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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Murderous Intent: Why I Write About Killing People

by Wendy Tyson

What motivates you to write about killing people? Salad Bowl Saturdays is pleased to welcome Wendy Tyson to share her thoughts on the subject. Welcome, Wendy! — Paula

Recently my mother, a very sweet former second grade teacher who can still make you sit up straighter with one pointed, sideways glance, asked me why I wanted to kill people. “Even if it’s just on paper, Wendy,” she said. “I’m only going to ask you once. Why?”

Why, indeed?

I cut my mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth George, Harlan Coben, Donna Leon, Jonathan Kellerman.  Too many to name. Mysteries are, for me, like comfort food. When I pick up a novel by one of my favorite mystery writers, I know I’m getting something familiar yet satisfying. I know I’ll be taken away.

But as I looked at my mother across her small front porch, the What happens at Grandma’s house, stays at Grandma’s house stone staring at me from the flower garden circling our white wicker chairs, I considered why I love writing mysteries so much.

For that matter, why so many of us enjoy reading murder mysteries.

I’ve heard others’ theories. Some say the appeal of the murder mystery is the desire to create the perfect crime. I will admit that there’s a certain left brain quality to mystery writing that excites me. I’m a transactional lawyer by training, and mysteries offer the opportunity to not only create compelling characters, but to craft complex plots. In a mystery, the puzzle has to fit together at the end. There can’t be a single leftover piece, and nothing can feel jammed together. It all has to work. Plotting the mystery can be a challenge -- which is, of course, half the fun.

I recently heard a famous thriller author suggest that our collective love for the genre has to do with our need to experience danger in a safe environment. That, in effect, readers like to sympathize with the victim while knowing they won’t actually be hurt. Kind of the literary equivalent of a roller coaster. And we, as writers, receive the same thrill from creating these stories as readers get from writing them. I can see that, too.

But neither of these theories fully answered the question for me – or my mother. Why do I write about killing people? That day, I looked at my mother and said simply, “Justice.” I think she knew what I meant because, true to her word, she didn’t ask me again. But her question made me think long after I left her home. Was that the right answer?

Before law school, when I was in my formative twenties, I’d been a therapist in a variety of social service settings. I worked primarily with teenage girls who’d either been in trouble with the law or who’d been abused by their families – or both. I saw the worst humanity has to offer, but I’d also witnessed incredible spiritual resiliency and strength. During those years, one thing stuck with me: life isn’t always fair. Innocent people got hurt. Bad people got away with bad stuff. And isn’t that the case with true crime, too? Victims often go un-vindicated. Criminals go free. Real crime is gritty and sad and often infuriating.

But not in murder mysteries. In mysteries, no matter how awful the crime, the bad folks get their comeuppance (in one way or another). True, there’s the plot puzzle aspect, and the thrill of danger. But there’s also a certain fairness that I think appeals to many readers. For me, writing mysteries allows me to impose a sense of order on a crazy world. Do people die? Yes -- although I never take death lightly, even on paper. But in the end, justice prevails.

Why do you write and/or read murder mysteries?

Wendy Tyson’s background in law and psychology has provided inspiration for her mysteries and thrillers. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again with her husband, three kids and two muses, dogs Molly and Driggs. Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals, including KARAMU, Eclipse, A Literary Journal and Concho River Review. Wendy is the author of Killer Image, an Allison Campbell mystery (Henery Press), and The Seduction of Miriam Cross (E-Lit Books – under the pen name W. A. Tyson). Deadly Assets, the second novel in the Campbell series, will be released July 22, 2014. Find Wendy on Facebook or Twitter, or visit her at


Jim Jackson said...

Welcome to WWK, Wendy.

When I was young, I read the Hardy Boys (and to a lesser extent Nancy Drew) because I wanted to be like them. I wanted to solve puzzles--and as you suggest--bring justice.

I suspect we use murder in our novels because it is the highest order of crime in our society. If there were a society in which (say) polluting were the highest crime, I think that society's stories would have a preponderance of pollution mysteries.

~ Jim

Wendy said...

I think you're right, Jim. Perhaps collectively we identify our biggest fear and conquer it (over and over) in books.

Thank you for inviting me to be part of WWK today!

KM Rockwood said...

For me, at least, the vicarious experience is important, in both reading and writing crime stories. I prefer fiction to true crime, because if I get too caught up in either one, if it's fiction, at least I can say, "Well, it didn't really happen."

When I was a kid, the best birthday present you could give another kid was a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. I can still see them at the store, pristine and lined up on the shelf. You had to be very careful to keep it in pristine condition until the birthday kid unwrapped it, because if he/she had already read that one, you'd go back to the store with him/her and let them choose one they hadn't read.

I suppose there must have been some kids who got them all as they came out, but none of us could dream of such luxury, and the public library, which we all haunted, didn't consider them literary enough to stock them.

Warren Bull said...

Part of the reason for me is the range permitted by the genre. Like jazz, the author can improvise around the central melody and explore all sorts of human motivation.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Like you, Wendy, I was drawn to reading mysteries through following favorite authors like Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Elizabeth George, and Louise Penny. When you read about those people or if you get to meet them in person, you realize that they are gentle, thoughtful,and reflective. In writing, they concentrate on solving puzzles and restoring order.
I think you are correct, to really understand the most terrible human behavior, you need to consider it in a reasoned, safe setting. Mysteries always have the potential to teach us something about ourselves.
Thanks for your post!

Gloria Alden said...

Welcome to Writers Who Kill, Wendy. I read more than just mysteries, but mysteries are my favorite reads and what I like to write. Not only do I want to see justice done at the end, but I like to try to solve the puzzle if I'm reading it or create a good puzzle if I'm writing it. I'll have to put your books on my TBR books. They sound interesting.

Susan O'Brien said...

Hi Wendy! Thanks for your thoughtful exploration of such an interesting topic. I'm not sure what my answer is...probably a combination of things. You've given me something to think about!

Nancy G. West said...

Great post, Wendy. You hit it on the head: justice prevails. Also, understanding the motivations for people committing crimes and motivations for people determined to bring the perpetrator to justice.


Liz Milliron said...

Oh yes. Nancy Drew - but Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, Clive Cussler... Comfort reads indeed.

I'm kind of with you - justice. That sense of enforcing order in a world that often isn't very orderly. You're right - sometimes the bad guys get off. But in my fiction, I can make sure justice is meted out in accordance with the crime.

And I think murder - the willful taking of the life - resonates with so many as the epitome of disorder in society.

So much fun meeting you yesterday at PALitFest!

Wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy said...

(Sorry -- seem to have hit submit twice.) Thanks everyone! I had so much fun being part of Writers Who Kill. Great blog! And to echo a few of the comments, I would add understanding the motives behind the investigator's actions and the killer's behaviors...great point. Writing about murder definitely allows us to not only bring "justice" and confront our greatest fears, but to understand (or try, at least, to understand) the "why" part of the equation. ~ Wendy