Don’t Kill Any Horses

by Laura Crum

When I first started writing mysteries, I heard this all the time. Its not as weird as it seems—my books feature an equine veterinarian and there are many horses in the stories. My author friends all warned me that it would be fatal to kill a horse. Fatal to me as an author, that is, rather than fatal to the horse. Right. They meant, of course, that I should not write a scene in my books in which a horse dies. As I patiently pointed out, that is not “killing a horse.” They shrugged. “Just don’t do it. People will hate you.”
This principle is sort of the opposite of Camille’s “saving a cat”. Except that it doesn’t apply to a character in the story, which might be reasonable. You know, bad, nasty guy kills horse and is a shoo-in for villain. Nope, that doesn’t work. Too obvious if he is the villain; too frustrating if he’s not.
The problem with the “don’t kill any horses” theory is that it applies to the author rather than a character. And because of the nature of the stories I write, it has been convenient for me to allow a few fictional horses to bite the dust. Folks, my protagonist is an equine vet. Dealing with injured and dying horses is her stock in trade. Not to mention thrilling horseback chase scenes are sort of my trademark. Yes, some horses are going to have to die in these stories.
Remember, these aren’t real horses. No horses were harmed in the making of my books. I probably don’t have to tell you this, because most of you are authors yourselves. But you’d be surprised how many readers seem to confuse fiction with real life. And we’re back to “people will hate you if you kill a horse.”
This subject has come up more than once at book talks that I’ve done. I always answer it with my “Matisse story.” I can’t remember where I heard this story and I have no idea if its true. Apparently Matisse was working on a painting and a lady watching him commented, “That woman has one arm shorter than the other.” Matisse replied, “Lady, that’s not a woman, that’s a painting.”
So the horses that may die in my books are not horses—they are part of a story.
The truth is that I have killed quite a few horses in my books, and I haven’t gotten a huge amount of flack for it. I try to be kind about it. If I know the horse must die, I don’t describe him much. I don’t create him as a likable character and then bump him off. I’m smart enough not to stick my neck out on the chopping block like that.
But yes, in my last book, “Going, Gone” an unnamed “dark horse” does indeed buy the farm in a fairly violent scene. Mind you, the violence is not graphically described—I’ll leave the blood and gore to others. Such details, gripping as some folks find them– and yes, they do sell books– just don’t fit my stories, and the truth is, I have no interest in that sort of writing. But a nice, clean bit of violence/death is pretty much an essential part of a mystery, and thus both horses and people have died in my books. You’d think that readers would find the human deaths more objectionable, but such is not the case.
No, you can have a serial rapist or a pedophile or a kidnapper or (of course) a murderer, and no one minds at all. These plot devices are routine. But God forbid you kill a horse (I’m not even going to get into killing a cat or dog). Does anyone but me ever find this ridiculous? And has anybody else bumped an animal off in your books? Did you get a lot of grief? Perhaps I’m not the only fictional “critter killer” out there.

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6 Responses

  1. Love Laura’s books and would like to enter the contest for a copy of BARNSTORMING but I have repeatedly tried and cannot find the place to do this. Hope there will be more books if not in the series. Love horses and dogs.

  2. I’m sorry I was unclear on DorothyL. All you have to do is write to me, and I have your entry, Zulema.

    As to “killing” horses, I’d’ve thought it was like not killing cats in mysteries. The only horses I can remember dying in Laura’s books did it off the page, or they were strangers’ horses w/ an acute condition. They died naturally in other words, as animals sadly do. I don’t remember the one in Going, Gone; I’ll have to think about that.

  3. I love that Matisse quote.

    But there are certain tropes that readers hold dear, whether it’s about killing pets or making sure the streets run the right way. It’s not always possible to get things that true to life, since life changes! The two-way street behind us was made one way recently–I pity the author who wrote about it last year! It’s FICTION! I want to say, but instead maybe we should thank readers for being so observant.

  4. I was once on a Bouchercon panel about pet taboos. And the audience virtually rose up as a body to naysay me when I said the cat someone killled in my story was not a real cat. And when a Fed shot my character’s favorite cow in my novel, Mad Cow Nightmare, two different fans wailed their dismay in an email. What can we do? Just stay true to the story. We can’t resurrect the animal if it will make the novel unrealistic.

    • Well, so far no one’s tried to lynch me for killing horses. Nor has it proved “fatal”. But maybe I should keep looking over my shoulder?

  5. A dog was killed (by the villain, not me) in my second mystery, Skylark. For whatever reason, that book remained in print longer than my other St. Martin’s titles, yet I never received a reader complaint. I had heard of the taboo and was expecting one. Skylark was just reissued in ebook form, so we’ll see whether someone protests.

    Sheila

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