Ed McBain, author of the long-running series of 87th Precinct police procedurals, was once asked how he devised plots. His answer was: “I usually start with a corpse.”
McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter) was talking about the seed of a story rather than literally about how to structure a book but, still, pick up ten crime novels and look at the first pages and the chances are most of them will contain either a dead body, or the promise of one.
Devouring crime fiction as a teenager, and reading how-to manuals such as Hillary Waugh’s On Crime Writing, I’d absorbed this rule and stuck to it throughout the first few (unpublished) detective stories I wrote.
But The Grave Digger’s Boy, which is out in a few weeks, doesn’t start with a corpse – it begins with the absence of one.
In fact, this is the second novel I’ve written with that as the seed. The other, a manuscript that lurks in a virtual desk drawer, was called Fears Grow for Missing Sam and had an entirely different plot, setting and cast of characters to The Grave Digger’s Boy.
What both share, though, is a grim fascination with the idea that without a body, those left behind are stuck in a kind of purgatory, unable to move on. Sometimes, this awful suspension last for decades.
All murders are sad. Murders that never resolve, that hang in the air, are the saddest of all. The fuel for much of the best crime writing is, I think, the probing of these emotions.
One tangential influence on my novel – though influences are hard to pin down in the memory – is the ongoing subplot which runs through the series of books Arnaldur Indriðason’s wrote about the Icelandic detective Erlendur. Over the course of several novels, we learn that Erlendur’s brother disappeared in the snow as a child, leaving Erlendur obsessed not only with that case but also disappearances more generally.
In the real world, I find myself haunted by the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, whose parents died without knowing what had become of her. News coverage of that story ran at intervals throughout my childhood and every now and then her face appears on TV or in the papers when some new lead emerges and, inevitably, dwindles. Another search was carried out just a few weeks ago and new witnesses occasionally come forward.
There’s also the case of Helen McCourt whose disappearance in 1984 led to a notable example of a murder conviction in the absence of a body. Her murderer, Ian Simms, was convicted using DNA and to this day refuses to reveal where or how he disposed of her remains.
And, of course, it’s hard not to think of 12-year-old Keith Bennett, who was killed by the moors murderers in 1964, and is yet to be found. Or, rather, whose whereabouts has been concealed out of pure malice.
It’s unlikely anyone reading The Grave Digger’s Boy would guess these or the other real criminal cases I had in mind because by the time they’ve been through the blender of my brain, all that’s left is a sort of essence – the mood rather than details.
Crime writers, awful carrion creatures that we are, are drawn to these cases, yes, by the sheer emotional power they hold, but also because of the complexity they instantly bring to the plot of a novel.
After all, stories that start with a missing body provide two mysteries for the price of one – a whodunnit, and a where-is-it.
Or is it three? With no body, it’s hard to say for sure whether a character was actually murdered. Or maybe it’s four: can we even say for sure they’re really dead?