“It was a dark and stormy night” doesn’t cut it for most readers these days, and neither do sloppy descriptions of crime scenes or murder investigations. That’s why dozens of authors from all over the country recently pored over a blood-spattered car in a Nashville hotel parking garage.
Every year, the Killer Nashville writers’ conference includes sessions like “How To Write A Mystery That Grabs The Reader & Won’t Let Go” and panel discussions with agents and publisher.
Every year, there’s a murder.
Conference founder Clay Stafford recalls the time the hotel boiler room was smeared with what looked to be brains. “I never knew that macaroni and cheese with red food coloring looked like brains, but it does.” The gory mess was realistic enough that the hotel staff almost called 911.
The crime scene is a contest. Authors compete to figure out what happened on the second floor parking deck and which forensic tests should be run on the items found inside and around the Ford Taurus. Whoever gets the closest wins, but the main point is getting better at writing a compelling murder mystery or crime novel for an increasingly sophisticated readership.
“We try to make it more than Professor Plum in the drawing room with the candlestick, you know?” says Dan Royce. An Assistant Director at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Royce has decades of experience on real crime scenes. He uses the same kind of life-size dioramas to train law enforcement professionals, and his involvement is the reason why authors trust that they’re learning the right lessons by playing the game.
Royce isn’t the only forensic expert on hand. There are several who come to the conference year after year, partly out of concern.
As Royce puts it, readers—or movie watchers, or TV viewers—could end up with very unrealistic expectations. “The guy sitting in his living room tonight is going to be sitting on a jury tomorrow and he’s going to think some fictional examination is possible.”
So Royce sets up elaborate scenarios and handouts printed statements supposedly taken from the people on the scene, reports about a shooting at the dead man’s workplace, and diagrams the authors can use to map out what they find.
After two passes over the scene, the previous year’s champion thinks thinks he may have figured it out.
“I believe this man committed suicide. I believe that he killed his bosses to take the money from their safes. He was planning to flee the country with it. Judging by the amount of cash that he hauled, it wasn’t enough.”
There is one nagging detail that bugs Logan Masterson: there are a lot of cigarettes on the scene, more than one kind. Most importantly, they’re in a lot of places. He admits that could mean there was somebody else involved, after all.
He’s partially right.
So who pulled the trigger? It was the dead man’s partner in a scheme that involved drugs and money stolen from work. The killer left the gun and a small portion of the cash in order to suggest the scenario Masterson imagined, but the cigarettes, drugs and a missing cell phone are clues that should eventually hint that the suicide story isn’t quite right.