caught and justice being done.
Murder of the ordinary, murder of the good, is something that shakes us up a bit more. When we read or hear of it in the news, we shudder a little inside. If such a terrible thing can happen to them, it could happen to us! Following the rules and laws, trying to be a good person won’t keep it at bay. We see bleakly that it’s purely the luck of the draw whether we stay safe or not.
I had this brought home to me when I was a very young mother with one baby and another on the way. Our little house was squashed in among old apartment houses in a not-great part of town where lots of young people lived because we couldn’t afford better. I’d sit out in my front yard with the baby in her playpen, so we could both bask in the sun and the fresh air (and I could read). In one of the apartments right behind my house lived a nice woman about my age. We’d met several times. Her boyfriend used to walk down from the bus stop and cut across my yard to get to her apartment. She had told me a week or so earlier that they’d broken up, but on this day, he crossed on his way to her, and I smiled and waved lazily, thinking they must have made up. About half an hour later, he came back through my yard as I was packing up the baby and her things to take back inside. I wouldn’t even have been aware of him behind me, except a stray dog that I’d been feeding for a couple of days started to growl from the sidewalk.
I turned to find this guy right behind me, looking wide-eyed and wild. By the time I really processed the fact that he didn’t seem to be his usual self, the dog had come into my yard, and the guy dashed off up toward the bus stop. I decided he was high—this was in the very early 70s—and thought no more about it.
That night on the TV news, we learned that he had raped and brutally beaten to death his former girlfriend. He was coming straight from the scene of that crime when he stopped in my yard and came up behind me. Possibly worried that I’d seen him go to her apartment. Maybe thinking this was one more detail to clean up. I don’t know to this day. But that dog had a home with me until he died of old age.
Sometimes even the good, or at least nice, get murdered, and I’m wondering right now if that should happen in this new book. If you write mysteries or thrillers, how do you decide who to kill? And if you read them, which victims make you the most interested in seeing their murderers brought to justice?