When I signed the contract for my mystery series, one requirement from my editor for Book One jumped out at me: The body drop must happen by page 30.
Body drop? I was so new that I wasn’t exactly sure what that was. I mean, I could imagine – and I was right – but I had no idea that in mystery circles this was a “thing” and that it was expected to happen quickly. The body drop, the appearance of a mysteriously dead body, has also been a topic of discussion in the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
People talk about formula when talking about mysteries, especially cozy mysteries. I happen to enjoy the formula, both as a reader and a writer. As a reader I enjoy it because I like to see how each writer makes the formula her or his own. As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of taking that formula and seeing how I can put my own spin on it.
Considering the body drop got me thinking about Agatha Christie.
One of the things I enjoyed about Agatha’s work and that of other Golden Age writers was that part of the fun was guessing who the victim would be. The garrulous old army major? The businessman with a scheme for a flashy new motor car or a vague scientific invention? An exotic, most likely Russian, ballerina who may or may not be the love child of a financier and that milkmaid who once “did” for Miss Marple in St. Mary Mead?
Christie would introduce us to her cast of characters and give us time to observe them, like a bettor at the race track. We’d meet them and weigh the possibilities. Who would the victim be?
Once the body dropped – well past page thirty - then we could dive into collecting the clues alongside the detective, watching the alibis unravel until the gathering in the library when all would be revealed. This set up also helped avoid the problem of the “mushy middle,” a slowing of pace and tension when no big dramatic events or reveals occur in the middle of a story.
I liked this set up, which, sadly, is not possible with a page 30 body drop.
I think Christie and the Golden Age authors were on to something. Giving the reader that first signpost to look for – who would be the victim? -- and then moving on to whodunnit created a very satisfactory pace and structure.
What do you think? Readers, do you like an early body drop? Writers, do you like to drop the body early? How do you keep this formula fresh?