"Not many people think of Gone With the Wind as a mystery, but I firmly believe it belongs in that category..."

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O"Hara is an epic embrace from the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Millar"s historical romance Gone With The Wind.

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The first line of Margaret Mitchell"s 1939 novel is perhaps the most artfully crafted in modern literature: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…”

To me, O’Hara is the quintessential example of Flannery O’Connor’s “mystery of character.” Who is this person? What is she capable of? That first line asks a question that compels the reader to keep going: What exactly is this not-so-beautiful woman going to do?

Murder, as it comes to pass.

The passage where Scarlett kills a Yankee invader is a turning point in the story. Scarlett has returned to her plantation Tara with a very pregnant Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett"s former rival for the affections of the wealthy Ashley Wilkes. Melanie"s child birth was difficult, made more so by the fallout of civil war. Tara, Scarlett"s home, has been looted. Food is scarce. Scarlett and her ilk are learning firsthand the horrible lives of depravation slaves were forced to endure. Then, a Yankee deserter shows up. He rifles Scarlett’s mother’s sewing box looking for gold. And then he sees Scarlett and threatens to rifle her as well. Her response? She takes out a gun and shoots the man in the face.

Mitchell writes of the immediate aftermath, “Scarlett ran down the stairs and stood over him, gazing down into the bloody pit where the nose had been, glazing eyes burned with powder. As she looked, two streams of blood crept across the shining floor, one from his face and one from the back of his head…. She had killed a man.”

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As a writer, I think this is a perfect example of how useful sudden, shocking violence can be in a story, even more so because of what comes next: Melanie hears the noise and runs down the stairs, dragging a saber behind her. She sees the Yankee lying dead on the floor. She sees the gun in Scarlett’s hand. Their eyes meet. Then, from Scarlett’s point of view: “There was a glow of grim pride in usually gentle face, approbation and fierce joy in her smile that equaled the fiery tumult in Scarlett’s own bosom. ‘Why—she’s like me! She understands how I feel!’ thought Scarlett…” This shared reaction to the murder serves the story in two ways: it changes Scarlett’s (and the reader’s) view of Melanie, and it also changes the direction of the story because now, instead of Scarlett being alone in her quest to survive, she has a powerful ally. Who is Scarlett O’Hara? She’s a wife, a mother, a survivor, a cold-blooded murderer and at the end of the day—a friend.

Karin Slaughter is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including the Grant County series and the Will Trent series. According to her own bio, she splits her time between the kitchen and the living room in her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Karin Slaughter photo by Alison Rosa.

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This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews July 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.