Thursday, July 28, 2016

Not Just Whodunnit...?

In mysteries/crime fiction, the obvious antagonists are the villain and the sleuth. But that’s only the beginning.

Until the villain is discovered, every suspect is an antagonist. Those who apparently cooperate may be lying. Those who lie may do so to protect themselves or to protect others. In the latter case, the liar may be acting on knowledge or on fears and suspicions—guesswork—and the basis of the lies may have nothing to do with the crime in question.

For instance a murder investigation may turn up blackmail, as in my Styx and Stones and A Mourning Wedding, with several characters trying to conceal the reasons they are vulnerable to blackmail.

Those who don’t cooperate are obstructive. Again, this behaviour may be self- or other-protective, with the same caveats, or may be sheer bloodymindedness.

All these, for their many and various reasons, are antagonistic to the investigator, whether amateur or professional (though one advantage of an amateur sleuth is that people may more easily confide their secrets to an unofficial ear than to a probing police detective).

Antagonism doesn’t end with the hunter and the hunted, of course. Obviously a murderer is the antagonist of his victim. In order to explore their relationship I like to see it at first hand, before the murder, rather than at second hand through the eyes of the detective. This means I often postpone the murder until quite late in the book rather than providing a body in Chapter One.

To confuse the issue, plenty of characters are needed, each with his or her own reasons for enmity with the victim, the villain, and each other.

This gives the reader a chance to figure out not only who the killer is but also who’s going to be killed. In one book, Sheer Folly, I myself didn’t know which of two characters was going to be the villain and which the victim until I wrote the penultimate chapter.

It’s a lot of fun throwing a whole bunch of antagonists together at a country house party, or in a concert hall, or at the Tower of London...

I haven’t even touched on two other sources of conflict: Local police don’t always want their cases to be handed over to Scotland Yard; and neither sort of police welcomes the interference of an amateur, however well-meaning and occasionally helpful. Both of those also add a little spice to the story.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is now available to pre-order. 


  1. Now that you describe it, I'm thinking, "Of course," but I hadn't really thought about this aspect of mysteries until I read your post: "Until the villain is discovered, every suspect is an antagonist." And since every good novel needs a certain amount of mystery - whether it's in that genre or not - this gives me something to ponder for my own work. Thanks for the interesting post, Carola.

  2. Good thoughts, Carola ... however, I did like Dud's approach, too ... eight murders in the first chapter ... oh, yeah.

    1. I seldom get as far as any murders in the first chapter. I like to get to know my mutually antagonistic cast before anyone gets done in. That way, readers can wonder who's going to be the victim as well as who's the villain.

  3. I never thought of it in quite this way myself, Cara, before writing this!

  4. I never considered the possibilities (and challenges) of multiple antagonists. This food for thought opens some very interesting new doors. Great post, Carola. Thank you.


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