To Kill or Not To Kill? Spy Hunter by H.B. Lyle

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Spy Hunter

By H.B. Lyle

To Kill or Not To Kill? That is the question. H.B. Lyle, author of Spy Hunter, on when and when not to kill off your characters.

At the end of my third novel, The Year of the Gun, I’d left my hero Wiggins floundering in the choppy waters of the Irish Sea and in two minds as to whether he should live or die.  Thankfully, I spared him – without Wiggins, there would be no book 4, Spy Hunter, out on now.

But it did get me thinking about the biggest question writers of series – be they novelists or screenwriters – have to answer: who to kill off, and when? Nothing lasts forever, and thrillers need murder, mayhem and, well, thrills. Answering this question is not as simple as throwing the names of characters into a hat and pulling out the unlucky schmuck, however tempting that might sound.  It’s a question that goes to the very heart of writing a novel – who are the interesting characters? Why are they interesting? And how do I, as the author, go about keeping the reader interested in the story I’m about to tell?

For a writer, sudden death often provides a short cut to emotion and drama. There is nothing so life-changing in a narrative as end of life and, if done well, it can surprise the reader. When constructing the plot for a thriller – or any narrative really – one of the things a writer tries to create is plot ‘reverses’. This is particularly true of screenwriting. It’s when the audience’s expectations are undercut, where the flow of power switches, when hopes are either ignited or suddenly dashed. And nothing dashes hope like a death.

Who wasn’t floored in LA Confidential when (spoiler alert!) Detective Jack Vincennes is brutally murdered half-way through? He was meant to be the hero! It was a hammer blow, a blow that I’m not sure I’m over yet more than 25 years later.

In addition to the drama and surprise, of course, comes the emotion. It can be very poignant to read or see the death of a beloved character. Even if that character is an assassin – just consider Omar Little’s death in The Wire. He was one of the greatest characters in the whole series, but finishing him off provided one of the highlights of the entire narrative.

But be careful. It can go wrong. Perhaps the most notorious example of literary murder is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to assassinate Sherlock Holmes. After two novels and twenty-four short stories, Doyle had had enough of being overshadowed by his famous creation and decided to kill off the detective, throwing him to his death in the Reichenbach Falls. 

The reading public, however, would have none of it and essentially forced Doyle to bring Holmes back. Doyle was nothing if not a canny author, though, for although in The Final Problem he had ‘killed’ Holmes, he never actually recounted this as a fact. It was a reported story, an inference from Watson – we, the readers, never got to ‘see’ the death.  And so, after a couple of years in Tibet, Holmes came roaring back. Improbable, yes, but not impossible.

We can’t quite say the same thing for what went on with the screenwriting team at Dallas. Flushed with the publicity coupe of ending a series on the cliff-hanger ‘who shot JR’, the writers later on decided to kill off his younger brother Bobby Ewing. A whole series went by with Bobby dead, only for them to start the following series with his wife, played by Victoria Principal, waking up to realise that Bobby was alive – and that she’d dreamt the whole of series nine!

I don’t recommend that one as a narrative strategy. Nevertheless, killing characters is definitely one of the best ways to keep your story going. It can take some confidence – after all, you may have spent a lot of time and creative energy bringing a character to life, putting them down on the page – but you must believe that you can carry on creating good characters, that there’s more juice in the orange. If you don’t, a thriller narrative will end up without the thrills.  

Another less obvious danger of keeping characters alive is that some whippersnapping young author will steal that character when you’re dead, and create a whole other world that’s nothing to do with you: this is what happened to author Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Aware that the character of the bully Flashman was stealing the show, Hughes decided to have him expelled from the school – only for him to come back over a hundred years later when George MacDonald Fraser took the character and thrust him in to his magnificent series of historical fiction. (I did the same trick with the character of Wiggins, a street urchin in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I grew him up and put him into the secret service twenty-five years later.)

The real lesson is, kill with no compunction, with no mercy and only the slightest bit of (dramatic) hesitation. Mick Herron is a modern master at this. As his Slough House series continues, you never quite know who is going to get the chop. Be wary, perhaps, of killing off your best character (even Herron’s Jackson Lamb still lives, six books in) but if you must, take the lesson from Doyle and kill them ‘off screen’, just in case.

In general, though, the lesson is clear – be a cold-eyed killer, have Graham’s Green’s ‘slither of ice’ in the heart. Go on, you know you want to.

(c) H.B. Lyle

H.B. LYLE – An English author famously known for his debut novel, The Irregular. (hblyle.com)

About Spy Hunter:
Spy Hunter

1914.

Sherlock Holmes has been murdered.

Nobody knows who did it, but Wiggins, former Baker Street Irregular and Holmes’ protégée, suspects a German spy.

However, Europe is descending into the chaos of the First World War. Captain Kell of Military Intelligence has limited resources, and more pressing matters on his mind.

Wiggins is on his own. Almost. He pursues Holmes’ killer across the continent, but as grief and rage close in it’s not just the killer that eludes his grasp . . .

‘Engaging series of historical thrillers… The story rattles along at pace, the characters are engaging and the fight scenes burst with action. But Lyle’s great strength is in his depiction of time and place; from its stinking tenements, where babies cry from hunger, to its sinister docks and upmarket brothels, the Edwardian city – then still part of Britain – is brought to life in all its squalid, magnificent glory’ Financial Times

Order your copy online here.

About the author

HB Lyle lives in South London with his partner and their twin daughters. After a career in feature film development, he took an MA in creative writing, then a PhD at the University of East Anglia, an experience which led to the creation of The Irregular. He also writes screenplays. Find out more at hblyle.com.

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