What’s wrong with this short story?
Gwen worked late every Thursday night, preparing reports and assorted charts for a standing Friday morning meeting. Her family was on their own for dinner that night, but they were used to it. This had been Gwen’s schedule ever since she got the promotion. Her husband generally brought home take-out for their son, as Dad didn’t like to cook and J.R. was too young to be trusted with the stove and oven.
This Thursday was different though. Gwen worked even later than usual and the office building seemed deathly still. Near ten o’clock, she glanced at the clock and realized she was alone in the building. Like she always did, she called her house to let her family know that she was about to leave.
“J.R. is already in bed,” her husband said through the phone.
Gwen hung-up, grabbed her purse and headed for the elevator. When she made it to the ground floor, she left the building and locked the entrance doors behind her. She stepped into the parking lot, took her keys from her purse and headed in the direction of her car. She never saw the figure who rushed up behind or the knife that cut her throat.”
The story goes on to describe how Gwen is wrapped in black garbage bags and dumped in the lake. Her husband is the obvious suspect, but the reader knows it can’t be him because she was just on the phone with him before the murder. There are other suspects too. A co-worker is angry that Gwen was promoted over him (although if she has to work late making copies and that’s considered a promotion, I can’t even begin to imagine how mind numbing this co-worker’s job must be.) Then there’s her best friend who, it turns out, has been secretly in love with the husband and is harboring a deep resentment toward Gwen. So if the husband didn’t do it, then obviously one of the others did.
But you’ll never guess who turns out to be the culprit.
J.R. rushed into the kitchen just as the Detective placed handcuffs on his angry father. Dad looked back at him with swollen, red eyes. J.R. brushed the mud off the knees of his pants then approached them. A uniformed police officer held him back.
“Don’t worry,” his Dad said to him as he struggled with his arms bound behind his back. “Trust Daddy. I didn’t hurt your mother.”
J.R. didn’t answer. He listened as the Detective read Dad his rights, then pushed him slightly toward the front door. The Detective led his father out of the house and into the waiting squad car. J.R. watched all this silently, without any emotion. Then when the police had left, and the house was quiet again, he returned to the backyard where he had been playing earlier.
His sandbox was waiting, and he piled into it, scooting dirt from one framed side to the other. He dug a hole in the middle of the sand pile, uncovering something shiny. Something sharp. J.R. picked up the kitchen knife. It still had his mother’s dried blood on it.
“Damn,” he said, perhaps to himself, perhaps to voices only he could hear. “Now Dad’s not going to be home on Thursday nights either.”
So what’s wrong with this mystery? Where do I begin?
Right off the bat, it’s hard to imagine the police leaving this kid behind at home when his father was just arrested and his mother was murdered. Also, you never, ever jump in the head of the murderer like that. But… before I start getting hate mail for spoiling someone’s story, let me confess.
This murder mystery, titled “Child’s Play,” was written by me 20 years ago when I was a Sophomore in high school. I was quite proud of it back then. Today, I think it’s a great example of what not to do.
“Child’s Play” breaks a lot of rules, and I’m not talking about the chronic point of view shifts – which I just didn’t get back then. It commits one of the most egregious and inexcusable offenses in mystery writing: The murderer couldn’t possibly have been capable of committing the crime.
If you put any thought into it, J.R. could not have carried out the murder that was set-up in the opening paragraphs. Obviously, he is young – very young – as he still plays in a sandbox and is not trusted to use the stove and oven. So how did he get to the office building parking lot? He certainly didn’t drive. And the narrative presents the murderer as being close to, if not the same, size as Gwen. So either J.R. is a really big kid or Gwen was a very small woman.
Though most readers may not have guessed the murderer’s identity – unless the title gave it away – they must still believe the motivation. The murderer can’t just be physically capable of committing the murder, he must also be emotionally capable. J.R. may possibly hear voices. He’s clearly psychopathic. But is Mom not being home on Thursday nights really a motive for murder?
Finally, it breaks one more rule. Since I didn’t publish the story in its entirety, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. The story goes to great lengths to set up the red herrings – the father, the jealous best friend, the disgruntled co-worker. However, J.R. is only mentioned in passing. Aside from jumping into his head to witness his father carted off to jail and then racing to his sandbox to play with the murder weapon, the reader never gets to know the kid. This can’t happen in a murder mystery.
The murderer must turn out to be a character with, more or less, a prominent part in the story. The reader must be familiar with the character and somewhat interested in him. Otherwise the author isn’t playing fair and risks turning off readers.
Like I said, I was chest-thumping proud of this story way back when. I believe it was even published in a high school short story anthology. It wasn’t the first mystery I’d written, and without trying and making those early mistakes, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s got some great albeit unintentional lessons in it. Maybe I’ll pull out another old story and make an example out of it too.