Photo is of the first hall of the Temple of Ramses II, taken by Dennis Jarvis.
A well-designed plot with unexpected events can sell a mystery, but for a writer to produce a successful mystery series he must create characters that are so vivid and realistic that readers feel they know them as well as they know their own relatives. A mystery novel requires a main character as the detective and a cast of other characters who interact with the detective and help or hinder him or her in solving the crime. In a series these will often be reoccurring characters with distinct personalities. Other characters who are created only for that specific book are the victim, the murderer, and the other suspects.
Many writers tend to think in terms of only their primary character, the detective, but to fill a 60,000 to 85,000 word mystery novel, there are usually more characters than just the detective, his sidekick, the victim, and the murderer. For a writer to create a believable plot he has to develop a slew of characters. Barbara Norville, author of Writing the Modern Mystery, cautioned against having too many characters in a novel.
One way of accommodating yourself to the exigencies of a time frame is to keep the number of characters down to a manageable lot. Even with as few as six to ten, you will be surprised at the amount of juggling you have to do to give them their due time and space. And even with a small cast of characters, you will not be able to develop any of them in great depth, again because of the exigencies of the time frame. Yet they have to seem like real people in a real world (Norville, 113).
The challenge of making even six or ten characters unique and memorable may seem overwhelming, and a writer may be inclined to stick to mostly stereotype figures, leaving a flat, bland feel to scenes where he hoped to build tension and excitement. In his book Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, author Dwight Swain suggested that “clear and simple traits work best” (Swain, 21). He said, “So while ordinarily you’ll want to go beyond the cartoon/caricature level, try not to carry development so far in depth that your people fall over the edge into total confusion” (Swain, 21).
Larry Beinhart, author of several mysteries, claimed he uses two methods to create characters. His first method is simply to make a list of all of the characteristics his characters will have, utilizing the same sort of form that a psychologist would use during his first interview with a patient. Beinhart called his second method “Gestalt,” which consisted of taking a person that he already knew and putting that character into the situation he created (Beinhart, 86). Beinhart pointed out that these do not have to be people that a writer actually knows.
These people, whom you are gracious enough to reemploy as characters, need not come from life. They may come from dreams, books, films, wish fulfillment. I read an account of one writer who looks at magazines for photographs of interesting faces and for people who might fit roles that she needs in her book, then tacks them on the wall above the computer screen and imagines them from their appearance (Beinhart, 87).
Beinhart stated that Conan Doyle based his character Sherlock Holmes on a professor he had known at Edinburgh University (Beinhart, 86). Referring to a spy in John le Carre’s famous espionage thrillers, Beinhart said, “George Smiley was based on two Oxford dons. One, I am told, had Smiley’s persona, the other was the actual spy” (Beinhart, 87).
Swain feels that in order to create believable characters a writer has to be able to fuse his consciousness with a character so completely that he will understand exactly how his imaginary person thinks and what motivates his actions.
Consciously or unconsciously, by nature or by learning, the writer must have or acquire the ability to put himself in another, perhaps unlikely person’s place. Sometimes empathy will come in a flash, through intuition or osmosis. A character may spring into being full blown, alive and breathing from the moment of conception. More often, in whole or in part, he and his situation will have to be constructed, fabricated…built in steps or stitches through the writer’s skill at rationalization. But whatever the process, it remains at the heart of the matter (Swain, 12-13).
The process that Swain describes explains why a writer’s later books in a series are often far more vivid than his earlier books. The writer knows his main character and his companions better as he spends more time creating situations for them to interact in and uncovers fresh layers of their personalities.
Although there are some successful mystery series where the main character seems to be caught in a time warp where she never ages or gets married, such a Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, most best-selling mystery series have a main character whose personality develops as he or she responds to significant life changes with each new book, luring readers back to see what happens to their beloved detective in each new installment. In Hallie Ephron’s book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ’em Dead with Style, she discussed how to create characters that pull readers into the story.
So what kind of characters makes readers care? It goes without saying that the character must be fully realized and complex, not a cipher or a cliché. Does the character have to be likeable? Sympathetic, at the very least. Perfect? No way. Perfectly moral, intellectually infallible, physically flawless characters are boring. Readers are far more taken with a character who is flawed in interesting ways. Michael Connelly’s detective, Harry Bosch, is a haunted, emotionally bruised former cop who makes mistakes and steps on toes on the way to achieving justice. Sue Grafton’s private investigator, Kinsey Millhone, sometimes lies “just to keep up [her] skills” and cuts her hair with nail scissors (Ephron, 18).
Lisbeth Salander is the hacker heroine in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy that started with his best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth stole thirty billion kronor, smoked marijuana, was sexually promiscuous, and attempted to burn up her abusive father with a Molotov cocktail when she was twelve. James Lee Burke drew on his own personal demons when he created the detective for his best-selling series, Dave Robicheaux, a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam veteran who tries to follow the rules, but sometimes find it necessary to commit violence to achieve justice.
In James Lee Burke’s first mystery novel featuring his now famous detective Dave Robicheaux, he describes Robicheaux through dialogue during a conversation the detective is having with a convict who is getting ready to be executed. The convict calls him “Streak,” talks about an AA meeting that Robicheaux took him to, trying to help him get straight. The convict says, “Hey, tell me something. Is it true Jimmie the Gent is your brother?” “You hear a lot of bullshit in the street.” “You both got that black Cajun hair with a white patch in it, like you got skunk blood in you.” He laughed (Burke, Neon Rain, 4-5).
Burke’s novels are mostly written using a first person narrator, so we see Dave Robicheaux’s appearance through the eyes of others. Through this little slice of dialogue in The Neon Rain, the first in the Dave Robicheaux series, we know that Robicheaux attends Alcoholics Anonymous, he tries to help others who are addicted to get sober, he has a brother he doesn’t claim, he is Cajun, and he has black hair with a white streak in it, which is why his nickname is “Streak.” Throughout the series we see Dave’s character displayed through his actions. Dave has a strong moral code, a respect for women, and believes in punishing deliberate cruelty. He reveres the Louisiana he grew up in, before it became polluted by greedy corporations with no regard for the delicate ecosystem in its swamps and marsh lands.
If the writer is attempting to convey a theme, such as James Lee Burke does in his mystery novels when he writes about toxic waste dumping or exploitation of natural resources, the most effective way is to use a first person narrator. In Norville’s book Writing the Modern Mystery she discusses the differences between using a first-person narrator or a third-person narrator.
The advantage of using the first person is that the reader is an active participant. When the sleuth exults, ponders, bleeds, makes love or shoots, the reader has a ringside seat. This lends immediacy to the action and personalizes the feelings. That appeals to the reader. What appeals to the writer is that all of the other characters radiate from the sleuth; they do not appear on scene until he or she meets up with them. This makes it easy to introduce them and establish their parts in the story (Norville, 115).
The plot of the mystery novel flows forward through the eyes of the first-person narrator. The reader sees each piece unfold as the narrator discovers it. Norville pointed out that one of the disadvantages is that the first-person narrator is “presented obliquely, in bits and chunks, and to some extent the sleuth will always remain as much a voice as a person (Norville, 123).
A third-person narration allows a writer to use an omniscient point of view, to show events as they unfold rather than as the first-person narrator discovers them. The reader is able to see inside the minds of multiple characters. Norville points out the advantages of this technique:
A big plus of third-person narration is being able to describe fully – and up front – the sleuth’s build, coloring, etc., and the impressions he or she makes on others. And then there are the affective touches the author can lay on the sleuth – the little mannerisms, the flits of emotion across the face, the instinctive moves a person is not aware of making (Norville, 123).
Norville cautioned writers that even though the detective was one of several characters in the third-person point of view novel, he is still the one that the author needs to focus on (Norville, 123). Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was written using third-person narration. He described Lisbeth Salander as: “Armansky’s star researcher was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pieced nose and eyebrows…She looked as if she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers” (Larson, The Girl with, 40-41).
Some mystery writers use both first-person narrator and third-person point of view in the same novel. James Lee Burke uses this technique effectively in several of his Dave Robicheaux novels. Usually he makes the jump from first person narrator to third person point of view believable by having Robicheaux explain that the story was told to him at a later date.
In Elizabeth Peters’s popular Amelia Peabody series, the early books use the technique of first-person narrator, told from the point of view of Peters’ fictional character Victorian Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody Emerson. The books are alleged to come from Amelia Peabody Emerson’s recently discovered journals and Peters has merely edited them. But as her characters aged, Peters began incorporating the viewpoint of Amelia’s son, Ramses, through the device of a newly discovered Manuscript H. The sections from Manuscript H were told from a third person point of view. Peters was also able to show events from the viewpoint of Nefret, the Emerson’s foster daughter, through letters written by Nefret to Ramses’ cousin Lia.
Peters’s series follows Amelia Peabody, a wealthy spinster, on her first trip to Egypt during 1884. As she is traveling through Italy on her way to Egypt, she rescues Evelyn Barton Forbes, a young woman who believes she has been disinherited by her grandfather because she ran away with an Italian lover. In Egypt the ladies meet Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, two Egyptologists. Walter and Evelyn fall in love, but Radcliffe objects to their relationship because Evelyn is penniless (Peters, Crocodile).
A murder occurs on the site of the Emerson’s archeological dig, and Amelia is determined to solve it. Amelia is stubborn, domineering, and determined, just as Radcliffe Emerson is. The murder is solved when it is discovered that Evelyn’s former lover was responsible, and all the actions that happened were designed to persuade her to marrying a loathsome cousin. Evelyn is not penniless as she believed, but an heiress. At the end of the first Amelia and Radcliffe Emerson are expecting their first child, Ramses, and Walter and Evelyn Emerson have already had their first child (Peters, Crocodile).
Throughout the series, Peters progresses the lives of her characters. Each book is designed to show one season of the Emersons’s archeological expeditions, always made lively by murderers and other crimes. Readers are entertained by the precocious Ramses as his parents take him to Egypt and he participates in their adventures. In the sixth book, The Last Camel Died at Noon, the Emersons adopt their foster daughter, Nefret, who is thirteen. Peters is careful to incorporate events at the time which would have been significant to the Emersons. In her book He Shall Thunder in the Sky, which is set during the 1914-1915 archeological season, Ramses is resisting enlisting in the British Army to fight in World War I and Egypt is under British Martial Law.
By switching from strictly first-person narration to using the third-person Manuscript H and Nefret’s letters, Peters was able to show events that her main character, Amelia, would not have known. Readers were delighted to watch the unfolding romantic relationship between Nefret and Ramses that was revealed through Nefret’s letters and Manuscript H as the couple grew older. By aging her characters and having them go through the normal passages in life, Peters gave a sense of realism to her series. In Tomb of the Golden Bird, Ramses and Nefret have a growing pair of twins and Nefret is expecting another child.
Peters died when she was eighty-five years old (Internet Speculative Fiction, Barbara). One of her last books, The Laughter of Dead Kings, answered a question that many of her readers had been asking for years. She had previously written the Vicky Bliss series, which featured a blond museum curator with a lover she knows only as Sir John Smythe, who is an art thief. One of the Vicky Bliss books, Night Train to Memphis, published in 1994, had been set in Egypt. Readers had been speculating that there might be a connection between the Emerson family and Vicky Bliss. In The Laughter of Dead Kings, her recent Vicky Bliss book that is also set in Egypt, readers learned that the fictional journals that Peters have been using to create the Amelia Peabody series came from Sir John Smythe, the grandson of Geneviere Emerson, the unborn child of Ramses and Nefret referred to in Tomb of the Golden Bird. Peters ties the two series together by ending the book with Sir John Smythe proposing to Vicky Bliss (Peters, Laughter).
Other authors use the technique of switching viewpoints to expand on a group of reoccurring characters or throw red herrings in the reader’s path. Joan Hess, in her charming Maggody series, is a master at both playful mysteries and quirky characters. The Maggody series is set in the tiny town of Maggody, Arkansas, population 755, which has only one police officer and a thriving population of bizarre reoccurring characters. When Hess is writing from the viewpoint of Arly Hanks, the town’s Chief of Police, she uses first-person narrator. But Hess shows the action of the various suspects as well as the town’s residents by using third-person viewpoint.
An ongoing mystery series requires a set of characters for the sleuth to interact with and help him, often in some bumbling manner, to solve the crime. The best series tend to have characters that reappear over and over again, whose lives tend to evolve with each new book. The charm of Joan Hess’s Maggody series rests in the characters that populate Maggody, Arkansas, a tiny town in the Ozarks of 755 citizens. Hess plays with all the stereotypes of the Arkansas hillbilly. Many of her characters are distantly related and described as: “Members of the Buchanon clan, scattered across Stump County like chickweed, are renown for beetlish brows, yellow eyes, and thick-lipped sneers. They do not patronize the Brains “R” Us outlet at the mall” (Hess, Murder, 3). Her ongoing characters include a mayor named Jim Bob Buchanon who is married to his second cousin, and Kevin Buchanon, a distant relative. Jim Bob is depicted as being cunning, but “Kevin has been spotted puzzling over a soda can with a poptop” (Hess, Murder, 3).
Although Hess leaves her main character Ariel “Arly” Hanks in a time warp where she does not seem to age or undergo normal life events through most of the series, she does allow the relationship of two of her secondary characters, Kevin Buchanon and his three hundred pound plus girlfriend Dahlia O’Neil to advance through various stages. In each book the couple’s relationship enters a new level, although due to their mutual Buchanon blood (Dahlia is distantly related to both Kevin and Jim Bob) their limited intelligence leads to humorous mishaps that get in Ariel’s way as she is trying to solve the latest crime in Maggody.
In the early books in the series, Kevin and Dahlia’s relationship is fairly new, with Kevin obsessed with Dahlia while she is obsessed with food. She is his first love and sexual experience, although it is obvious that he is hardly the first person she ever slept with. By the fifth book in the series, Mortal Remains in Maggody, the couple are engaged. Hess is able to skillfully paint the couple and their relationship in just a couple paragraphs.
“What’s the matter?” Kevin asked, swallowing hastily so he could inquire about his beloved’s obvious state of depression. Why she’d shook her head when he’d suggested cheeseburgers and onion rings. Now all three hundred plus pounds of her quivered in distress, as if she were the goddess of a volcano about to erupt in tears. He would have dropped to his knees to entreat her to pour out her soul to him, but the parking lot was muddy and he was wearing new jeans…
He turned on his manly charm. “Ah, but Dahlia, my dumpling, the night is young.”
“The night may be young, but your brain ain’t been born yet,” she said without mercy. Her cheeks bulged out, and several chins appeared as she lowered her face and glared at him like a bull getting ready to charge (Hess, Mortal, 20-21).
Kevin and Dahlia are married in the sixth book in the series, Maggody in Manhattan. The wedding is described with Hess’s usual humor:
The bride, a majestic alpine figure in her voluminous white tent dress, had gone along with the love and honor stuff, but turned ornery when Brother Verber suggested she ought to obey Kevin, clamped her mouth closed, and refused to continue until a compromise was reached in which she grimly agreed to hear him out even when he was “bein’ stupider than cow spit” (Hess, Maggody, 6).
By the most recent book in the series, The Merry Wives of Maggody, the couple are the parents of a set of twin toddlers and a new baby.
Other ongoing characters in Hess’s Maggody series include Raz Buchanon, who has a pedigree sow that he treats almost like a human girlfriend. Brother Verber is the town’s preacher, a closet alcoholic with a strong taste for porn. Arly’s mother Ruby Bee and Ruby Bee’s best friend Estelle are also characters who frequently interfere in Ariel’s investigations, but often uncover information that proves to be helpful in finding the solution to the crime.
Hess uses the technique of first-person narration when she is writing about her sleuth, Arly, and third-person narration when she is following the exploits of the town’s population or the impending victim and suspects. The victim is usually an outsider, as are the murderer and various suspects. Hess uses a variety of techniques to bring the outsiders into the tiny town. Her plots have included filming a porn movie, a Civil War reenactment, a religious revival, and alleged UFO sightings.
The most recent installment, The Merry Wives of Maggody is the fifteenth book in the series, and Hess is finally progressing the life of her sleuth, Arly Hanks, by making her pregnant, although readers are wondering if Arly will marry her boyfriend Jack, who lives in Springfield, Missouri, thus ending the Maggody series. According to the reviews on Amazon.com, readers are still eager to see what new adventures Arly will have, and anticipating the next book to find out if Arly will get married or not.
Janet Evanovich has not been as fortunate with her deliberate refusal to progress the main character, Stephanie Plum, in her best-selling numbers series. Evanovich’s mystery series had been consistent best-sellers, but her most recent book, Sizzlin’ Sixteen, was met with poor reviews and received only two and a half stars on Amazon.com. Earlier books had gotten four and five stars, but readers have tired of Stephanie Plum’s inability to decide between her sometimes boyfriend Joe Morelli and a man she flirts with but has only slept with once, Ranger. Reviews pointed out that Evanovich has used the same plots and techniques before, and comments on Amazon.com on the most recent book show readers actively encouraging Evanovich to make her heroine chose between the two men and end the series.
In mystery novels, the main character usually has a sidekick, a character who appears in each new book in the series. Sidekicks can be either an asset or a hindrance to the detective.
It’s the old opposites attract. Mystery protagonists and their sidekicks are a study in contrasts. Sidekicks are the yin to the protagonists’ yang. The contrast puts the protagonist’s characteristics into relief. For instance, the thickheaded Watson makes Holmes look smarter. (Ephron, 51).
In Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, her sidekick is Lula, an African American former prostitute who is overweight, but dresses in flamboyant clothing that is several sizes too small for her. Lula carries a Glock without a permit, and frequently shoots off rounds when she is annoyed or frightened.
James Lee Burke’s detective Dave Robicheaux has Clete Purcel as his sidekick. Clete was Dave’s Homicide partner in the first book in the series, The Neon Rain. In that book he became an outlaw, but Burke brought him back in subsequent novels, evolving his character from a bodyguard to a mob boss into a skip tracer for a bail bonds man until he becomes a private investigator.
The sunlight looked like yellow smoke in the canopy of the live oaks, and up ahead I saw the dock and bait shop that I operated as a part-time business and a lavender Cadillac convertible parked by the boat ramp, which meant that my old Homicide partner, the bane of NOPD, the good-natured, totally irresponsible, fiercely loyal Clete Purcel, was back in New Iberia (Burke, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, 32).
Clete describes himself and Dave as “the Bobbsey Twins from Homicide,” and he calls Dave, “Big Mon,” a touch of New Orleans slang that adds realism to his character. Clete’s antics are always entertaining, and satisfy that part of readers that craves justice in situations where there seems to be no recourse or closure within the boundaries of the criminal justice system. In Dixie City Jam, Clete gets annoyed with a mobster, hot-wires one of the man’s earthmovers, and uses it to tear down the man’s house, causing half a million dollars of damage (Burke, Dixie, 389-392).
Clete is a large man, frequently described as being similar to an elephant, but Burke is skilled at showing Clete and the type of man he is in selective details.
Clete opened the Cadillac’s door and put one loafered foot out on the dirt, then rose to his full height, like an elephant standing up after sunning itself on a riverbank, his grin still in place, the skin on the back of his neck peeling like fish scales. A slapjack protruded from the side pocket of his slacks (Burke, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, 43).
Unlike Dave, fettered by his badge and his struggle to color within the lines, Clete acts on impulse, dishing out his own form of justice outside of legal constraints. In Burke’s book Last Car to Elysian Fields, Clete finds a convicted child molester living next door to a small boy, and to ensure the molester leaves the child alone, he shoves the molester’s head into a toilet bowl and “slammed the toilet seat down on Bobby Joe’s neck and head, then grabbed the top of the shower stall and mounted the toilet, crushing the seat down on Bobby Joe’s head, tap dancing on it like an elephant on hallucinogens while Bobby Joe’s legs thrashed on the linoleum” (Burke, Last, 318).
Readers want to see villains, such as the convicted child molester Bobby Joe, brought to justice. There are rules for creating a believable villain. He cannot be someone who is a stereotype. Hallie Ephron describes the technique that she uses: “By understanding how the villain justifies the crime to himself, and what events in his life triggered these crimes, you give yourself the material you need to get past a black-hatted caricature and paint your villain in shades of gray” (Ephron, 41).
Many writers use their books as vehicles for supporting a social or political agenda, and the actions of their villains against this agenda are the tool for showing how the writer’s cause is just. However, the technique can be heavy-handed and distracting if the main character pontificates on the subject over and over again. In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, his heroine Lisbeth Salander repeatedly bleats out her most damning proclamation about the trilogy’s villains: “He hates women.” Although the books contain murder, rape, incest, embezzling, and theft, Salander seems to feel male characters (all the villains are male) are motivated by only one thing: they hate women. Larsson pounded this drum so hard that the original Swedish title of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was actually Men Who Hate Women (Feminist, 2 April 2011).
Although Larsson professed to be a feminist and died before his books were even published, the popularity of the Millennium trilogy has reviewers scrutinizing both his views and the messages in his books. Salander treats men like blow-up dolls. Larsson’s male hero, Mikael Blomkvist, copulates with anything female that he encounters. Melanie Newman, in her article “Feminist or Misogynist?” argues that Larsson’s graphic depictions of the torture, rape and murder of women seem odd in a book written by a man who claimed to be a feminist. Larsson had his heroine Salander decide that her thin body and small breasts were repulsive, and by the beginning of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, she had used some of the thirty billion kronor she stole to buy herself breast implants. Newman writes, “I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s self-proclaimed distress with at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine, and his babe-magnet hero” (Feminist, 2 April 2011).
Stieg Larsson was a journalist who was editor-in-chief at a magazine, like his male hero Mikael Blomkvist. He was actively involved in writing against the Neo-Nazi movement in Sweden. He died in 2004, before the books were published. Larsson had lived with Eva Gabrielsson, a fellow journalist and co-worker for thirty years, but after his death she inherited nothing of an estate that is now estimated to be worth 15 million from royalties on his books. Larsson’s only will was made in 1977 and left everything to the Communist Party, but the will was declared invalid. His estate went to his father and his brother. At this time his family is fighting in court over a fourth book in the series that Gabrielsson refuses to turn over because it is on the laptop she and Larsson shared. Feminists are rallying around to donate funds to Gabrielsson, but the irony is that the situation could have been avoided if Larsson had married Gabrielsson or simply had a valid will (Donate, 3 April 2011).
Although James Lee Burke’s novels tend to have social messages, he is not as heavy-handed as Larsson was when he creates his villains. Burke has a special talent with describing villains, and he frequently gives insight into his villain’s mind by including scenes from his or her background that explain his or her motivation for the crimes committed or show early propensity toward deviant behavior. Burke never has just one villain in a book, nor does he stick to one social class or race. One of his villains in Burning Angel was Sweet Pea Chaisson, a pimp whose appearance masked a vicious cruelty and a warped sense of what was acceptable behavior.
His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi truck (Burke, Burning Angel, 10).
Burke insures that Sweet Pea will remain memorable in the reader’s mind. Although Dave Robicheaux already described Sweet Pea earlier, the first time he is seen in action he has been pulled over by the local police for transporting his dead foster mother and her first husband’s coffin in the trunk of his pink Cadillac convertible. Five of his hookers are also riding in the car, complaining about the heat and how filthy they are from helping him dig up the coffin. (Burke, Burning Angel, 20-21).
Elizabeth Peters created a charming villain, Sethos, for her Amelia Peabody series. Sethos does not appear until the third book in the series, The Mummy Case. He is dubbed “the Master Criminal” by Amelia. Sethos is the head of a gang of thieves who steal antiquities. He develops an infatuation for Amelia, but that eventually fades as the series progresses. Sethos surfaces in the future books, sometimes stealing something the Emersons are trying to protect, sometimes rescuing them. He gives up his life of crime to become a spy for the British government. Amelia’s husband, Emerson, is annoyed by Sethos’ infatuation with her, but the dynamics of the family’s interaction with Sethos changes when it is revealed in He Shall Thunder in the Sky that Sethos is Emerson and Walter’s illegitimate half brother. Peters apparently got so attached to her villain’s antics that she reformed him and made him a member of the Emerson family.
Creating a realistic, sympathetic victim requires a different approach. In Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick’s book The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, they describe the techniques for creating a believable victim. They suggest that the first step a writer should take is to connect the victim with the killer. How did the victim meet the killer? What is their relationship? Are they related? Does the victim resemble someone else in the killer’s life? Ray and Remick use the term “Proximity to the Death God” to refer to a victim that is killed simply because they come in contact with a serial killer (Ray & Remick, 30-31).
Raspail, Lector’s victim in the [Silence of the] Lambs back story, is a patient-client of Dr. Lecter. Pembry and Boyle, two prison guards with lots of experience, died because they got too close to Lecter. The three German officers in the Gorky Park back story died because they laughed at the young John Osborne. By irritating Osborne with the Teutonic scorn, these three unarmed victims gave him the taste of blood that made him a death god. At the end of Gorky Park, when Osborne executes seven men in the snow—a good morning’s work, presided over by Irina Asanova—the killer’s power of his victims is awesome. If a death god wants you dead, you die (Ray & Remick, 31).
Serial killers are rare, and the average victim in a mystery novel is killed because they possess something that the killer does not want them to have: a lover, an inheritance, information that is damaging to the killer, a possession, or a job.
Burke’s victims are often people whose lives have crossed boundaries, whose activities may be illegal or quasi-legal, but have some strong redeeming quality about them. In Burning Angel, he created the character of Sonny Boy Marsallus, a man that we knew was doomed from the first words that Robicheaux used to describe him. At the beginning of the book Robicheaux is remembering Marsallus in Burke’s characteristic detail-rich style:
I still remember him out there on the sidewalk, down from the old Jung Hotel, on an electric-blue evening, with the palm fronds rattling and streetcars clanging out on the neutral ground, his skin as unblemished as milk, his bronze-red hair lightly oiled and combed back on the sides, always running some kind of game – craps, high-stakes bouree, washing Jersey money out at the track, bailing out mainline recidivists licensed bondsmen wouldn’t pickup by the ears with Q-Tips, lending money with no vig to girls who wanted to leave the life (Burk, Burning Angel, 3-4).
Marsallus got involved with mobsters, and had done some shady things in El Salvador, but Robicheaux let us know that Marsallus had a soft spot for prostitutes who wanted to find another way of life, a detail tacked on the end of Marsallus’ questionable business practices showed he was a complex man, both shrewd and compassionate. Robicheaux’s respect for Marsallus and his independent way of thinking was obvious when he said: “He smiled at me, then puffed air out his mouth and cut his eyes up and down the street. He fastened his eyes on me again, still smiling, a man gliding on his own rhythms” (Burke, Burning Angel, 5).
Burke does something that few other mystery writers do, which is to add elements of magic realism to his fiction. In his book Black Cherry Blues, Robicheaux got phone calls from his dead second wife. Another novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, he got advice from a long-dead Confederate general and saw the troops the general commanded wandering around the swamp, dressed in their ragged grey uniforms. In Burning Angel, after Sonny Boy Marsallus was killed, his ghost protected the Robicheaux family from harm, leaving Dave to believe for much of the novel that Marsallus was still alive. Dave Robicheaux was only haunted by the victims of others, never by villains he killed; a telling insight into his own character and the mind of his creator.
Memorable characters are formed by using rich, vivid details that stamp the person’s appearance or their personality into the reader’s mind. Although the most important character in a mystery novel is the detective or amateur sleuth, writers need to remember that his or her sidekick, and the villains and victims need careful crafting as well. Dialogue can show a character’s race, class, ethnic background, or regional location. The success of a mystery series depends on the writer’s ability to visual his fictional world as being populated by people whose lives develop new depths with each new book.
Beinhart, Larry. How to Write a Mystery. New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
Burke, James Lee. Burning Angel. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Print.
Burke, James Lee. Jolie Blon’s Bounce. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print.
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Burke, James Lee. The Neon Rain. New York: H. Holt, 1987. Print.
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Photo is of the first hall of the Temple of Ramses II, taken by Dennis Jarvis.