Since (most) crime fiction is about finding out who did it, the personality of the guilty party is often thought of as crucial to writing a successful mystery and certainly it is of paramount importance. The most exquisitely wrought plot falls on its face if the murderer is revealed to be an obvious suspect or an uninteresting or minor character. It takes two to tango however, and a crime supposes not only a criminal, but also and above all a victim – and the latter alas often tends to be the weakest link in traditional mystery writing (I’m leaving aside psychological suspense as in it the victim takes central stage)
Victims in crime fiction tend to be of two sorts: those that don’t deserve to die and those that do. Traditional detective stories tend to favor the latter as it’s easier to keep a lighthearted tone when the people that die are unsympathetic. It is also assumed that the death of a thoroughly disliked person will not affect much its entourage afterwards so that order can be restored in the end and everyone lives happily everafter. The likeable or innocent victim on the other hand implies a more serious treatment as there’s no way their death can be seen as a parlour game. The story is no longer about restoring order or engaging into jolly good detection; it’s about bringing justice – and there is no way it won’t leave a trace or have everlasting effects on people involved. That’s why that kind of victim is more often found in « serious » crime writing that aims at dealing with murder in a « serious » way. Innocent victims, most of them women or children, are frequent features of modern crime fiction.
Likeable or not, the victim all too often is a deus ex machina rather than a full-fledged character. Since crime novels tend to begin with them already dead, we get to meet the victim in the flesh only on the autopsy table, at which point they have little to say and do. We’ll learn more about them as the story goes on of course as their personality and past is reconstructed by the detective(s) but a reconstruction is not a portrayal. Being aware of that some writers chose to delay the murder so that we get to know the dramatis personae better, including the unlucky one whose untimely death will be the focus of the book. I think it’s the better approach but it has its shortcomings too, as it amounts to write a novel of character then abruptly transition into a mystery. Not everyone is able to make one as interesting as the other. In some cases the « prologue » is tedious and the reader gives up before getting at the heart of the matter; in others it is so good that the mystery section feels like a letdown (a recurrent problem with Ngaio Marsh who never was able to fuse character study and plot in a fully satisfactory way)
Finally, many victims aren’t that interesting to begin with. I stressed in the first paragraph the importance of having an interesting character as the guilty party, but this applies just as well to the corpse – and that’s where most crime fiction, including some undoubted classics, fail. No matter innocent or guilty, no matter how well portrayed they are, most fictional victims are bland and their death makes neither sense or difference – someone had to die and they just drew the short straw. This isn’t too much of a problem in plot-driven mysteries but is a much bigger issue in character-driven ones.
« Who dies? » or « Who will die? » are questions as worthy as « Who did it? » and may even be plotting devices in themselves (just ask Patricia McGerr or Bernice Carey) but alas are much too less pondered over either by writers or readers. It’s really unfortunate.