By Elizabeth Buhmann
What I like is the discovery of a hidden reality—dark and terrible—that underlies appearance. And there is satisfaction in seeing evildoers dragged out in the open and brought to justice.
When you write a mystery novel, you invent not one but two stories. One is the hidden story of a crime. The other is a story of discovery.
You start with the hidden drama. Why might one person kill another? How exactly does it go down? How does the murderer conceal the crime?
A man might be jealous of his lover. He quarrels with her, strangles her, conceals the body, and invents an alibi. That’s what happens, but it’s hidden. Nobody knows about it.
The underlying story could be a novel in itself, but it wouldn’t be a mystery—it would be a crime drama, or a tragedy, perhaps. The mystery is about how the hidden story comes to be exposed.
The plot of the mystery begins with the first public sign of a violent reality that hides beneath the placid surface. Shots are heard, or someone disappears. A body might be found.
The first inkling of the hidden story typically leads to a detective being hired or police being called to a crime scene. The detective/protagonist then makes deductions and discoveries that lead inexorably from the first sign of violence to a full exposure of the hidden drama. Only then can justice be restored.
Somebody once asked me why I write stand-alone mysteries instead of detective stories, which can be developed into a series. It’s because the hidden drama is what intrigues me most–the dark and terrible evil underneath the surface.
My first book, Lay Death at Her Door, is not a detective story, but it still has the heart of a mystery, because it’s all about the laying bare of a hidden life. My main character Kate got herself into a situation which led to a man getting shot and Kate being beaten and raped. To protect herself, Kate lied on the stand, and an innocent man went to prison.
So in my book, an eruption of violence was initially explained away by a false solution. The wrong man took the blame. The first inkling of what really happened comes twenty years after the fact (in chapter one), when the innocent man is exonerated by new evidence.
In another departure from the usual structure of a mystery novel, I chose a main character in the hidden drama as my protagonist, rather than the detective who solves the crime. I wanted to tell the story from the inside, even though it meant my main character would be a dark one, morally complicit, however unwillingly, in the real killer’s crimes.
Mysteries are ultimately about justice. In Kate’s story, there was a very real possibility that the truth would never be revealed. What breaks the case is Kate herself. Her own character is her downfall. This to me is a compelling idea—that evil deeds destroy us from within.