Broadchurch

Nancy J. Cohen

Are you watching the British crime drama, Broadchurch, on BBC Wednesday nights? It’s a limited episode series that started last week, so you’re not missing much if you pop in tonight. As a mystery writer, I can’t help analyzing the story structure.

Episode one presents the scene of the crime. A young boy is found murdered on the beach. The time and method of death are established. We meet his family, some of whom are keeping secrets. The boy may have been killed between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am last night. Where was the father? Supposedly out on an emergency plumbing call. Oh, really? How lame is that alibi?

Yet not once does the lead detective suggest verifying the plumbing job. This handsome bloke, by the way, is David Tennant of Dr. Who fame. I like him with his scruffy beard. But someone needs to clue him in on finding the facts. Will it be the ambitious reporter? Or did he have a hand in this horrible event to create a story for himself?

David Tennant

And where was the victim’s father the night of the murder? Is he having an affair? Involved in a smuggling scheme? The rugged coastline may have been the site for smugglers in historic times. Perhaps there’s a new gang at work and the boy became a liability.

And how was the boy involved? His best friend isn’t so innocent. The kid erases all his computer and cell phone files after his mum, a detective on the force who’s been passed over for promotion, tells him he’ll be questioned about what he knows. What’s the kid hiding? Could he and the victim have been involved in a shady scheme with the victim’s father?

Then again, the father seems too easy a mark. Maybe he’s the red herring.

As the show progresses, we’ll see more townspeople guarding secrets. Eventually the detective will unravel them until he exposes the killer. And what about his own past? He was sent to this little hamlet after something scandalous occurred in his career. He couldn’t have created a murder to boost his own reputation, could he?

Broadchurch

Everyone in this village is a potential suspect. It’s a juicy story in that respect, and I’m eager to see how it plays out. This is why I like whodunit mysteries. We are guessing along with the detective. The small town atmosphere becomes a character in its own right as we learn that not all of the inhabitants are as innocuous as they seem.

So are you going to watch the show tonight?

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Morality in Mysteries

I’m speaking on several panels at two upcoming conferences. One of the topics concerns morality in mysteries, and how fractured relationships might lead to the crime when the criminal gives in to his baser instincts. Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought about much up until now. I write my tales  to entertain. Might there be a morality lesson in there somewhere?

Certainly, the Bad Hair Day series as a whole has a moral or a theme, if you will. I see the two as one and the same. So here’s one moral you can take away from my books: You can move on from past mistakes. Redemption is the theme here. When the series starts, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—is still atoning for a tragedy that happened when she was nineteen. A toddler in her care when she was babysitting drowned in the backyard pool. Guilt drives her. It motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. But when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t ever want children. She has to forgive herself before the future can blossom for her.

So here’s another lesson she learns: You can still be a good person even if you’ve done wrong. The accident that happened in the past wasn’t really her fault, but she blames herself. Deep down, she knows she is a good person. She strives to be better and solving mysteries is one way she does this. She also volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some past baggage to let go before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and Brianna for a family. Wait! Another moral is coming: Finding love can strengthen you, not cause dependency.

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow. So here we go again: No matter how glum today looks, tomorrow is a better day.
I guess you could say that the morals in my stories involve my sleuth and her character growth. The focus isn’t on the criminal and how he evolved, or what effect the crime has on the victim’s family or on society in general. My cozy whodunits are centered around the sleuth and her life, not on the crime. That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guy. Along the way, we live vicariously in her world and see how her relationships grow and change.

How about you? Do you consciously determine the theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal’s motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth’s life in general?

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Show Me The Body

This question came up on one of my writer loops: how long do you wait for the body to appear in a mystery? Assume we’re talking about a traditional whodunit. Does it make a difference to you as a reader when the murder occurs? How about when plotting your own books?

Based on my experience, if you’re a new author, it’s best to get the body up front and center. Once you’re established, you have a bit more leeway with the characters. But even if your setting is quaint and the story is more of a crime novel than a whodunit, action engages the reader.

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I’ve had several rejections over the years to mystery proposals wherein the criticism essentially said to move up the dead body. In my latest project, the initial first chapter had the heroine enter the scene, play mah jong with her friends, go to lunch, and then the person dies. I’ve changed it so that she meets her friends for lunch first, and in the midst of their meal, the murder occurs. Later, they gather to talk about it and automatically play out the motions of their mah jong game. As this is the first book in a proposed new series, I have to get the action moving as quickly as possible.
I should have seen this when writing the first draft, but often we need some distance from our work before we can see it clearly. Or we need someone else to point out what is blind to us in our closeness to the material. Also keep in mind that readers can download the beginning of your book nowadays and so you want it to be an attention grabber.

Yes, there are books I read where the characters and setting are so appealing that I just read on for pleasure, and it may be 100 pages or so before someone is killed. But I do find myself saying, “All right, where’s the dead body already? This is supposed to be a mystery.” So genre conventions come into play as well.
What’s your take on the subject: murder them now, or introduce your characters gradually and slide into the crime after the story is in motion?
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to The Kill Zone Blog! I am proud to be part of this illustrious group!

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