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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