I have a general, and by no means ironclad rule regarding crime fiction. I call it, ‘the body count rule’, in homage to my man Ice-T’s early 90’s, police violence aficionado combo.
The ‘body count rule’ is a rule of inverse proportions. In any crime novel, as the murder count rises, the quality of the book falls. Two of the best crime novels I’ve read over the past few months, Lush Life by Richard Price and Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, have, respectively, 1 and 2.5 murders in them. I’m counting a half for Atkinson because one of the murders happened in the long past, though it is flashbacked upon.
Besides an occasionally creepy casualness about the value of human life in entertainment (and no high horses here), I think the rule carries some critical validity:
1.) Most crime novels begin with a violent death, or have the spectre of a violent death from the get-go. This creates immediate tension for hooking the reader. The problem? You get fifty or so pages post-snuffing, and that tension starts to slacken. The solution? A.) Investigate the ramifications of the death on individuals and a community through a nuanced, introspective story (a la Lush Life/Case Histories). Or B.) Mo’ killin’. Because, as everyone knows, once you’ve crossed that line, there is.no.return.
2.) Murders often provide a convenient way to shut characters up, keeping them from complicating what are usually already complex plots. Therefore, kind of a cheat.
Now, I’m not advocating a removal of the necessary edge of violence. Do that, and we’re left with cozies, and though my mom loves them, I can’t get fired up about Ms. Sumpenpumps’ missing tabby, and the village constable who will stop at nothing to track it down. I do think that murder is a pretty big deal, one that has widespread ramifications, and those ramifications provide a lot of grist for the mill. One to two murders have created the basis for world-class literature (Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, though I guess technically one of those is vehicular manslaughter). Three to six, the basis for some great crime writing. But once the seven count is reached, or exceeded, it raises warning flags for me. Either the author doesn’t trust him/herself, doesn’t trust us, or doesn’t know what to do next.
The body count rule can also apply to some other types of crimes, namely anything involving kids. Like stories about grandmothers with cancer, in real life these are undeniably traumatic and tragic. In fiction? Tread mighty carefully.