Writing a decent murder mystery has to be a huge challenge. There are so many details you have to get right! The other day I picked up Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman at the library. My first impression was that it’s a good mystery. But toward the end, a key detail was just plain wrong — and as I thought more carefully about the plot, it unraveled before my eyes.
Spoiler alert: In the discussion below, I’ll have to reveal who done it.
At the start of the book, psychologist Alex Delaware (the amateur sleuth) is trying to help a homeless, mentally ill former sitcom star named Zelda. Shortly the cops get a 911 call from a rich old lady named Enid, who has found Zelda’s body lying in her back yard. The cause of death is not immediately obvious; it turns out to have been an exotic poison.
Eventually Alex discovers that not one but two Hispanic domestic servants in Enid’s exclusive neighborhood disappeared within a day or two of Zelda’s death. One of them is Enid’s maid. Alex and his sidekick, police detective Milo Sturgis, then poke around fruitlessly for a hundred pages or so, trying out various theories of the maids’ disappearance and gathering the hard-to-find details of Zelda’s past life.
And then Alex has a brainstorm. On Google Earth, he finds aerial photos of the woods along the back of Enid’s estate. “In seconds I had full-color, one-year-old, 3-D satellite photos of the property at a variety of angles, the forest-like area at the rear of the property revealed in high definition.” That’s on page 286. On the very next page, “The soil of the … pocket garden [was] pale and dry and littered with leaves and pine needles. But just off center, in line with the door, the ground was clear. … At the end of the clear area, two oblong depressions in the ground.” Oblong depressions — yes! Alex has just discovered the graves of the two missing maids. They’re buried at the rear of Enid’s estate.
The trouble is, the maids have only been missing for three weeks, and Kellerman specifically told us the Google Earth views are a year old. Oops.
This could have been a rewrite error that wasn’t caught. However it happened, it’s sloppy, and at the worst possible moment in the story for sloppiness. The story could have been drafted in such a way that there was no room for error. Alex could have spotted an undisclosed part of the estate and then figured out some other way to check for fresh graves in that area.
We shortly learn that Enid, the nice old rich lady, poisoned Zelda and also shot the two maids in the back of the head because they knew too much. Enid and her elderly boyfriend then wheelbarrowed the maids’ bodies out to the woods and buried them. We also learn that Zelda was Enid’s niece. Enid had killed Zelda’s mother years before, and buried the mother in the same spot. Zelda, in her state of total mental breakdown, had gone to Enid’s house and demanded to know about her mother. So naturally Enid had to kill her, lest her rambling accusations lead somebody to suspect foul play.
But why, given all that, did Enid leave Zelda’s body lying in the back yard and call 911? Why not bury Zelda where she buried (shortly before or shortly afterward) the two maids? The answer, sadly, is that if she had done that, there would have been no mystery novel, because Alex and Milo would never have been able to figure out what happened to Zelda. Letting the cops find Zelda’s body was an insane and unnecessary risk for Enid. Why? Because Enid was Zelda’s aunt. That fact was very hard for the police to put together, but Enid couldn’t have known that. For all Enid knew, during a lucid moment Zelda had told somebody about it. A homeless vagrant found dead in the back yard of a mansion — eh, these things happen. But if somebody already knew that Zelda was Enid’s niece, explaining the niece’s body would be a tough row for Enid to hoe. Whereas, if nobody knew what had happened to Zelda, Enid’s secrets were much more likely to be safe forever.
Okay, murderers sometimes do stupid stuff. I get that. But if a murderer does something stupid, it’s incumbent upon the author to give the reader some sort of plausible explanation for the murderer’s bizarre lapse of judgment. Kellerman didn’t bother to do that. By the time the truth is dug up from the shallow graves, Kellerman trusts that the reader won’t rewind the newsreel and ask why Enid, who had gotten away with several murders, suddenly blew it at the moment when it mattered most.
Writing a decent mystery novel is not easy at all.