Friday, August 14, 2015

Murder Mystery by Committee

At ten in the morning last Sunday a panel called "What If" took place at Deadly Ink, a small conference in New Brunswick for writers and readers of crime fiction. The "What If" panel was one of those where the panelists and the audience make up a whole murder mystery out of nothing, starting by inventing a detective and ending with the solution to the mystery.

I've been to a few of these things over the years, with a lot of bright, famous, witty people on the panels, and I don't recall any of those other panels working quite as well as this one did. Maybe it was the moderator, E. F. Watkins. Maybe it was the panelists, Annette Dashofy, Jane Kelly, the inimitable Brad Parks, and our own Sheila York. Maybe it was the audience members who offered suggestions and plot points, among them Annamaria Alfieri. But when they were finished, all these folks had outlined a good story. It was not a cozy, everyone agreed, although no animals were harmed that we know of.

We began with the detective. Professional or amateur? Amateur, everyone said. A librarian, said Paula Lanier. (I think Paula took the picture above, though I'm not sure. A lot of great panel pictures have been flying around.) A corporate librarian in a drug company, I suggested, figuring that a drug company was an excellent place for evil and chicanery of every sort. (Nobody remembered Jersey Monkey, so that was all right.) And everyone assumed that the librarian detective must be a woman. So they called her Sheila.

Good. The crime? Murder. The victim? The company's C.E.O. The reason for Sheila the librarian to investigate? They were having an affair, and she is a suspect. The means of death? An embolism caused by an injection of air from a hypodermic needle. Roberta Rogow insisted that hypodermic needles were passé. So, okay, the needle, found at the crime scene, came from a museum-type display case in the corporate library. Someone was trying to frame Sheila. Now for the suspects: the victim's wife, their son, the son's wife, and a failed litigant in a suit against the drug company.

And so it went. In the process of putting the story together the panelists and audience members made choices, accepting or rejecting various plot elements according to their own personal tastes and value systems as well as what they perceived to be the generally accepted norms of readers. Annamaria refused to entertain any plot idea that involved harm, or remote threat of harm, to a child. Brad Parks had to point out that as an adulterer the C.E.O. would fall so low in the readers' estimation that no one would care that he was dead. But his wife is sick, someone said. Ah, he said. John Edwards. It was held to be important for the reader to care about the victim. And so a long discussion ensued to figure out how to make the affair okay from the standpoint of the wife.

If you want to know whodunnit, I'll tell you in the comments later. I think the point I'm trying to make is that the character of the writer—the writer's moral nature—infuses the work. What was so delightful and refreshing about this panel, at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning when all of us had been partying until, say, midnight the night before, was the sweetness of character they showed as they crafted the story. It made me want to read their books. (Of course I've already read Sheila's books. And Annamaria's. Great stuff.)

© 2015 Kate Gallison


  1. Great fun - the group interaction was wonderful! Thanks for sharing this with your readers, Kate! Thelma Straw in Manhattan, where crimes are so rare! ( Ha Ha Ha!!!)

  2. Kate, I thought that panel was fabulous! I spent a lot of my consulting life at the five largest (then) drug companies in NJ. Nothing anyone said was anything but plausible! I wanted the CEO to turn out to be a bad guy, but I couldn't get a word in edgewise. Except for my rant about threats to children, which had no place in that story anyway. WHAT FUN!!!

  3. Annamaria, I hear you here! After my many years as Corporate Employment Relations Manager at a Fortune 100 Co and my work as a Vice President at Drake Beam Morin... I can believe all I'm sure was said at the Deadly Ink panel! tjstraw