I read an article recently that said that a motive in a murder mystery must be strong enough to justify a murder, that nobody would kill somebody for stealing their socks.
As it happens, I had just heard an excerpt from Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in which the precipitating motive for a murder is a woman's appropriation of another woman's stockings. Granted, this is in Siberia and the stockings are warm.
So I would have to add three words to the article's advice: The motive must be strong enough to justify a murder to the murderer.
This means that the setting must be specific enough to affect the motive. The characterizations must be strong enough and deep enough to rationalize extreme reaction. Relationships must be clear enough to urge a violent resolution.
Think of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." Is there a strong motive for murder? No, there's no motive for the murder -- except in the mind of the murderer.
If you're just starting out writing murder mysteries, you might do well to follow the simpler advice and choose an obviously powerful motive like money, fear of professional damage, love, or immediate self-defense.
But subtler motives are a lot more intriguing, if more difficult to put across.
She took your socks? Yeah, baby, she had it comin'!
Marian Allen, Author Lady
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