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October 5, 2013

All mystery readers know that there are three things that police and district attorneys in novels look for when they accuse someone of a crime.  Does that person have the motive, opportunity, and means to commit the crime?

I’ve recently read two novels in which motive was nearly completely absent.  The books were really well-written and suspenseful, and I was looking forward to blogging about them.  But when I finished the final chapter in each book, I had to go back and re-read it.  I must have missed something, I thought.  There’s no reason that this person would have committed these crimes.  Because in both cases, there were multiple murders.  But why?

In both books, there was absolutely no reason for the follow-up murders.  There was an original crime, for which there was a reason, but then the author continued the killing spree.  Perhaps the thinking was that if there were a series of murders, then the reader would be so overwhelmed that he/she wouldn’t notice the the missing motive/s.

Unlike real life where sometimes we never know what caused someone to murder someone else, in a book it’s a cheat to disregard the motive.  It leaves the reader both unsatisfied and dissatisfied, feeling that the several hours spent reading were wasted.  Giving the reader multiple crimes to read about doesn’t make up for this.

In real life, it’s my understanding that the prosecution doesn’t have to provide a motive for the defendant in order to try him/her for a crime.  But I imagine it would be hard to convince a jury to convict someone without some sort of plausible motive brought forth.  It could be greed, jealousy, fear, even mental illness, but there must be a reason for the crime.  While in real life the reason that caused the crime may be undiscoverable,  that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, hold true in mysteries.

In books, it’s the author’s job to give the reader a believable motive to commit a crime, especially the crime of murder or multiple murders.  Without such motivation on the criminal’s part, the novel falls apart.  I don’t expect to come across many more books like the two I mentioned at the beginning of this post, at least I hope not.






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