By JoAnna Carl

I call it the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome.

I love Jessica, but I wouldn’t invite her to dinner. Someone always dies before dessert is served.

That’s the joke they tell about mysteries with small town settings. And that’s what I like to write, so it applies to my detectives, Lee and Joe Woodyard, stars of the Chocoholic books. They can’t go anyplace without falling over a body.

The Chocolate Bunny Brouhaha, the fifteenth Chocoholic novel, is coming out in November, accompanied by the paperback edition of The Chocolate Falcon Fraud. In the series, Lee and her husband Joe solve crimes in a small resort town on Lake Michigan. Lee also serves as business manager for a company that makes luxury chocolates.

And everywhere they go, it seems someone dies.

But why do Lee and Joe operate in Warner Pier, Michigan: Population: 2,500? Why not Dallas, Chicago, or New York City?

I freely admit that Warner Pier is based fictionally on Saugatuck and Douglas, Michigan. For years I’ve subscribed to the weekly newspaper from that area. I can only remember – oh, maybe a half dozen wrongful deaths being reported over the past fifteen years.

But during the fifteen years the Chocoholic series has been around, Warner Pier has recorded at least one and sometimes two murders per year. That means at least twenty-five fictional victims in a similar period.

Jessica Fletcher is a piker!

But why do fictional small towns have so many murders?

That’s because these books are a particular type of fiction. Mystery readers who like these accept the excessive number of bodies lying around as part of the tradition. We may joke about it, but we’d be disappointed if those mysterious victims didn’t show up.

There are other advantages to a small town setting. It makes things easy for the reader. There’s one druggist in Warner Pier, for example. If Lee needs to quiz the druggist, the reader can keep track of who that is. The streets, the city officials, the banker – it’s simply easy to remember everybody. Including the victims.

Or does a mystery story even need a victim?

No, it doesn’t. We can all list great mysteries and mystery stories that lack murders. My favorite classic mystery is The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey. Nobody dies. Donald Westlake wrote some terrific comic mysteries that focus on fraud, bank jobs, or other crimes that don’t involve murder. Even Conan Doyle did it. Look at “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.”

But for any type of fiction to be enthralling, the reader must care deeply about the characters and events described. So something serious must be at stake, something important.

And in a mystery story, that usually means (Wah-ha-ha!) somebody dies.




JoAnna Carl is the pseudonym of a multipublished mystery writer. She spent more than twenty-five years in the newspaper business, working as a reporter, feature writer, editor and columnist. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and also studied in the OU Professional Writing Program. She lives in Oklahoma but spends much of her summer at a cottage on Lake Michigan near several communities similar to the fictional town of Warner Pier.