By Tj O’Connor, author of Dying to Know
Detective Oliver Tucker—Tuck to his friends and murderers—is a relatively unusual hero for a murder mystery. Tuck is the lead detective in the most important murder case of his life, and, well, he’s the victim, too. You see, I undertook an unusual approach to my first murder mystery. I killed my hero in the opening chapter. Yes, killed him. Bang he’s dead. Ta-da, he’s back. Silly? Bizarre? No, but it was difficult at best—trust me.
But there was method to my madness.
You see, years ago I was a government agent working in anti-terrorism around the world. Shortly after a rather unnerving adventure, I began having a recurring nightmare that I was killed during an operation and came back to help my wife find my murderers. That nightmare plagued me for twenty years. A short time ago, after getting serious about trying to sell one of my three thrillers I’d written, Dying to Know was born. I told my adult daughters about the nightmare one evening watching a science channel show about hauntings when they seized on the storyline. My eldest daughter—a fan of supernatural movies and books—commanded I write my nightmare as the story—a dead detective solving his own case. She cited vampire detectives, teenage wizards, dozens of reality T.V. shows, and two of my favorite old-time movies—Topper and The Thin Man. (For those of you who are scratching your head, think Patrick Swayze in Ghost meets Richard Castle of T.V. fame.) She convinced me.
The next day, I began Dying to Know.
A dead-detective story was not the story I thought I’d ever write nor ever sell. And at the time Dying to Know began to take shape, I was still unrepresented and unpublished. But, I had nothing to lose but three months of my mornings, evenings, and weekends, right?
Oliver “Tuck” Tucker was born at three in the morning after another episode of my nightmare. He came to life after tripping down my stairs to my den to write the opening chapter…
“…Darkness and the grandfather clock greeted me—it chimed two.
The downstairs was quiet and I checked the front door. It was still locked and there were no signs of splintered wood, broken glass, or other forced entry. The only sound I heard was my own breathing. The only curious sighting was the half-dressed, frumpy guy in the hall mirror who looked tired and irritated…
…I started with the kitchen and worked my way around the first floor, searching room by room—all five of them—ending in my den. Nothing. The most dangerous thing I found was Hercule’s squeaky frog that scared the crap out of me when I stepped on it. I felt foolish and decided to head back to bed. It hit me when I reached to turn off my desk lamp...
Floorboards groaned above me. A door opened in the darkness beyond the landing. Movement—a shadow.
Somewhere above, Angel called, “Tuck!”
There was a flash at the top of the stairs...
I lunged for the third stair. A figure stepped out of the darkness twelve feet above me.
And so Tuck began. Without intention—without even thinking about it—I began writing Tuck in the first person. I realized pretty fast I had a big problem by the end of the first chapter. Tuck was dead.
“The next morning, I realized how much in common I had with my heroes. They were, of course, some of the greatest detectives in history. I’m speaking of Doyle’s Holmes, Christie’s Poirot, and Bigger’s Charlie Chan. I could add Scooby and Shaggy, but they’re cartoons and don’t count. The others are fictional characters, too, but they’re legends nonetheless. I’m not saying I’m a legend. I’m saying they’re all dead.
So am I.”
The solution unfolded as the plot did. I simply followed Tuck’s lead. Tuck became a dead detective, back from somewhere I never quite discuss to find his killer. I avoided the pitfalls of such a topic—no religion, beliefs, deity-involvement, or other touchy topics. Instead, Tuck faced a basic conflict—being back among the living but not one of them. First, he had to learn to be dead. Easy? Not so much—where’s the research of this? I had to address life for Tuck—or the lack of it—without any personal experience (thank God) and no real foundation to go on. The upside was that it would be hard to be proven wrong. The downside was being too unbelievable or too cheesy. It had to be a balance of fun and possibility that would keep a reader going. So, as Tuck learned the dead-ropes, he also had to learn to be among his family and friends but out of their sight and hearing—to learn to communicate, move, and, most importantly, to face the real possibility that his beautiful wife, Angel, or his blustering partner, Bear, may have killed him. His only comforts are Hercule, his four-year-old black lab, and a crusty old surgeon named Doc. (I’ll save you the details for your read.)
But this is not a ghost story, it’s a murder mystery.
But, ghost stories are a different genre than murder mysteries and a totally different readership. So, my first hurdle was to use Tuck’s demise to drive this story as a murder mystery without letting it turn into a ghost story. I wanted to create Tuck’s character flaw as a vehicle to tell the story and solve his murder without letting it become the story itself. A balance of the paranormal in such a way that lets the reader often forget he’s dead, to see him as the protagonist with a little handicap here and there. Once again, Tuck showed me the way.
Using his unique spirit skills—moving from place-to-place without cars, trains, or automobiles; eavesdropping on conversations without anyone knowing it; and having an unusual, sixth-sense insight into character’s pasts—Tuck begins solving his crime. But Tuck has limits, too. He is not able to conjure up his killer or use any hocus pocus to read minds or find clues. His detective skills are a must. His character stays a hero with limits, weaknesses, and luck. Tuck’s unusual skills are a conduit for the story—a means to learn other character’s backstories and motivations. They are not the story itself.
Writing Tuck in the first person was difficult and at times, unnerving. I tried to stay true to my nightmare—a man driven by sadness and anxiety and, at the same time, staying a driven-detective who refuses to take things too seriously—not even death. It was often difficult to put myself in Tuck’s point of view to face his challenges. Like facing his grieving wife for the first time and trying to make contact—conflicted by her outward grief and guilt-laden nuances. Or like seeing his partner acting more like a suspect than a life-long friend—hiding evidence, lurking around his home, and perhaps trying to steal his wife.
“There were several “somethings” that were not right with Bear. There was the hidden file, my house key, and a secret gargantuan informant. Now, he was stuffing evidence in his pockets. Since my death, Bear’s secrets unnerved me and sent a chilling question through me. Were his secrets because of my murder or the reasons for it?”
Writing Tuck in the first person was not simply viewing the story from my own emotions in a given situation either. I had to account for his principle flaw—he was dead. What would his lack of fear mean—it’s not like someone could kill him, right? If Tuck didn’t fear death any longer, how would he act in a crisis? Always brave and heroic? No—other emotions would drive him. How would he feel facing his wife and best friend wondering if one killed him? How would he react to the frustration of being unable to communicate, to being so close to his wife but unable to touch or be touched? And, above all, how could he maintain his easy-going yet sarcastic point of view while his entire world turns upside down? Keep the story mysterious and interesting without letting it become too dark and ghostly?
In the end, Tuck showed me. Dying To Know hooked me my incredible agent, Kimberley Cameron, and my publisher, Midnight Ink. It is the first of a series with Tuck solving crimes—all of which with a historical subplot—and proving that it’s the living, not the dead, that are most terrifying.
Since penning Dying to Know, I’ve finished three new mysteries. The third is Dying for the Past, Tuck’s first of two planned sequels. The series will continue to delve into Tuck’s world of being among the living but not one of them. Each will also explore Tuck’s heritage and other historical plot twists that will beg the question, “Is being dead hereditary?”
Tj O’Connor lives in Virginia with his wife and three Labs. Dying to Know is the fourth of his seven novels. He works as an international security consultant specializing in investigations and anti-terrorism. Learn about his world at www.tjoconnor.com and Facebook at www.facebook.com/TjOConnor.Author