Back when filmmaking was in its infancy, it was easy for the moviegoers to pick out the bad guy. He always wore black. In the really cheesy westerns, it was even easier for moviegoers because not only did the bad guy where black, but the good guy wore white.
White as good. Black was bad. The audience cheered for the guy in white and they booed at the villain in black.
Now, we all know that this is not the way it is in real life. And, if you’re writing a murder mystery whodunit, then you really don’t want the readers to pick out the killer, or just plain antagonist, based on the color of their clothes. You might as well pin a sign on his chest that says, “I Did It!”
When it comes to writing, authors yearning to give their characters depth will attempt to include shades of grey to their bad guys or gals. Let’s face it, there are few people who are really all bad—dressed in stark black. (I wish it was that easy in real life!) Just like there are few people who are all good—dressed in shining white.
As a reader, I am disappointed when I pick up a book or turn on a crime drama to find that practically every bad guy or girl fits into a tight box labeled “cliché:”
How about having a rich man who is loving and generous? Such was the case in Shades of Murder, which opens with a multi-millionaire who breaks down into hysterics after the murder of his wife. Years later, he is still grieving. His son, the wealthy heir, had left college to proudly serve in the military overseas after 9/11. Self-centered and arrogant, he is not.
Giving your bad guy or gal a reason for their bad-ness can add depth to their character. In Twelve to Murder, Lenny Frost was a former child actor who had won an Academy Award before he got his first pimple. By the time he was of legal drinking age, he had been a kidnapping victim and drug addict. In sympathy, his agent, who contrasted the stereotype of the Hollywood leech, got him a regular gig in her son’s comedy club when no one else would work with him.
The backstory alone gives readers a tinge of sympathy for Lenny Frost when he appears on the page as a foul mouth drunk who takes a whole bar hostage and demands that Mac Faraday prove his innocence of a double murder.
Likewise, in Kill and Run, when readers Tristan Faraday, Jessica’s younger brother, he bears no resemblance to the multi-millionaire son of Mac Faraday (the protagonist in the Mac Faraday Mysteries) that he is. The cliché is the arrogant young man who feels entitled to anything he desires. In college, he majors in sex, drugs, and booze—not learning. Not so when it comes to Tristan Faraday. He is a professional student and computer geek and proud of it.
In this excerpt from Kill and Run, readers meet Tristan soon after his home has been flooded:
“Tristan, what are you doing cooking breakfast in my kitchen instead of yours?” Jessica charged into the kitchen so abruptly that her brother jumped from where he was buttering toast.
The slice flew off the counter and dropped into Spencer’s waiting mouth. With a joyful bounce in her step, Spencer (Jessica’s sheltie) raced into the living room to show off her prize to Newman (Murphy’s mongrel).
“My kitchen is too wet to cook in.” Pushing his dark framed eyeglasses up onto his nose with the back of his hand, Tristan took another slice of bread out of the pack, dropped it into the toaster, and pushed down the lever. “Murphy doesn’t eat bread, does he?”
“Only organic whole wheat and not very often,” Jessica said. “He’s not a fan of carbs.”
With the butter knife, Tristan pointed at the blender containing a green frothy drink. “I made a kale protein smoothie for him.”
She started to ask where her brother had found the recipe for Murphy’s breakfast smoothie until she’d noticing Tristan’s tablet resting upright on the counter with the webpage of a healthy recipe site displayed.
“It’s got all kinds of green disgusting stuff in it,” Tristan said. “Murphy will love it.”
Tristan was a third year undergraduate student at George Washington University with a double major in natural science and computer engineering. With a tall, lanky build and dark framed eye glasses, Tristan Faraday resembled the computer geek he was, of which he was quite proud.
“What do you mean your kitchen is too wet to cook in?” Jessica peered into the aquarium resting on their dining room table. “It’s true. You did bring her.”
“I guess you didn’t see the news this morning.” Tristan opened the oven door. “When did you and Murphy decide to adopt?”
“We didn’t.” While peering into the aquarium, Jessica shuddered when she saw the huge, black, hairy tarantula looking straight at her. “Why can’t you have a more normal pet—like a pit bull?”
“You have to walk pit bulls.” Tristan plopped a warm plate filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns, and two slices of bacon onto the table—at the opposite end from Monique. “Here you go, sis.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Now you can’t say I never did anything for you. Who’s the kid I fed a little bit ago?”
Uttering a low bark, Newman came into the dining room and stomped his big feet at the end of his short legs. At the same moment, the slice of toast popped up from the toaster. Tristan took the toast and tossed it to the dog as if it was a Frisbee. Instead of jumping to catch it, Newman watched it fly over his head. Once it hit the floor, he picked it up and returned to the living room to resume watching the morning business and financial news channel.
Tristan dropped another slice of bread into the toaster and pushed down on the handle. “Toast is on the way, sis.”
Jessica asked, “Are you telling me you fed breakfast to someone without asking who she was and what she was doing in our home?”
Tristan came out of the kitchen with a mug of coffee, which he placed in front of Jessica. He also placed the cream and sugar next to it. “Maybe she thought I was the cook. I came out of the kitchen and caught her trying to take Monique out of the aquarium.”
“Izzy was trying to take your tarantula out of the tank?” Jessica stopped with her fork in mid-air.
“She wanted to pet her,” Tristan said. “You’d be surprised what a chick magnet that arachnid is. So, I took Monique out and introduced them. Monique took right to the kid. She crawled up her arm and chilled out on her shoulder while this kid ate her breakfast. She must have good vibes. Monique likes her and,” he lowered his voice, “Monique doesn’t like just anyone.”
“Izzy obviously loves animals and they seem to love her.” After blowing into the hot mug, Jessica took a sip of the hot coffee.
“What’s she doing here?”
“Her mother was murdered yesterday,” she said in a solemn tone. “Murphy is working the case.”
“Oh.” Tristan hung his head while Jessica concentrated on moving the food around on her plate.
“If I had known about her mother, I would have let her have the second pack of chocolate pop tarts.”
“You gave her my pop tarts?” Jessica said
“You can buy more. My biscuits are burning.”
While her brother rushed into the kitchen, she called after him, “What happened to your townhouse?”
“There was a water main break in Georgetown during the night,” Tristan said. “Flooded two whole city blocks. Guess which brownstone bore the brunt of it.”
“The whole lower floor is under a foot and a half of water,” Tristan said. “By the time they drain it, I’m probably going to have to replace drywall and the hardwood floors—the first floor is going to need to be completely renovated.”
“What about your roommates?” Jessica asked.
“They both went back home to their folks.” With a wide coaxing grin, he wrapped his arms around Jessica. “Of course, since Dad lives in Deep Creek Lake, the only place I could go …”
“Of course you can stay here.” Jessica returned the hug. “But I’m not so sure about Monique.”
“I can’t leave her alone at the townhouse,” Tristan said.
“Murphy hates Monique,” Jessica said. “He hates bugs.”
“His sister loves Monique.” Tristan eased down into the chair next to her.
“Sarah is not like her brother,” Jessica said. “Just like you’re into spiders and crawly things, and I’m into high heels to stomp on those crawly things. Murphy and Sarah are two different people.”
Tristan cleared his throat. “Speaking of Sarah …” Staring down the length of the table at the aquarium, he fell silent.
Jessica dropped her fork. “What about Sarah?”
“Well, you know she and I have been texting and skyping and … stuff.” He cleared his throat.
“I knew you two had become friends.” Jessica’s brows practically met in the middle of her forehead. “’Don’t tell me it’s more than that.” She gasped. “Are you two sleeping together?”
“No,” he replied sharply. “But if I play my cards right …”
“Cards right?” Losing her appetite, she shoved the half-filled plate away. “How long has this been going on between you two?”
“Uh … how long have you and Murphy been married?” He cocked his head at her. “I thought you’d be happy that I was finally dating again.”
“Sarah is Murphy’s little sister,” Jessica said. “Think about it, Tristan. Murphy and I are married. One day, we’re going to have children.—”
“Are you—” His eyes dropped to her stomach.
Clutching her flat tummy, she glared. “No!”
“Then why are you talking about having kids?”
“Because one day we will!” With a grimace, she plunged on. “My point is—our two families are joined together with Murphy and me in the middle. Our dads are friends. Dad had selected Josh to be a groomsman at his wedding. If you have a fling with Sarah and things don’t work out, you two can’t just walk away and never see each other again. When Murphy and I have family gatherings here then people are going to be feeling awkward with each other.” She sighed. “If you really love Sarah, then go for it. You have my blessing. You’ll have Murphy’s, too. But, if this is just a pair of hormones calling to each other—then I suggest you go take a cold shower and walk away before it’s too late.”
Tristan’s face fell with disappointment. “Problem is,” he said, “it may already be too late. I feel really good about how things are going with her, and Sarah was planning to come out next weekend. We were going to hook up.”
Jessica was out of her seat. “Here?”
“No, at my place, which is now under a foot of water,” Tristan said. “I was hoping you and Murphy would go away for the weekend so that—”
“No what?” Murphy asked upon entering the dining room. He had his towel slung around his shoulders. Upon spotting the aquarium with the huge, hairy, tarantula, he pointed and yelled, “No, no, no, and hell no!”
“That’s exactly what I was saying no to Tristan about,” Jessica recovered to explain.
“I like Monique.” Izzy pulled up a chair and peered with wide eyes into the tank. “Can I hold her again?”
“Don’t even think about it,” Murphy ordered Tristan before he could answer.
“Tristan’s townhouse got flooded in a water line break, and he’s asked if he and Monique could stay here,” Jessica said.
“Where?” Murphy asked.
“You have two guestrooms,” Tristan pointed out.
“But Izzy is staying in the one and Cameron is going to be in the guestroom off the loft,” Murphy said.
“Cameron?” Tristan’s eyes grew wide. “Cameron as in your stepmother, married to your father, Cameron?”
With a quizzical expression on his face, Murphy replied, “If she wasn’t married to my father, she wouldn’t be my stepmother.”
“She’ll be here this afternoon,” Jessica said. “Tristan, the sofa in the rec room pulls out into a queen sized bed. You can stay down there until Cameron leaves. It should only be a few days.”
“Is your dad coming to visit too?” Tristan asked Murphy in a voice that was one full pitch higher than normal.
“No, he’s got a big court case, and Tracy has him up to his armpits in her wedding.” Murphy asked, “Why?” He chuckled. “Are you afraid of my dad?”
“He carries a grenade launcher in the back of his SUV,” Tristan said.
“Your dad carries a grenade launcher in the back of his SUV?” Izzy’s eyes were wide.
“He only uses it when he has to,” Murphy replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
“What does he do?” Izzy asked.
“He’s a lawyer,” Jessica giggled.
“Must be some bad-ass lawyer,” Izzy muttered before turning her attention back to Monique. “I wish I had a tarantula. If she has babies can I have one?”
“She’s not going to have babies,” Tristan said.
“Thank God,” Murphy replied.
“Why not?” Izzy asked. “You should get her a boyfriend. She probably gets lonely in that tank all by herself.”
“Spiders don’t get lonely,” Murphy said.
“How do you know?” Izzy asked him.
“Yeah,” Jessica giggled. “You’re not a spider.”
With a wink, Murphy told his wife, “I’ll explain it to you later ... upstairs.”
Tristan whispered to her, “I thought you already knew about the birds and the bees.”
“But Mom never told me about spiders,” she replied in a low voice.
“Can we get back on topic?” Murphy asked.
“What were we talking about?” Jessica asked with a smile.
“About getting Monique a boyfriend,” Izzy said.
“No,” Murphy said.
“You were about to say that Monique can stay,” Tristan said.
No, Tristan is not your average multi-millionaire. And yes, I assure you, it is a little more difficult to figure who the bad guys—and gals—are in Kill and Run. They don’t all wear black hats. Some readers had been pleasantly, and frightfully, surprised to find that some of the villains look just like them.
But, let’s face it—when it comes to reading a mystery—isn’t figuring out who done it most of the fun?