by Libby Hellmann
When I began writing crime fiction, I remember lots of chatter about the perfect murder weapon. The undetected murder. The exotic substance that couldn’t be identified. I heard about poisons like
oleander, foxglove, arsenic, and -- moving up the hazardous bio-chemical chain -- cyanide, sarin, and anthrax.
Indeed, I flirted with ricin in one of my novels. I remember hearing the old saw about the perfect murder weapon being a sharp icicle and thinking it was pretty clever.
However, the more I write, the more the manner of death has become a distraction. I don’t really care how someone is killed. The fact that they're alive one moment and aren't the next is enough. The fact that a killer used what he or she thought was an undetectable poison (which, btw, given enough time and the right equipment toxicologists say is mostly a myth) is less compelling than the killer’s character and motivation: the passion or fear or hatred or greed that drove him or her to commit murder.
In fact, all the falderal about intricate death scenarios boils down to this: (NB: The first 15 seconds are all you need to watch)
There’s something else, too. Murder is a heinous act. It’s perhaps the most profane act one human can perform on another. Because I don’t treat it lightly, I’m finding it more difficult to appreciate humorous crime fiction these days. I’m not talking about black humor – that’s something I think we all embrace when trying to deal with the unacceptable. What I’m talking about are the bouncy, breezy stories that show an otherwise normal person solving crimes on their lunch hour or summer vacation.
I’m sure they’re done with the best intentions – to emphasize the counterpoint between the gravity of murder and the joy of life. Indeed, I’ve written some myself. My amateur sleuth, Ellie Foreman, has a dry sense of humor and isn’t afraid to be foolish. Still, I find I’m less willing to trot her out these days. Maybe it’s because I’m getting to an age where life seems more precious every day. Maybe it’s because friends are being struck down long before their time. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t feel right to deal with a death which could have been avoided and then giggle about it. That’s probably why Georgia Davis appeared.
But enough from my end. What do you think? Does the manner of death make a difference in crime fiction? What about humor? How far can you take it? Am I just being cranky?