During my recent book tour, a question that cropped up more than once was why we like to write about murder. For me, it's the best possible crime to investigate. Readers, myself included, are willing to invest a few hours of their time to read along as a sleuth, amateur or professional, follows clues and interviews suspects to track down a killer. You never know where the story is going to turn.
Watching a detective follow the clues to who robbed the 7-11 isn't nearly as compelling. For one thing, the motive for robbery always revolves around money. Either the thief plans to sell the stolen goods for cash or else they want things that they can't afford, be it drugs, food, or a DVD of the latest Vin Diesel movie. But motive is one of the more interesting aspects of murder. What drives someone to take another's life? Was it planned out, cold and calculated, for that inheritance, or did the killer strike in a moment of passion when he caught his wife in bed with his boss? People kill for any number of reasons, including greed, jealousy, anger, revenge, sport, and love, providing endless scenarios for a fictional murder.
The writer can stick with one motive or combine two or more to create a back story for the killer, the reason that drives them. The writer then weaves these details into the plot, shelling out a clue here, a hint there. Like working a jigsaw puzzle, the reader takes all those pieces and puts them back together to create the big picture. Maybe Uncle Horace had an affair during the war that resulted in an illegitimate daughter, who he has secretly supported throughout childhood. Years later, he kills her abusive husband to protect her. Or maybe Cousin Jeffrey wants to inherit the family estate and eliminates everyone in line before him. As a reader, nothing is more satisfying than figuring out the identity of the killer and the reason behind the murder before the writer tells you.
Does it have to be murder? No. But murder is the ultimate crime. Anything less feels like a letdown.