Murder Me Quickly

March 26th, 2013 by Max Allan Collins

No, that’s not the name of a missing Stacy Keach MIKE HAMMER TV movie. It’s what some readers, critics, and editors wish I would provide them with: a murder in the first chapter. Better still, the first page.

Antiques Maul

This is a relatively new phenomenon, at least as pertaining to my work. It first turned up when the editor on the ANTIQUES series (a very good editor at that) was unhappy that the murder in ANTIQUES MAUL didn’t occur until a third of the way into the book. Barb and I did not want to drastically restructure the novel, nor do any elaborate rewrite, so our solution was to begin with the murder and flash back to the events leading up. Our editor put up with that easy fix, but I don’t think she was really happy. (By the way, ANTIQUES MAUL has been long out of print and will be back in paperback, with a new and much better cover, very shortly.)

From time to time, complaints that murders in my mystery novels take too much time to happen began popping up in blog reviews and in Amazon customer comments. SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT has sparked a lot of those, in the midst of mostly highly laudatory responses. You see, the murder victim, the Dr. Frederic Wertham stand-in Dr. Werner Frederick, doesn’t get bumped off till half-way through.

And don’t accuse me of neglecting to give you a spoiler alert, because any mystery reader who doesn’t realize in the first chapter or two that Dr. Frederick is going to be the murder victim is a very new and naive mystery reader indeed. The very Golden Age traditional set-up brings most (not all) of the suspects on stage, and spends a good deal of time with Wertham in order to show why people might want to kill him. To my way of thinking, one function of a good murder mystery is to paint a portrait of the murder victim. If the murder victim is just a pawn in the game of Clue, then why not just play a round of friggin’ Clue? The book should, in part, be a character study of the murder victim.

Didn’t any of these readers and reviewers ever read a Perry Mason novel or see the classic TV series? Maybe not. But Erle Stanley Gardner took his sweet time killing the murder victim, whose identity was almost always obvious to the reader. Murders frequently don’t occur till a third of the way – sometimes half of the way – through many great mysteries by the likes of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout.

Since I read precious few contemporary mysteries these days, maybe the world and time have passed me by. Well, here’s me waving them goodbye and not giving a damn.

Is it TV that has trained people to expect the murder victim right away? Most of the mysteries shows I watch are British, and some – like the droll MIDSOMER MURDERS – do tend to dispatch the murder victim quickly…although not until a good number of suspects have been trotted out, and after we have met the murder victim in the flesh, and have seen what it is about him or her that makes them eminently killable. By the way, an hour mystery show is not a 300-page novel.

Part of why our ANTIQUES editor wants the murder to come quickly is the practice of putting a sample chapter from the next book at the end of the current paperback of the previous book. This is good marketing, and I get it, I really do…but that strikes me as a tail wagging a dog (in this case, Sushi) (a reference for readers of the series). To me, the only valid question is, “What is good for the novel?” Writing with an eye on how the book will be marketed is undignified even for a lout like me.

SEDUCTION has received a lot of praise (and maybe a smidgen of criticism) for spending many of its pages on the comics industry in the 1950s. As I’ve mentioned here before, at the suggestion of my editor and my agent, I trimmed perhaps 10,000 words of material on the subject, in an effort to make sure the book wasn’t too “inside baseball.” One much published (and inaccurate) mini-synopsis of the book has Dr. Frederick murdered on his way to testify at the Congressional hearing on comic books and juvenile delinquency. In the book, however, the doc makes it there alive and well; we get both his slanted, unfair testimony and that of the Bill Gaines stand-in, Bob Price, on stage.

I will be goddamned if I will omit something that important – to the novel, and to me – just to get a corpse on stage a few chapters earlier. I am not at all interested in the Short Attention Span Reader.

This is not to say I don’t occasionally kill the victim right away. In the first Jack and Maggie Starr mystery, A KILLING IN COMICS, the murder does happen at the end of the first chapter…but not until after we’ve met a passel of suspects at the cocktail party where the murder occurs.

The point is, if there is one, that I structure each murder mystery as seems best for the successful rendering of said mystery. In SEDUCTION, getting a full picture of Dr. Frederick, as well as a real sense of the state of the comic book industry in 1954, struck me as key. The overwhelmingly positive response to the novel convinces me I was right.

* * *

This weekend Nate was home for some general computer and web site work, and for some preliminary talk about our possible Kickstarter film project (more soon). He, his mom and I went to the new theater (the Palms) here in Muscatine and saw a really big, really dumb action movie called OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, which you’ve probably heard described (accurately) as DIE HARD IN THE WHITE HOUSE. It is absurd and often extremely stupid. It is also enormously entertaining, particularly if you like tough guy stuff that ventures into the brutal. Gerard Butler goes on my short list of potential screen Mike Hammers.

Somebody (not me) posted a nice You Tube vid about SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. Here’s your chance to get an auditory glimpse of the great audio-book reader Dan John Miller (who has done all of the Heller audios to date) as Jack Starr.

The terrific Film Rejects site did a podcast interview with me here. Might be worth your time.

And the SEDUCTION reviews keep comin’, like this one at Celebrity Cafe.

And this one at Pulp 300.

Here’s a comic-oriented review at Con Sequential.

And a short but sweet one at My Big Honkin’ Blogspot.

And another at Atomic Moo (gotta love these blog titles).

Here we are at Kvlt Kvlture.

And finally a perhaps overly analytical review at Chamber Four.


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7 Responses to “Murder Me Quickly”

  1. markolambert says:

    Amen on the murder not happening right at first! A couple of the (many!) things I’ve always appreciated about your novels, and which has made me such a fan, have been your plotting and your characterizations. A murder on page one, or even the first chapter, generally (with a few exceptions) detracts from mystery stories I’ve read from other authors. I want to know who the players are before the murder happens. Keep doing what you’re doing! We love your books the way you write them!

  2. SPKelly says:

    I must disagree with this line, “the great audio-book reader Dan John Miller (who has done all of the Heller audios to date).”

    I have a number of Heller audios on cassette read by some guy named Collins.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Mark! Mark is an old pal and collaborator (he produced, and beautifully, CAVEMAN).

    I do like reading my own stuff for audio, and I think I’m better at it than 99 out of 100 authors. But Dan John Miller is fantastic, and I suck compared to him. Also, the reader on HINDENBURG (Simon Vance, who does the James Bond novels) does an incredible job. The reader (female) on BOMBSHELL, whose name I don’t recall, also knocks it out of the park.

    For me having a good reader on an audio is like having my novel acted — almost like seeing it as a movie (a really, really faithful movie!).

  4. Andrew Hudson says:

    The “murder comes first” trend isn’t just plaguing mystery novels. Everywhere I turn, it seems like critics, editors, and even some authors are shouting from the rooftops that all new genre fiction must have (insert high octane action sequence) in the beginning. As if it’s a cardinal sin to take some time creating the premise first.

    Don’t get me wrong. Obviously it’s important to have at least something interesting in the first fourth of the novel. And if there’s a opening murder that keeps me glued to my seat (e.g Twin Peaks), then more power to them.

    But really, I don’t mind a mundane or even a slow beginning. Just as long as I trust that the author is taking their time to set up an entertaining climax or at least an engaging story.

  5. patrick_o says:

    Max, it’s great that you’re sticking to what you feel is best. I don’t particularly care when a murder occurs. I like them on the first page, I like them halfway through. Every once in a while I even like a book like Margaret Millar’s THE FIEND where no murder takes place. Often, the best plots stem from characters, and some of the best authors will develop character and plot simultaneously.

    That being said, I like the Clue approach just fine and if the plot is ingenious I think it’s just as legitimate. Not everyone is a fan of John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts (and they can admittedly be a bit dry at times), but John Dickson Carr was excellent and didn’t always bother to develop his characters thoroughly. (He could still *do* it, he just didn’t want to half the time, and the plots often make up for it.)

    Either way, neither approach should be forced onto an author and I think it’s a fine thing you’re doing in your books.

  6. mike doran says:

    A while back, you wrote something to the effect that you’d come to hate the word ‘trope’ and never wanted to see it used ever again.

    Too bad, old friend – because this whole entry is about a ‘trope’ – one of many that the mystery/crime/detective genre has been saddled with over the years.

    How many times have we all heard how the books we read are “bloody”, “violent”, “hateful”?
    That they “glorify crime and criminals”, that they “desensitize ‘us’ to evil”, that they “contribute to the moral breakdown of society”?
    (Didn’t somebody around here just publish a book about that whole mindset … ?)

    The M/C/D genre has always been plagued by stereotypes, promulgated by those who don’t actually read the things (or if they do, only in the most cursory way).

    Cliches have away of turning into “truthiness” if they’re repeated often enough.
    Many people look for a thinking shortcut, so they don’t have to exert their minds (such as they are) all that much. So much easier to follow a crowd than do your own thinking.

    Obviously, at some point somebody had to have established an immediate kill as The Way to kick off (so to speak) a crime story.
    Offhand, I can’t seem to think of anyone important who regularly did that, outside of the “tough” school anyway.
    But the cliche took hold, and the amateurs made it into a fake rule, and woe betide anyone who broke the fake rule.
    Speaking for myself, I like to be surprised when things that are “supposed to” happen in a story DON’T happen exactly as the ‘trope’ would have them.
    Give me the old change-up every once in a while instead of right down the middle every time, and I’m a happy reader (or watcher, as the case may be).
    Each story should stand on its own, whether the guy gets it at the beginning, in the middle, at the end – or maybe even not at all (which you did in a book at least once; no spoiler, look it up, friends).

    Some while back, I mentioned a really dumb favorite record of mine: “Ohne Krimi Geht die Mimi nie ins Bett”, made in Germany in 1964 by Bill Ramsey, which exemplifies this cliche. Even with my mostly-forgotten high-school German, I was able to dope out what the Deutscher lyrics were telling me about Mimi’s tastes in Kriminalromaner (I think that’s the plural; apologies if it’s not).
    Since I wrote you about that, I’ve acquired a German CD of Bill Ramsey’s Schlagermelodien (‘hit songs’ to the Yanks among us), which includes not only “Ohne Krimi Geht die Mimi…” but an English-language version that Bill Ramsey recorded at the same time, perhaps with an eye on having a hit in his native land. This version is called “Mimi Needs a Thriller When She Goes to Bed”, and while it isn’t a direct translation, the English lyrics are true to the sense of the German original.
    From the song, I strongly suspect that if Mimi were to read your Krimi, she’d be with the ones who want the bloodshed to start right away.
    I am sorely tempted to bring this CD with me to your next Chicago signing, that you might experience this masterpiece for yourself.
    So consider yourself forewarned …

  7. mike doran says:

    Today I found a used copy of Season 1 of HUSTLE.

    And a Happy Easter to the Collins Dynasty.