* Reposted from my guest post on Murderous Imaginings.
There are a million ways to kill a character and writers have done it all. In fact, we’ve gotten so inventive at killing that it’s a real challenge to come up with a believable death that hasn’t been written into a TV show, movie or book. But that’s part of what makes writing fun. There’s no thrill like doing in someone in a way the reader probably hasn’t experienced before.
In Bigfoot Blues, the latest in my Elvis Sightings Mystery series, I bump off a guy by animal. Animal themed murder mysteries are pretty common. Dick Francis made a career with horse themed mysteries. The list of pets as murder solving gumshoes or sidekicks is as long as my arm. Lillian Jackson Braun has written over 30 books featuring two crime solving cats named Koko and Yum Yum. But mysteries with animals doing the killing aren’t so common. Probably for good reason. It’s not easy to invest a fairly straightforward death with a shroud of mystery. I mean, the killer is a critter, it doesn’t have motives or try to cover it’s tracks, right?
The approach I took was to call into question the nature of the killing itself. Was it really even an animal? The official consensus is the deceased was done in by a rogue mountain lion. But with persistent rumors about a chupacabra on the loose, maybe there’s more to it? Cause those things aren’t supposed to even exist. And then add in the fact that the dead man is a taxidermist, with access to things like animal claws and teeth, and all of the sudden “death by animal” isn’t so straight forward.
My stories all live on the edge of being surreal, some might even say absurd, so I can get away with a lot that traditional mystery writers would have a hard time working into their books. You’d be pretty put off if James Patterson tried to write a chupa into a novel, for example, but when the main character is a Lifestyle Elvis who’s life is guided by “What would Elvis do?” and his sidekick is a querulous 3½ foot tall ex-circus performer, it’s not so much of a stretch.
As oddball as my books can get, I still play fair with the reader. My killer animal, be it natural, supernatural or human, still leaves behind clues and a literal trail to follow. Constructing that trail of clues and the ultimate solving of the mystery, despite the animal theme, is done pretty much the same way as I’d handle a real murder mystery. Before I write word one, I have to know why did it happen, how did it happen, and what happened to make the solution not obvious, but not Agatha Christie impossible to figure out either. Without admitting whether or not it really was an animal, I will say that working from the assumption it is a critter makes answering those questions a lot harder. With a normal murder, the killer doesn’t want to be caught – that’s why it isn’t obvious. Again, my approach was to lay groundwork up front that would make it difficult to conclude whether the death was really a simple animal attack or if the animal angle is misdirection. I started by giving one character a really good reason to want the dead man to be dead, then gave him access to those animal teeth and claws I mentioned. I also made my protagonist prone to seeing conspiracies, so while he suspects foul play, he also had to doubt his reasoning. The result, I think, is that you’ll be hard pressed to figure out exactly who the killer is, and why the killer killed in the first place, and you’ll laugh along the way trying to figure it out.
Humans are rarely killed by animals, but here are some animal attack facts you may not know.
If you are an American, you are 20x more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark. It’s true. Every year in America there are about 20 people killed by cow and only 1 by shark. This year the sharks are upping their game, but the cows still have a while to catch up.
Actually, sharks really haven’t been living up to their predator of the seas reputation. Jellyfish kill about 8x as many people per year, all without having teeth.
As vicious and blood thirsty as the cow is, you know what’s deadlier? The deer. They manage to do in about 120 people a year by jumping in front of our cars. Kamikaze deer.
You know what else is deadlier than the shark? Falling coconuts. True, the coconut tree isn’t an animal, but apparently it is really pissed at us for guzzling its milk and takes us out to the tune of about 150 people a year. Vending machines don’t like us either, while we’re on the non-animal theme, and whack about a dozen Americans a year.
Sharks are wimps.