A continuing character in the Seamus McCree series is the self-styled “Happy Reaper.” He’s a hired killer who readers first meet in Ant Farm (#1). He returns in Empty Promises (#5) and plays a significant role in False Bottom (#6). [Projected publication date is late 2018.] He’s driven to be the best in the business, and, as we see in Empty Promises, he spends his down time honing his skills. I find one-dimensional hitmen boring. The Happy Reaper has a code of ethics—not like yours and mine, of course—but one he lives by. That makes him more interesting and allows readers and me to explore deeper issues incorporated in the struggle between him and Seamus.
The other killers populating the series are unprofessional. Killing for them is a means unto an end. Sometimes people find themselves backed into a corner and killing becomes (they think) their only way out. Readers can see alternatives, so my task as author is to make a death believable by providing sufficient motivation for the act.
Revenge, which I’ve used as the engine of hate (Bad Policy #2), can be particularly powerful. The event that triggered the revenge can be recent or distant. With distant events, the hurt has had time to fester in a warped mind, magnifying and intensifying the internal damage. I try to put myself in the minds of the killers, to feel their burning need to get even, so when I revel the killer and motivation, the truth explodes on the page fully formed. It’s also important to lay the groundwork in earlier chapters. The reader may be surprised by who done it, but it shouldn’t come as a total shock because the clues were there.
The most frightening people for me are those who rationalize that killing others is justified to bring about a better world. Because I fear it, I am also drawn to explore it, which I did in Cabin Fever (#3). To write these killers, I must understand their motivation. I block out my abhorrence for their fanaticism and allow them to explain to me what they find so important about their goals that they can justify using murder as a tactic. Once we’ve had that discussion (all occurring in my head—what does that say about me?), I can allow the character to present his perspective in the novel through his acts, conversations with others, and internal dialog. Understanding the character’s ambition makes their amoral aspect feel more believable when he appoints himself judge, jury, and executioner.
Being able to glimpse the killer’s motivation from their own perspective is one reason I often prefer reading and writing suspense compared to a traditional whodunit. How about you?
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can and find more information about Jim and his books at .