Few people will ever see the body of someone who has been murdered.
It’s possibly only the crime writers among us for whom this is a regrettable omission.
The moment when your detective confronts the victim for the first time is, I think, one of the hardest to write. And sometimes I can’t help thinking that it would be a hell of a lot easier if I actually had a dead body in front of me. Preferably the dead body of someone who has been killed in exactly the way I have imagined it.
(I know, it’s only one small step from that to… but no, I’ve never been tempted.)
The first thing I’d like to settle is whether the fictional method of killing I have come up with would in fact be fatal. If so, how long would it take for a person to die in that way? How much blood would there be? What would the body look like afterwards?
I have a tendency to think up some quite weird modes of dispatch.
No amount of googling will provide the answers. Though it does result in a slightly disturbing internet search history. If google are really spying on my browsing, then I think the authorities would have been alerted by now.
But getting the details right isn’t the only reason why this particular type of scene is hard to write.
There is also an interesting tension at work (or play) here, which makes it a writerly balancing act. I’m talking about the tension between what your detective sees and what everyone else sees.
Straightaway almost your detective has to see something that everyone else misses that proves crucial to the solving of the crime.
The trick you have to try and pull off as a writer is to present both.
But somehow fool your readers into missing the details that the detective picks up on and seeing only what everyone else in the story does. If the scene is being written from the detective’s point of view, then this can be tricky.
A technique that can be handy here is to have another character, preferably one the reader identifies with more than with your detective, who voices the interpretation that you want to impose on your reader, while the detective’s interpretation remains unspoken, except for a few vague hints designed to intrigue and frustrate the reader in equal measure.
Another technique is to have the detective not realising the significance of what they have seen until later in the story, when something else, seemingly unconnected, prompts them to remember this overlooked, but crucial, detail.
I’m sure you’ve seen examples of both techniques many times.
They are part of the stock in trade of the mystery writer. You might think they are tired old tropes. I would argue that they are still valid and can be handled in a way that is surprising and entertaining for a modern reader. And from a writer’s point of view, the fact that they have been employed so many times by so many great writers, only makes them harder, not easier, to do.
They are like the three chord progression that makes up a classic blues or rock song. Lots of people can play them, but coming up with something original with them is the real challenge.