Friday, June 1, 2012

I Ain’t Got No Body

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  You know what the hardest part of writing a murder mystery is? To me, it's the murder. First, I just don't like to do it. I keep thinking--can't the person just be kind of--hurt? and then they get better? Well, no actually, and why is hurting someone okay? Okay, because it's fiction. And it's a murder mystery. Someone has to die!

So I try to make sure the person really deserves it.  But of course, in real life, that's sometimes not the case.  I'm still trying to get comfortable with killing someone. (I know I can say that around you.)

And then, there's also the annoying problem with disposing of said body. And even the much-lauded and best-selling Elaine Viets has a problem with that!  Welcome to Jungle Red, Elaine--and Reds, if you haven't met her? Hold on to your coffee.  
I Ain't Got No Body

 A mystery writer’s life sounds easy: I get up when I feel like it, commute through the living room to my office, and sit at my desk where I kill people. On paper.
 Easy enough. No mess, no guilt, no cops knocking at my door.
 My work brings me personal satisfaction, too. I’ve killed off several people who do not resemble any of my bosses, living or dead. To keep the libel lawyers at bay, I use a technique called SPC – Small Penis Characteristic. I give the deceased an extremely small member. Because of course, no one would stand up in court and say, “Your Honor, that woman wronged me in her book. I am Little Dick!”
 Of course, you realize I write humor and I’m prone to exaggeration (except in Little Dick’s case). But my work is not as easy as it seems.
 Once I kill someone, I’m stuck with the body.
 My killer could panic and run away, but that’s a bad idea. Dead bodies are chock-full of valuable evidence to help the police catch him. Even the most careful killer can leave behind a clue.
 Also, it makes for a very short novel.
 The same goes for burying the victim. Besides, digging a hole deep enough so a hunter or hiker won’t stumble over the body is hot, sweaty work.
 My killer is stuck with a hundred pounds or more of rapidly spoiling meat. And South Florida has one of the highest decomposition rates in the nation. (Hope you didn’t read that fact over breakfast.)
 When I set my new Dead-End Job mystery, “Final Sail,” aboard a luxury yacht sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, I thought I had the perfect way to dispose of a body.
  I had a boatload of people rich enough to buy their way out of trouble, a willing staff, a large, lonely ocean, and a violent storm.
  Just chuck the body over the rail, quick and clean, and my worries were over, right?
 I’d wind up drowning in paper work.
 I did some research. Turns out if a yacht leaves Fort Lauderdale with sixteen people aboard, it had better return with the same number – or a good explanation for the missing person.
 I couldn’t even have the yacht’s Bulgarian engineer bump off the victim.
 I needed a murder where the killer would be brought to justice – US justice. If the crime was going to be investigated by U.S. officials, then the ship had to sail under the American flag. That meant everyone on board has to be a US citizen. I had to get the Bulgarian engineer naturalized fast – more paperwork. And then muddy the waters a bit.
 I think I managed it. One victim dies neatly in his hospital bed and is carted off for a funeral and a full investigation. The other is lost at sea – or jumps ship.
 But it was hard work. I may kill people, but I don’t do them in carelessly.
 In my book, a murder has to be dead right.
HANK: So, Red writers. How do you feel about--killing people?  (When was the last time someone asked you that?) And do you have trouble disposing of the body? And Red readers, do you notice when a murder is not--dead right? And in true Jungle Red style: a copy of Elaine's new book--to one lucky commenter!


            Helen Hawthorne, Elaine Viets’ private-eye detective, works as a yacht stewardess in “Final Sail,” the 11th Dead-End Job mystery. Marilyn Stasio praises Elaine’s “quick-witted mysteries” in the June 3 New York Times. Visit her Web site at


  1. This post reminds me of a conversation I had with one crime fiction writer who told me about how she killed off her dentist in one of her novels. I like that idea (my poor dentist). In fact, she said that most of her murdered characters can be traced back to people she knows.

  2. Oh, did this ever hit home! Killing a character is never as easy as people might think it is. The real life rules and regs always get in the way.

    But I can say this: FINAL SAIL is a hell of a fun book! I was up later than I should have been to finish it!

  3. Hi Elaine, so glad to see you here! Your post reminds me that I have a big problem in my current WIP--I kind of waved a wand at the first victim and I need to go back and clean things up:)

    Congrats on Final Sail--can't wait to read it!

  4. I tend to be showy about it. If you can't hide the body, then make it stand out like a sore thumb. That means anyone in the vicinity might have done it.

  5. Interesting laws they have for ships. I have read some of your other books and enjoyed them very much. I am looking forward to reading this one too. Thanks for writing. Dee

  6. Hi, Elaine, congrats on Final Sail! I hate the killing because it's always got to feel somewhat "real" to me, even though many of my books are quite light-hearted in tone, and it's hard to balance the real act and effects of murder, along with a hatred/fear intense enough to spark murder, with the humor I have in my books. You, BTW, do a fabulous job!

  7. Hm..weird little ghost picture of Elaine on the blog..not quite sure how that got there, but I think I'll leave it.

    One memorable conversation Jonathan and I had in a restaurant--mid tuna sashimi, I to him :You can;t just throw someone off a bridge you know? Someone would see you."

    Th waiter, who had just arrived, was trying to figure out how to handle it..

    OH! My captcha is ideadly 4!

  8. It's a sign, Hank: you, too, can be deadly!

    I started a mystery and could not for the life of me figure out a way to make someone die, or who to kill. It is still unfinished, largely because of having no actual victim. It IS harder than it seems.

    Elaine, looking forward to Final Sail. Sounds like a fun read. But then, all your books are fun reads!

  9. Yes, the motive thing--there just aren't that many reasons that are violence-inducing enough to make someone kill another person, so mystery writers can run out of them. I'm big on revenge and greed. And preventing the revelation of a secret.

  10. And the winner of a Bryan Gruley book-- JAck Getze and John Purcell! (Winners chosen by number by Jonathan..hmmm)

    Just send me your addresses via hryan at whdh dot com and I will send you a book! (Also tell me which book you want...)

  11. Hi, Elaine! So good to see you here at Jungle Reds! I miss all your funny posts and comments at TLC. And I can't wait for your newest book!

    Once at lunch with other Sisters in Crime members, Hank, we were discussing ways to kill someone and dispose of the body--and maybe getting a little loud and raucous with laughter. Our waiter kept eying us suspiciously and began to talk to other staff, gesturing toward us, so we decided we'd best pay and get out of there before they called the cops.

  12. We have one rule on the yacht I work on--it is ALWAYS the Bulgarian engineer. I'd buy that he was the killer, but since I have very little first-hand knowledge of murder I tend to believe anything in a mystery book is possible. I appreciate authors who research and make sure the method is plausible...just in case I need to use that knowledge one day...

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain

  13. HI,Victoria! Are you on dry land these days?

    True, true! I'm right at the point when I have to figure out whodunnit...why didn't I think of the Bulgarian engineer? Back to the drawing board...

  14. Hi Elaine--Such fun to see you here! And I love the idea for the book. The first time I went to Fort Lauderdale, I looked at those luxury yachts and thought, what a great place to set a mystery. So now I get to read yours:-)

    I'm trying to remember if I've ever hidden a body. (Fictionally, of course.) I don't think so. But I've killed off many characters I liked and always find that very hard. And Hank, in the last book, I intended to murder a character and just couldn't do it, so he was just "hurt" instead... I did have to kill off someone, though. Maybe we should have mysteries without bodies.

  15. Wow, I need to come here more often. You make me feel so welcome. Linda, Hank and I also blog for the Femmes Fatales, so you can find both of us there, too.
    Clean up that body, carefully, Lucy. No tell-tale hairs and fibers.

  16. Not sure this will go through,as the capcha code is so totally illegible. Here goes:

    Elaine, it is so good to see you here! I miss you at TLB but I DO check in at Femmes Gatales on a regular basis. I love your sense of humor,and enjoyed the way you disposed of You Know Whose former spouse in one of the Helen books. I don't want nto spoil it for anyone who has not yet read it. I laughed a lot, I must say! (Hope that doesn't make me sound weird!)

    I can't wait to pick up Final Sail.

    About bodyless mysteries: I've read some pretty good mysteries that did not include murders. Maybe they ought to be called Puzzlers? There were still villains,but nobody was murdered - I suspect the author had trouble with the idea of killing people!

  17. Yes good idea ! Does gaudy night have a
    Murder? there must be others that don't !

    Elaine are you writing more in this series ?

  18. I don't have trouble killing off characters--whether they're sympathetic or unsympathetic...That's a little scary, isn't it? It's the physicality of it that confounds me. At a conference last year, I was talking to DP Lyle (such a cool kat), and he clued me into many considerations to take into account about broken necks...sigh...Broken neck, I ask you, how complicated could it be? Well, apparently it is. Hah!

    Great to see you here, Elaine. I'll have to get over to So many good blogs; so little time!

  19. Not too long ago, Jan had a brain researcher visit us here on JRW. Here's what she said about motives for our bad guys--I've been keeping at the top of my document as I work:

    ELAINE: Brain research suggests that convincing villains could be
    driven by deep emotion that blinds reason, a willingness to do
    anything to belong to a group it values, anger at being improperly
    valued—of losing status by being demeaned in some way--a desire to
    experience again and again the pleasurable feeling that is the brain’s
    reward whenever we do something it likes, and unwavering certainty
    that one’s beliefs are absolutely right, reasonable, and a reliable

  20. Coincidentally, this Sunday's NY Times has Elaine's book.

  21. Of course, it helps to read ALL THE WAY to the bottom of the post. ;)

    That way, if you even go further, you find out that you've won a book.

  22. Yes lisa now that you brought it up-- it is difficult to kill someone . Unless you have a gun . But then it's difficult to get away with it!

  23. Y'know I saw the weird little ghost image of Elaine and I thought - are you having flashbacks to the Unarmed But Dangerous Tour? Elaine and I toured with Donna Andrews and Meredith Cole a couple of years back and we had a blast. No Bulgarian engineers though...

  24. I usually make my victim objectionable enough that we're glad when he dies. But not always. Sometimes I have been really sad to kill a good person--as in my next Molly book. When I was once planning to kill two little girls I couldn't do it. I had to change to story to discover one of them alive.
    I always feel morally responsible.

  25. RO--no Bulgarian engineers that you KNOW of.

  26. Yes, Rhys I know what you mean--it feels like you really killed the person.

    Someone won "naming rights" in a charity auction..and told me they wanted me to use their name as the victim. I said, oh, no, I can't do that. And I really thought I couldn't.

    I said to the person--"You won't like it when the time comes."

    But then, as I was writing the book it became clear that that character really did have to die! I mean, I did NOT intend for it ho happen, in fact, I was working against it. It was so strange!

    But when the book tells me, I have to do it. RIP.

  27. I am having the hardest time just trying to even HAVE a capcha to type in. Right now here are NO capcha words so i wlll need to see if I can request a set. Tried to aplolgize for the typos in my earlier post and one of the two capcha "words" was a photo of a house! Needless to say,I flunked the robot test.

    Agatha Christie mostly killed unlikeable people. Still,I did feel sympathy for some of her victims.

    Linda, I wish I could have been at the lunch you described!

    Deb Romano

  28. Hank...

    About Gaudy Night: I read it so many years ago that I don't remember if it has a murder. I no longer have a copy of it so I can't check. But now I'm thinking I should reread all those mysteries.

    Noticed that I spelled apologize incorrectly in the previous post. My arthritic fingers are really tripping me up today...sorry!

  29. Deb--you are hilarious! Apologizing for a typo--? To me? QUEEN of typos?


    YEah, and what is up with the house-number thing? SO silly.

  30. Deb and Hank, Gaudy Night does not have a murder, though it has threats, anonymous poison-pen letters, vandalism, physical attacks, a suicide, and two attempted murders.

    Deb, that lunch I was explaining some of Luci Zahray's (the beloved Poison Lady) teachings at Malice. Walmart=kill 10 people for $10. The Dollar Store=kill 20 people for $2. Etc., etc. Can't imagine why the waitr got so nervous.

    Yeah, this new captcha has been a nightmare. Let's see if I can get it now. Got another photo with blurred, tiny house numbers in it.

  31. There can be mysteries without bodies, but I do like Elaine's carefully crafted disposal of people whose resemblance to any persons living or dead is pure fictional coincidence. . .
    I survived my last year of teaching by writing a little short, "The NCLB Murder" in which an assistant principal (with no RTAPLOD) was found dead in the recycling dumpster, half-buried in test papers and bludgeoned with a scantron test grading machine . . yep, very satisfying!

  32. Elaine... so sorry to be late! I love your Dead End Jobs series!

    I think I turned to reading murder mysteries, because I was trying to deal with murders of people I knew. Now i just like the story. I am writing a mystery about a murder and find myself going back and forth about the victim: Too innocent. It happens. But it's too hard on the soul. Then its worth dealing with. Justice isn't always there for the innocent. But... but... but...

  33. Oh Linda, I was just about to praise the clarity of the new captcha-- then the new, new captcha appeared with gray on gray letters and numbers!!!! Holding my breath... .

  34. See you tomorrow, everyone! We're talking about our most unforgettable character.. oxo

  35. Final Sail is a lot of fun!

    Great column - I recently wrote a story with a murder victim and had to change the locale by 10 miles to get a good place for the body. The body was dumped in a spot in the property I live on.

    Hmm, I don't think I feel so safe here anymore!