When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

#Empire Is Coming Back For Season Two!

For awhile it looked like the hot new show Empire wasn’t going to be renewed by Fox, but The Washington Post reported May 10th that it will. I couldn’t be happier.  I was late to become an Empire fanboy, but I’m not sorry about it, because that meant I got to binge-watch the show one weekend.  Empire grabbed me with its seductive opening scene; it was love at first sight.  I was hooked, but something else happened: I unexpectedly started to feel like the show was about me.

I’m not crazy.  Let me explain.

At one point in Episode Four, entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon orders his sullen youngest son Hakeem to get into the studio and write some hip-hop songs.  Now.

empire familyThat’s when I realized the show wasn’t just about music, and an entertainment empire and business maneuvering, and seething family dynamics, and regret, and homophobia, and second marriages, and sibling rivalry, and secrets and lies, and facing terminal illness.  It was also about the writing life.  My writing life.

On the surface, I couldn’t be more different from the Lyon brothers.  I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, I didn’t grow up with one parent in prison, I don’t sing, I’m not bipolar, and I’m not in a mixed marriage.  But adding their experiences together, like the Lyon brother I’ve felt the intense pressure to produce, produce, produce.  Like them, I’ve been on stage, and I’ve also felt stage fright and felt upstaged.

Like those guys, I’ve felt pushed to do things for publicity I didn’t ever want to do, and badly tempted to do things I thought might get me more publicity.  Like them, I’ve felt the lure of fame and stardom–and sometimes waved it all away as BS.  Like them, I’ve wanted to be true to myself and felt stymied trying to get there and stay there.  Like them, I’ve had a difficult, dramatic mother who believed fiercely in me.  And like them, I’ve had a demanding father who could be totally unreasonable and even violent.

And though I can’t write music, I’ve always had a soundtrack in my head from the first day I heard record albums on my parents’ hi-fi….

hifiThanks to Empire, right now that sound track includes the amazing “What is Love?” sung by Veronika Bozeman.  That’s the song that opens Episode One of Empire and it’s unforgettable.

The show isn’t just absorbing drama with comic highlights, like all the times Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie keeps dissing his lover Anika as “Boo Boo Kitty” or “fake-ass Halle Berry” and practically steals a scene with just a glare.  Hell, I think she can steal a scene she’s not in–all anybody has to do is say her name.  Watch the show yourself, and try it.

empire-cookie-gif

Empire is a well-written, dramatic, sexy, and sometimes hilarious show that also hooks me as a writer whenever it explores the troubles of the creative life, both internal and external.  It hits those notes deep and true every single time.  That show gives me fever.

So now’s the time to catch up on Season One and see if the show gets you hot, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.