Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Is it Murder Writing a Mystery?

By Jenny Hilborne

In a literary sense, the word mystery always brings to mind the word murder. For me, the two go hand in hand, as comfortably as Mr. and Mrs. or Tom and Jerry. A good murder mystery usually includes a corpse pretty early in the story. The tension and suspense increase as the investigation takes place, culminating (hopefully) in a satisfying conclusion. Readers like me enjoy the dark, twisted elements of a murder and the psychology behind it, the thoughts of the killer.

Not everyone likes to read the strong language that usually goes along with a dark murder, or the graphic violence some authors include, which is understandable. Recently, a different question was raised in a forum I came across, which made me think. The reader asked if a good mystery always has to include a murder. I'd never thought about it before. I've never read a book or watched a movie where the mystery did not involve a murder. Not that I'm bloodthirsty or anything, but my initial thought was, 'how dull.'

I tried to imagine a good detective story with a crime other than murder. With no investigation and no body, how would it start? Other crimes could include theft, kidnapping, or a disappearance, but they all seem a bit flat to me. Not enough, I suspect, to hold my interest for the length of a novel. Maybe for a child, a mystery without a murder would be appealing read. It doesn't grab me.

I do like to be shocked when I read, which is one of the reasons I love mysteries and thrillers. Violence and bad language, as long as they fit the story and are not there just for the shock value, are fine. Murder is the most shocking crime of all for me and I can't imagine enjoying a mystery without a murder. What are your thoughts? What great mysteries have you read that don't include a single murder? If you haven't read one, do you think you'd find it satisfying?


  1. I like to include various other crimes in my stories to make them all unique, but there is at least one death in each story. Mysteries about disappearances or kidnappings can be suspenseful, but then then you would probably call that book a thriller. :)

  2. Kidnapping? Probably not for me, although it is featured in a manuscript I'll be working on soon.

    Heist? Who really cares?

    Make mine murder.

  3. Even the cozies I've read all revolved around a body. I'm guessing there's some psychological reason that our mystery stories must involve loss of life. I mean, death is our biggest fear and the ultimate mystery, right?

    The only mystery without a murder that comes to mind is an episode of Monk where a little boy finds a severed finger and they must figure out who it belongs to, whether they are dead or alive, etc. Monk was such a character-driven show, the plot worked without a body, although I suppose you could say a finger was murdered.

  4. Interesting question, Jenny! I can't say that I've read or seen a mystery without a dead body involved. Maybe that could start a new genre, or a new subheading under mysteries, to go with cozy mysteries and hard-boiled mysteries and police procedurals and suspense-mysteries, etc.

  5. For our annual PNW mystery book award, The Spotted Owl, we have defined a mystery as a book that includes a crime or the threat of a crime.
    John @

  6. I had to think hard about this one. I went through my bookshelves and could not find a mystery I read that did not include a murder.
    I think a mystery needs the 'not knowing till the end' part (and suspense ofcourse) and we associate this with murder, but I do think a kidnapping can just as much be a mystery to solve, as a murder can be.

  7. I always say, with a sad voice, when looking for a movie at the Red Box, "there's no serial killers." LOL...but actually my first novel (Impunity) didn't involve murder until way into the story--and it was peripheral. I guess it's a 'suspense thriller.' But my new novel revolves around murder right from page 1....

  8. My current work has only one body, and it plays a minor role in the plot. Then again, it's a psychological thriller more than a mystery. My first book, also a thriller, has lots of bodies, but it falls into the horror genre, where dead people are a key element. My current WIP, also a psychological thriller has no murders at all, which leads me to think that maybe there isn't really a standard where this is concerned. I think most thrillers or mysteries focus on crime as a key element simply because it creates excitement and tension--but I think if the story is compelling enough, bodies or murders can be optional,

  9. I don't think that a murder is a requirement of a mystery, but, as John said, there must be a crime or threat of one. I think it's easier to get readers involved in a murder mystery because the stakes are so high, the crime is so egregious. However, as a reader, if I care enough about the characters or there's a good element of suspense, I don't need the bodies.

    White Collar is a good example of a show that doesn't typically have bodies, but that I'd classify as a mystery.

  10. The stakes have to be high enough to get the reader to care. “The Purloined Letter” comes to mind.

  11. The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott. And it's an AWESOME book.


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