I love murder mysteries. I doubt this comes as any kind of a surprise to most people reading this blog. Characters in a murder mystery fall into one of two categories: they are either part of the Big Four, or they are Extras. This week I want to quickly chat about the Big Four.
Who are the Big Four?
The Big Four are the main characters without whom we would have no murder mystery. They are: The Victim(s), The Villain(s), The Side-kick(s) and The Detective(s).
And yes, they often come as a pair or even more, not just as a lone individual. Detectives, for example, often come as a pair – one an amateur and one a professional. Villains too, can sometimes deliberately confuse the reader by sharing the limelight with another villain, and share the crimes too.
And who doesn’t love a high body-count? Why stop at one Dastardly Deed when you can have two, or three, or…
Let me introduce you…
Victims, as avid mystery lovers know, are always bumped off for a reason. And obviously it is The Detective(s)’s(s’)(??) job to discover why and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The richer, the more arrogant, cruel, cold, grasping, greedy and crafty our victim is/was, the better we like it, don’t we? We can then take a vicarious pleasure in their demise as we would never, ever do such a thing ourselves in real life. And the worse they are, the nastier and more creative their all-too-timely death should be. BUT.
They can’t be so bad that we don’t care if their killer evades detection.
In my view, ideally there should be two or three of these demises per mystery because, if I’m honest, I’m always a bit disappointed if there’s ‘only’ one.
The Victim is there for one reason only–
to make us, the reader feel clever: to provide something for The Detective to detect, of course.
Whenever I hear the word ‘villain’ I always think of a man in a swirling black cape and top hat, twirling his moustaches menacingly (or smugly, either will do)and saying ‘Mwah haha’.
Sadly, the days of Dick Dastardly have gone, (drat, drat and double drat) and nowadays The Villain can look like anyone:
A little old lady.
A stalwart Major-type.
A handsome young man on his honeymoon. (I’m looking at you, Death on the Nile.)
A nurse. (Sad Cypress)
Even a child. (Crooked House)
The Villain is often charming, often invokes our sympathy due to baggage and issues, and can even make us think, ‘Aww well, she/he’s had a tough childhood, maybe we should kindly overlook those four grisly murders and let her/him have a new chance at life.’
We must be on our guard at all times throughout the book until the moment this villain is unmasked.
The Sidekick has a demanding role. They are there as a kind of placeholder/proxy for the reader.
They must be clingy to the point of irritating, sticking by The Detective’s side when they really should go away and leave him/her alone to think things through. But no, they stick around at all times, asking stupid, inane and tedious questions, so that we don’t have to. We sit at home in our comfiest armchair and loudly exclaim, ‘Rookie mistake, I already knew that…’ but really we’re thinking, ‘Ooh I wasn’t sure, but now that you mention it…’
So they are there to help The Detective and the reader to find the evidence and the clues and to arrive at the truth of the mystery.
In fact they don’t create a dialogue, but they are the dialogue – through The Side-kick, the reader can talk to The Detective and The Detective can talk to us.
The Detective can be anyone.
Rather like The Villain, The Detective can be a law-and-order professional, or someone from an associated profession (forensics, psychology…), or an amateur with a gift, a nurse, a priest (The Complete Father Brown stories) a stalwart major-type, a nurse, a handsome young man on his honeymoon or even a child (The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie).
The Detective has one job and one job only: to find out whodunit and bring them to justice.
It’s essential that her or his main characteristics include:
Passionate desire for justice, even at risk to self, it goes without saying, I hope.
Incredibly close attention to detail: ‘Sacre bleu, this dust is 3.14159 milimetres in ze thickness, therefore the killer was the maid and the crime was committed on Tuesday afternoon.’* The whole case may depend on just this kind of minuteness.
Very keen observation skills: ‘Zut alors, the footprints in the mud are of a depth of 3.14159 milimetres, therefore we must find a person of 6 feet 1 inch who weighs 189lbs.’
From the two above attributes, we can also see that they must be good at mathematics too.
Lastly, the Detective must have a huge ego: We readers love to have all the suspects in a room at the end of the story, and to be taken step by step through the crime to learn the identity of The Villain, and to have the satisfaction of them being led away in handcuffs. Therefore it is essential that our Detective loves to show off just a little and to deliver a lecture on how clever he/she is and how many different things we missed.
So next time you are reading a mystery, keep a handy notebook and pen by your side, so you can check for all these points!
*must supply own white hat
*sorry btw, for me all fictional detectives are Hercule Poirot, even when they’re not