by Janis Patterson
It is common wisdom that most murders are committed for either love or greed. It is also pretty much accepted that deaths increase around holidays, especially those celebrating love and/or family such as Valentine's Day and Christmas. All of this, while being pretty depressing in real life makes things a lot easier for us mystery writers.
Today is the Day of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of romantic and courtly love. It is a day of flowers, cards, candy, dinners out, gifts and - in most cases - a whole lot of kissing. It is also a day of loneliness, despair and sorrow. When you have someone to love, Valentine's can be a time of joy and shared affection. When you want someone to love and don't have anyone, Valentine's day can be a day of gloom and loneliness and sorrow. Most people have experienced both kinds of day.
What's truly sad, though, is the person who wants a particular person... and that person doesn't want him. Now this happens all the time - but this situation can turn real scary depending on how unstable the rejected one is. Just how far will he (or she) go to prove he is worthy of love? What will he do to convince his object of desire that she must return his feelings? Or will he decide instead to punish her for not responding to him? (I'm not being deliberately sexist - either position of this scenario can be taken by either sex, though statistically more women are victims than men.) It can go either way, and most of the time neither alternative is pleasant.
We see a similar situation around family-centric holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. As on Valentine's Day there are preconceived notions of how we should feel - happy family reunions, fabulous meals, presents, good cheer, decorated trees, peace-on-earth-and-good-will-to-men and all that. Unfortunately, even though so many people have the outward trappings - trees and presents, for example - they don't feel like people tend to think they should feel. The holiday is not a panacea that makes everything in their life all right; in fact, it often makes them feel worse.
There are more suicides around Christmas than any other day of the year. I don't know the exact statistics for murders, but I do know it's generally higher than on the average day.
So how does this help us as mystery writers? If you write about a murder on a July beach or a Halloween murder, not much. Neither the Fourth of July or Halloween are really family- or romance-centric. Of course, any holiday can be used, as can any day of the year, but in general it doesn't carry the same emotional weight as the romantic/family holidays.
The emotional stress of holidays cannot be discounted. If holidays can make the normal ones among us crazy, imagine what they can do to the unstable. These holidays and their often unreal expectations are something pushing at the villain not only from outside but from inside. This offers the writer all kinds of opportunities to give depth and reality to their characters. Good characters aren't just composed of height, weight, eye color and occupation; they are all of that, but what makes them individual are their hopes and dreams and disappointments.
There is no disappointment worse than an unrealized holiday feeling.