Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Making a case for the cold case

When I wrote SACRED COWS, I decided that there would be two murders in it. The first girl killed, Melissa, is dead on the first page of the book. The reader never meets her while alive, only learns about her after she's dead. The second girl killed, Allison, is a friend of Melissa's, and Annie Seymour interviews her for the newspaper about her friend. Allison is killed later, in a very different way than Melissa.

I did not want to solve Allison's murder.

The heart of the story would be finding Melissa's killer. Allison's death seems to be connected, because they are friends and the two girls are escorts. But when I wrote the book, I had decided that Allison's death was random, that the police would not find out who killed her at all. It would be one of those cold cases, the ones that are never solved.

We know that crimes are not always solved. We know that there isn't always a reason for a crime, but sometimes it's just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not every killer is caught. I wanted to show the reader both a crime that's solved, a killer brought to justice, and a crime that remains a mystery.

My editor didn't like that. Mysteries have to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, I was told. I had to solve Allison's murder just as I had solved Melissa's. The book would seem unfinished if I didn't. So, because I was so happy to actually have finally sold the book and it would be published, went along with it. I wrapped up the mystery of Allison's death just as nicely as I did Melissa's. I don't think the book suffered for it; I made the reason for the crime plausible, the killer plausible.

But I still wish I could've left it open.

Just as I wish Chevy Stevens had left her crime random in her splashy debut STILL MISSING. I read this remarkable book yesterday. The plot, about a woman Realtor who is abducted at an open house and held captive for a year by a man she called The Freak, sped along at a breakneck pace. It was the story of a woman who survived physically, but emotionally she is still facing the demons of what happened. I was riveted.

Until the last part of the book. When it seemed that perhaps Ms. Stevens' editor said the same thing to her as mine did to me: Give us a reason for the abduction. Someone has to be to blame. Solve the crime.

So she did. And I felt it was wrong. I didn't believe any of it. Because it stretched credulity. The suspense was gone, and what was left was merely "You've got to be kidding me." She should've left it alone. The reader would not have minded. In fact, many of the book's reviews indicate that.

Do you think a mystery writer has an obligation to always solve the crime?


michael said...

Mysteries mimic our reality in that the world exists in random chaos. The thought has always been that the reader reads mysteries to find a world where chaos is defeated and order is restored. That reader wants everything solved and explained.

But we live in a world where we no longer believe in the simple solution. I think your editor was wrong. You solved the first murder, the one that drove the characters and fueled the plot. The second murder was explained. It was random. Today's reader understands that. CSI TV series has made much success with unsolved crimes lasting several episodes. The random murder would have been interesting if it had stayed with your main character. Certainly more interesting than the result of your misguided editor.

carl brookins said...

"Always" is a very long time. Reasons, as in motivations for the crimes)are crucial, otherwise why bother? I'm not interested in wasting my time with stories that start in the middle of something and progress (usually slowly) to nowhere else. Even if there is a little character growth, although yes, I want some of that as well. One argument is that because our real world is random and chaotic, we read mystery fiction for surcease, so we should have resolution. Blame, yes, it's part of the conclusion. But absolute resolution isn't always necessary. Legal resolution and justice are not the same. Satisfaction among many of today's readers even cozy readers, does not always require total retribution.

jenny milchman said...

I didn't read the second part of your post, as I am still looking forward to Ms. Stevens' book, but I am very intrigued by your own work now! I love the idea of a cold case in a mystery--wish your editor had gone for it!