“If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.” Why corpses can’t just be a McGuffin.

This is something we say in this household, sometimes through gritted teeth, when a scriptwriter has hit us hard by killing off a favourite character in a TV show or film. The same applies to my reading, certainly these days. I have long since moved on from the fun, formulaic mysteries where the body in the library or wherever might just as well be a realistic dummy, because their role is simply to get the plot rolling. A McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock explained, and frequently demonstrated in his work. Rear Window is a fantastic film, but does anyone ever remember the dead woman’s first name, or why she was killed?

For crime fiction to have emotional depth, readers (and viewers) need to make a connection with the victim. This death has to matter. On the other hand, the crime is generally what starts the story. So making that connection can be a challenge when our first encounter with someone is with their corpse. It’s getting to know who this person was, and why someone else would be driven to kill them, that draws us on through the book, in most cases. There are exceptions of course, but it takes an accomplished writer to do this well. Even so, that won’t be what a lot of readers are looking for.

So how do we make Mr or Ms McGuffin matter, if the reader will never get to meet them? The most satisfying way for me as a reader is to see the dead person reflected in the reactions of other characters in the story. The more complex and varied those reactions are, the more interested I become. Someone blameless and beloved by all, who’s murdered by an unrepentant monster, is certainly a tragedy, but that can make for an ultimately one-note, and depressing, novel. Reading about an unrepentant monster who finally gets what’s long been coming to them is most likely to leave me thinking ‘good riddance’, closing the book, and moving briskly on.

Thankfully there are infinite possibilities between the two extremes. We can see one person who knew the victim is genuinely grief-stricken, while the next is really struggling not to speak ill of the dead. Or maybe they’ll have no hesitation at all, venting some fresh or festering grievance. What does any or all of this tell us about the victim, and why they were killed? Or maybe this particular quarrel has no significance? The opportunities for false leads and red herrings are endless.

But there still has to be an emotional connection in all this, not just plot mechanics. We have to see that this person mattered, that they had value or significance, at least to someone. No man or woman should be an island, any more than they should be a McGuffin. Their death should diminish someone. As readers we need to see this, if we’re really going to feel it. We won’t make that connection if we’re simply told about the victim’s virtues and/or vices.

This is why Xandyberis had to be more than an unexpected dead man in expensive shoes, when I came to write Shadows of Athens. I had to think through all aspects of his character and his life, as well as working through the events and motivations that ultimately led him to meet his demise. Philocles discovers some, but but no means all, of this through the course of the book. That he doesn’t learn everything doesn’t matter. I still had to do the work that didn’t end up on the page, to make sure that this story would count.

And yes, some recent notable deaths in recent film and TV got me thinking about this, but No Spoilers.

Author: JM Alvey

Studied Classics as an undergraduate, once upon a time. Lifelong history buff, and crime fiction fan. Now writing historical murder mysteries.