Friday, October 7, 2016

Motives for Murder

RHYS BOWEN:  Some of us Reds find ourselves teaching classes and workshops on mystery writing and one thing I always stress is motive. I find that some mystery books that are otherwise good stories fall down when it comes to motive.  If someone dropped dead into the punch-bowl at a wedding would you instantly perk up and say “Oh goody! A murder for me to solve!”
That would not be me. My first thought would be, “I need to get out of here fast. There is a killer on the loose.”

So coming up with a plausible motive for the amateur sleuth is always a challenge. What would make me get involved? If it was one of my near and dear ones and the police had arrested him and wouldn’t listen, then I’d want to do all I could to save him. But if a friend was accused? A neighbor? Would I poke my nose in then?

And then we come to the more important motive for murder. Unless you are a psychopath, what would make YOU kill?  Would you kill because your daughter didn’t make the cheerleading team? Implausible, you say, and this happened. Would you kill because someone else went to the prom with your dream date thirty years ago? I’ve read that in a book too.

I have to say that the mysteries that work best for me both as a reader and a writer are ones in which I have empathy for the killer. Someone pushed into a corner so hard that the only way out was murder. I am pretty sure I could kill to protect my children.  If a Nazi soldier burst in I could shoot him before he killed my babies. But could I calmly plot to kill someone with whom my daughter was in an abusive relationship? That’s where it gets murky. And I like to play with murkiness. I enjoy working with gray areas of right and wrong. In one of the Evan books three women meet in a shelter for battered women and plot to be each other’s alibi in killing their husbands. Evan solves the case and says to his boss, “But she won’t go to jail, will she? She was being battered by him.”
And his superior looks him in the eye and says coldly, “Not at the moment she pulled the trigger.” And Evan realizes that he’s condemned this woman to an undeserved life in prison.

But the more I think about it, I realize that sometimes I only takes a tiny trigger point. As happened to me on a flight a couple of weeks ago. I sat next to a woman. We got chatting. She asked what I did. When I told her I write two books a year she smiled at me and said, “That’s nice. It keeps you busy, doesn’t it?”
Keeps me busy? Would you say to a brain surgeon: You did five brain surgeries last week? That’s nice. It keeps you busy, doesn’t it?”
I felt like saying it, but instead I thought “I’m taking a good look at you and you’ll wind up dead in one of my upcoming books!”

That’s one of the advantages of being a mystery writer. We can kill off those who piss us off. Kill them in horrible ways and never get caught. We have the perfect career! 
So now I’m thinking of other people who might wind up dead. Those nameless banks and credit card companies who keep me on hold for half an hour and then go through endless “If you want to speak to someone who has red hair and whose last name begins with M press 2!” And call centers in India whose employees speak no known language. And those telemarketers in India who tell me the IRS is after me.....
Those who use the phrase “Twentyfour/seven.” Or the phrase, “Each and every.” Or the word “Irregardless.”  Or use lay instead of lie. I’m sure there are plenty more.

So Reds, confess. Have you ever killed off someone in a book who was a thinly disguised real life person who annoyed you?
And what would be your motive for murder?

HALLIE EPHRON: In "Night Night, Sleep Tight" I killed off a character who's a thinly-disguised version of my dad. I made him a screenwriter (my dad was) who's found floating in his own pool (a la Sunset Blvd). I like to think my dad would have loved it. He's been a character in at least two other books -- my sister Delia's "Hanging Up" and my sister Nora's "Heartburn." But I'm the only one who killed him. The moral: don't raise your children to be writers.

My other murder victims are strangers. Complete strangers. Really,

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I think about this ALL the time. I mean--what would honestly cause someone to actually kill someone? And being a psychopath doesn't count, that's boring. Unless you are Hannibal Lecter.  Then there's self-defense, or defense of another. Those are reasonable reasons. But it would STILL be difficult, right?
Anyway, I analyzed it, so much, before I wrote PRIME TIME for that very reason, Rhys, I wanted the book to make sense.
I got it down to: Power. Control. Love. Money.  And really--all four of those are only Power and Control. And I think there has to be an extra behavioral psychology of--feeling like the world is unfair to you, and you are only doing something to get what's rightfully yours.
Have I killed any real people? No, but--and I will say no more--I have made them into buffoons. Deciding that humiliation and incompetence is more painful than death.

LUCY BURDETTE: figuring out motive is very hard, and I completely agree that a weak motive equals disappointing book. Over the years, I have ended up with a lot of old grudges in my mysteries, nursed by fires of disappointment until they can't be ignored. Also, I think hiding an important secret can end up being a powerful motive. But it has to be a secret that the person feels could ruin his or her life, whether or not that's true. Pure rage and sociopathy are less interesting to me.

DEBORAH CROMBIE : It's so hard to come up with credible motives. I think plain greed is the least interesting. But loss of status and reputation are powerful, and if that includes money that works, too. Protection of secrets and protection of loved ones, or the prevention of another crime are good, too. And then there's always sweet revenge!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hank, I like your formulation of Power and Control. I usually think of it as Money or Love (gone wrong.) In some ways, I think it would be great to write historical mysteries like Rhys and Susan, because not so long ago, Reputation and Scandal were also valid motives for murder, in fiction if not in real life. Nowadays, of course, if you have a terrible scandal, you go on a talk show or release the sex tape. Illegitimacy, secret adoption, being gay, having an affair - I mean, I'm glad they're not life-destroying events anymore! But you have to admit, they did make for some juicy reading in the Golden Age mysteries of the 30s and 40s.

As to killing off anyone real - no. But I have made a real person a wicked villain, and it pleases me every time I think about it!

RHYS:  Julia, this is exactly why I write historical mysteries. So many lovely motives: I love another but I am not free. I am the true heir. I am hiding an illegitimate child etc etc. One motive no one has mentioned so far is FEAR. I think fear is one of the biggest motivators to action, including murder.

So time to confess, dear readers: what would make you kill?


Joan Emerson said...

It’s hard to imagine killing someone . . . but I was sorely tempted when a colleague picked up a pen and wrote in the book she was borrowing from me.

Seriously, protecting my family, my children and/or my grandchildren, just might be the one thing that would drive me to actually killing someone.

Grace Koshida said...

Fortunately, I get rid of my most stress and temptations to kill anyone by reading excellent mystery fiction, including those written by the Reds!

But if I had to kill someone, it would be one of my former bosses. I don't have to always like the person I work for, but I have to trust/respect them. This person was such a pathological liar and smooth talker who deliberately derailed several people's careers or forced them to go on sick leave/disability. Was probably a sociopath in real life.

Any volunteers to put this person out of their misery?

Kait said...

Have you ever driven on I-95 in Miami during the rush hour? Wait, anytime? Just kidding, I think. But I have seen people in the grip of what I term red-haze rage where it's only them and the object of their rage. To see it is to see someone so completely in the moment that anything is possible. Even murder.

As for me. protecting family or animals immediately springs to mind, but is that murder? I don't think so, do you?

Hank, power and control. Yes, definitely. Betrayal too, I would add.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Kait, I have driven around Miami many times--it is terrifying! That's when I wish I had my big driver-zapper that gives the crazy people a good shock LOL.

Grace, we will work on your boss...

Gram said...

I would kill to protect my loved ones. I think that is a typical Mom answer.

Grace Koshida said...

Thanks, Lucy! I'm retired now...but I am sure this person is still making many of my former colleagues' lives miserable. A premature, unforeseen departure would be appreciated by all!

Ann in Rochester said...

Whoa, what a topic this morning.

No, I wouldn't kill anyone in cold blood, not even Hitler. This isn't a moral or ethical issue for me. I just couldn't do it. Hot blood killing is different, as in someone abusing a child or an animal, wouldn't even have to be my own.

All this being said, I have had hospice patients ask me to help them along. Of course I'd never do that either, but I always welcomed the question. It was the opening to discuss their coming death, how hospice would be there, would do the best to keep them comfortable, to understand how much sedation they wanted, whether they wanted to be out completely or stay as alert as possible. Interesting, huh?

Regarding motives, I just finished Tana French's new book yesterday. A garda character states that he doesn't care about motive, just wants to catch the killer and leave the rest to the jury. Of course there was a motive of sorts, but I'll say no more, spoilers and all that. Motive isn't as important to me as skillful writing, the telling of a story that constitutes a TGR.

I'm fascinated that many of you base your victim on someone you know and don't care much for! Yikes. Now that's a plot right there.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

And it's so odd… I don't like to write the parts where I have to kill the person. In fact, I want to ask Jonathan if he thought it would be OK if I just had somebody be very badly hurt, and then they recovered..
He said honey, you write murder mysteries, not "badly hurt people" mysteries.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

And I once yelled at a driver who was driving so erratically because he was texting! I yelled out my window "stop texting!"! And the guy started following us!

Hallie Ephron said...

Kait - you made me laugh! Because in traffic IS when I have murderous thoughts. In traffic. And I'd like to turn WAZE into a character and kill it for rerouting so much traffic through my once-quiet neck of the woods.

Hank, that would make a good start to a novel... The Tale of the Tyrannous Texter.

Karen in Ohio said...

Julia, I mourn for the time when individuals actually had shame about their own peccadilloes, and faced being ostracized by society. Such an old-fashioned concept these days, right? I blame Jerry Springer. And I told him so, the one time I got to meet him. He did have the grace to look ever so slightly abashed.

Hank, I'm with you. I have been struggling with killing someone in my mystery, all summer. We're just too nice. That's it. LOL

Mary Sutton said...

Hank, I like your formula of POWER and CONTROL. A lot of things - maybe everything - comes down to that. Even in those historical mysteries. Isn't an inability to come out and say you are gay a kind of control - either your family or society or something?

Susan, that is so horrible! All of it. I can't even imagine. Ugh.

Would I kill someone in cold blood? I can't see myself doing that, really. I just...can't. I'm sure I'm capable of it, but I don't see myself plotting someone's death.

I have had episodes where I'd cheerfully run over another driver with a Sherman tank. And if someone broke into my house and threatened my kids, I wouldn't hesitate. But those are different situations.

I have killed someone in a story. He was the president of our pool board and let's just say he and I had some serious differences of opinion. It felt so good to get that one out of my system.

Ray Daniel said...

Killing people, either writing it or coming up with motivation for it has never been a problem.

I struggle with the first question, "Why won't the amateur sleuth quit?" This is especially true because the conflict in most of your first act scenes and some of your second act scenes is people telling the sleuth to quit. Of course this happens to PI characters and even cop characters sometimes.

The balancing act is to make my sleuth impulsive enough to keep going, but not so impulsive (and stupid) that the reader says "I'm done with him!"

Fortunately, we all ignore that little voice that says, "No! No! Don't say that!" or "No! No! Don't do that!". So our readers don't view the lack of wisdom as something foreign, but instead as something familiar.

Coralee Hicks said...

An earlier Coralee would kill for revenge. Then I would think noooo, let them live but be humiliated and exposed for ALL the Crappy Stuff they did to me, or to society. I got mad at CEO's who allowed outrageous things to happen to the environment. ..think Love Canal. Suffice it to say while 'scary Coralee' was plotting, sensible Coralee was in charge of living.

I have lived long enough to see what happened to the subject of my revenge plotting. At least in fiction, the bad guys usually do not get a happily ever after. I identify with the amateur sleuth whose ethical code demands s/he become involved, and usually this protagonist is asked to investigate. That makes their nosiness okay with me. Plz feel free to kill bad CEO's anytime y'all wish.

Julia said...

The lawyer in me must point out that many of the situations people are raising here are actually men Slaughter, not murder. If you get enraged by someone's driving and pull out your pistol and fire it at them, it's not murder because it's not premeditated.

Now, for purposes of a murder mystery we could add on to that. Perhaps someone who committed manslaughter in a moment of rage must now commit murder to cover up his crime.

Libby Dodd said...

Thank you all for an entertaining discussion.
Most illuminating.
I'll try not to vex any writers, for fear of retribution!

Jungle Red Writers said...

Road rage? I see so much of it these days. The impatient honkers because someone won't let them pass illegally. The lane changers. People literally using their cars as a weapon and knowing they have the power that goes with a ton of metal.
Maybe driving tests should include a psychological aptitude test?


Leslie Budewitz said...

Love Julia's idea of making someone you dislike the villain! But the drawback of making such a person either victim or villain is that then, you have to spend several months and 300 pages with a person you dislike!

For me, the motive to kill usually needs an emotional component -- greed fueled by childhood abandonment, jealousy fed by a mad desire to protect someone else -- if I'm going to build a whole novel around it.

And the motive to investigate? What Ramona Long calls the VGR (very good reason)? Oh, so hard -- must set an emotional hook there, too, IMO!

Susan Emerson said...

It is hard for me to imagine myself killing in cold blood, but I can imagine situations where I might kill in a moment of passion. The other situation that I think is intriguing to consider is where you have the power to STOP harm to someone, but it's a really evil person and you are tempted to kill him/her simply by inaction.

I think some of the best mysteries are the ones where I can actually sympathize with the killer. Pretty much all of Louise Penny's books come to mind for that trait.

Anonymous said...


That story about killing someone went to the prom with your dream date reminded me of a Rockford Files episode. it was not exactly the same thing.

The killer was a prom queen or homecoming queen in high school then went on to marry royalty in real life. She was killing off people who remembered her as a homecoming queen and did not want people to know that she was a homecoming queen.

Unless I recall the wrong motive for killing.

Anonymous said...


You work for NBC, right? There was a director at NBC in Washington, DC who was a real piece of work! I could envision killing him or cutting off his ear! Or give him poison to make him lose his hearing!

Anonymous said...


Agreed that there has to be strong motive for killing. That is one of the reasons I love Agatha Christie mysteries so much!


Anonymous said...


I cannot believe people still treat your husband like that in this time of history. If it is any consultation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought that President John F. Kennedy was a waiter because of what JFK was wearing.

I have seen photos of your husband and he actually looks Irish to me. It should not matter what he looks like. Even though I am white, I have encountered people like that because of my hearing loss.

If your parents were born Deaf or lost their hearing early in life, they probably would be treated differently.

It mades me sad that Kiddo had to encounter this kind of prejudice. I totally understand you wanting to kill these people in your books.

Cannot believe that woman at Wellesley reunion thought Noel was a caterer.

On another note, I just finished your Queen's Accomplice book and loved it!


Anonymous said...


Great comments. I loved that book centered around the 2012 Olympics. Good motive!


Anonymous said...


All of these motives sound good! It also depends on the time in history. What are the threats at the time the story takes place?


Anonymous said...


I remember taking your writing classes at the Book Passage Mystery Writing Workshop! That was so fun! And we chatted about Princess Alice. Thank you for your encouragement. I have a WIP based on Princess Alice.

Agreed that Fear is a good motive for murder. The example someone mentioned about killing a Nazi who threatened to kill you is perfect example of fear.

What would make me kill someone in my book? Fear is a strong motive. There are many motives: Blackmail in a closed community; Greed; False Idea of Love; Power and Control; among many others. Fear can cover many things - fear of losing your home; fear of losing your career/reputation/income; fear of being murdered; among others.

Could Eugenics be a motive for murder?

There is one mystery story where there was no real motive. The killer killed all three people because it was SELF DEFENSE! All three people tried to kill this killer, who was a spy in another life. It was on BBC and this one is one of my favorites.


Brenda Buchanan said...

Such a thought-provoking post, Rhys. I agree that fear can serve as a great motive. Left to fester fear can become irrational enough to push quite ordinary people over the edge.

Betrayal is a first cousin of nursing a grudge, perhaps, but I think of it as a motive in its own right. Being betrayed, especially publicly, by a trusted person is powerful stuff.

Kathy Reel said...

Like so many answers from mothers here, I could kill to protect my family, especially children and grandchildren. On a related note, I have often wondered when parents are faced with the murderer of a child if I could restrain myself from killing that person who had snuffed out the life of my child. I do think that there is a special place in hell for child molesters and those who kill children, and I would certainly understand a parent seeking revenge. However, a revenge fueled life is not what I think honors your child. The Crossing Guard staring Jack Nicholson and David Morse is about how a father's life and that of his family is in ruins as he lives for revenge on the drunk driver who killed his young daughter. This movie left a big impression on me.

I do agree, Rhys, that a murder mystery has to have a plausible motive for me to enjoy to the fullest. I'm not so sure about a need to sympathize with the killer though. I'm reading Peter May's latest, Coffin Road, right now, and it's an outstanding read in which the plausible motive is something repugnant to me. But, then, greed is one of the least likely motives I would sympathize with because it always involves one person or group benefiting to the detriment, sometimes catastrophic, of others.

Killtan Roy said...


MaryC said...

I would definitely kill to protect my children, and very probably to protect children/animals being killed or abused. I'm extremely nonviolent to the point of having trouble killing bugs, but since my degree is in psych, I can't say 100% that I could never kill in cold blood. I've seen too many studies where circumstances led people to do things they never thought they would or could do.

I've never written a mystery story, but Grace's comment makes me want to write one to kill off my former boss. I'm not sure I could write a mystery, but at least there'd be plenty of motives and suspects for that one!