Monday, December 17, 2012

SOME THOUGHTS ON CRIME FICTION

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Here on Jungle Red we usually reserve our Mondays for a light-hearted round-robin chat. But while tomorrow we will get back to subjects that are ordinary--and all the more precious for it--today I wanted to share the concern that plagues me whenever I'm confronted with the horror of real violence, whether it's a mass tragedy like Friday's shootings at Sandy Hook, or news of a murder that for some reason strikes particularly close to home.

My concern is this. I write crime fiction. I make up stories about bad things happening to people. I am, in fact, using violence as the basis for entertainment. And so I worry that in doing so, I am trivializing the real thing.

Are we all, writers and readers of crime novels, guilty to some small degree?  But the last few nights, when I couldn't sleep, what did I turn to, out of all the books piled on my bedside table? An old Agatha Christie mystery.

I don't believe that the Grand Dame of Mystery took murder lightly--she knew much about the evil in human nature. Nor do I think that we, as writers and readers, take murder or violence lightly. Why, then, do we like these stories, even find some measure of comfort in them?

This is, of course, a simplification, as crime novels range from the very cozy to the very dark. But I think most have two things in common. They give us a means of making sense of the unfathomable, of putting reason in the unreasonable. While we will never understand how, or why, someone could slaughter innocent children, most crime novels give villains motives, so that while we may abhor what they do, we at least understand it.

And perhaps even more importantly, I think crime novels satisfy a very basic human need for resolution. These stories don't always give us justice--just as in real life, that's not always possible for our characters. But these stories have beginnings and endings, and endings are something that will forever be denied those affected by real-life violence.

So, for me, the stories that I write and those that I choose to read are a way of keeping the wolf from the door, a light in the darkness, a bastion against despair. 


JAN BROGAN: I do think about this question a lot, not just as a crime writer, but as a journalist, as well.  And even as I eagerly read the details of Adam Lanza's life to try to understand the unfathomable, I can't help wondering, are we, in the media, creating an anti-hero inspiring the next mass murderer?  I don't think mysteries generally inspire violence - because most are more of a puzzle, piecing things together afterward and avoiding a lot of graphic violence.  I do wonder about really graphically violent books, however, whether they are thrillers, true crime, or even romance. Yes,, I worry about the influence the sexual violence and the intense jealousy in Fifty Shades of Gray might be having on young girls' notion on what love is.  I do think we all play a role in bringing up or bringing down the culture and that we should all think about it.

HALLIE EPHRON: Real life events definitely affect how I feel about what I write and read. I still can't bear to even look at images from 9/11 and I'd never presume to think I could write about it without trivializing it.

It is weird, isn't it, that people read crime novels to escape. I guess knowing there will be answers and the bad guy will be punished is a comforting thought.   

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: When we see a funny movie, we walk out laughing, right? A musical, we walk out singing. I was nerous for a day or two after I saw--what was it? The Dark Knight. The Batman movie. Scared me, and I was nervoud walking down the street at night. Certainly our brains soak up what we see and hear. But I'm wondering--is it more common for people to take reality and make it into ficton than to take fiction and make it into reality?  I have no answer for this, but I'm wondering.

LUCY BURDETTE: I've just finished watching that wrenching memorial service so it's hard to bring the lens out wide and talk about the meaning of crime fiction or the purpose it may serve. (And I do believe it does...) But a tragedy like this brings us down to our deepest fears and griefs--what a powerful moment when the president read out the names of the children who'd been killed. Powerful moment that made each child real, and also made real, the pain of the families they left behind. I hope I will remember those things when I'm writing about loss, so I don't trivialize the pain of my fictional people. Anyway, Obama gave a marvelous talk and I imagine he was so much comfort to those families--and soooo tired now.



DEBS: What about you, REDS and readers? Do real-life events affect how you feel about what you read or write? 

27 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I think we read fiction to, in some small way, escape the grim realities of the world that with amazing regularity tend to rise up and swamp our sensibilities. Certainly it would never occur to me that reading a well-written murder mystery was in any way trivializing the reality of events . . . and, to be perfectly honest, sometimes I simply need to escape from the horror that perpetuates itself in the real world.

I don’t think that crime fiction is necessarily something readers would have a tendency to turn into reality. Rather it offers an “escape valve” of sorts, providing a bit of a respite from the agony of the reality that has a propensity to be far crueler than anything we might invent on our own.

Anne - Le French Book said...

French crime fiction writer Sylvie Granotier says she writes the genre undoubtedly because she feels some kind of despair and/or revolt in face of the world we live in.

Karen in Ohio said...

Most of the Reds don't write horrific crimes that mutilate and mangle women or children. That has become a bright line in the sand for me; it is no longer "entertainment" to read about twisted human beings, mostly male ones, perpetrating unspeakable crimes on other humans, mostly female. I stopped reading the Scarpetta books because of exactly this issue. This began several years ago, and 9/11 starkly illustrated it even more clearly for me.

So maybe that's the demarcation: If you have to turn yourself inside out to keep inventing more and more hideous acts of murder, just to serve your story, then perhaps it's time to re-evaluate. Yes, that stuff sells, but at what cost? To the reader, to the general public, and to the author herself.

Kristopher said...

These are very tough questions.

Our hearts ache for the loss in Sandy Hook. Not one of us will ever really understand what those kids went through. But I think that each of us will keep them in our hearts forever.

We read, and we read mysteries in particular, to try to understand what seems impossible to comprehend. I need to know that the bad guy is going to get caught. And in those cases where they are not caught (and I have to admit those are really tough reads for me), at least I feel as though I understand the motive behind it.

We don't need to agree with it, of course. But there is some measure of control that we gain by feeling like we understand WHY. Fiction is able to create that nice bow of who, why, where and when in a way that reality rarely can.

What we can't do is hold fiction (tv, movies, books) responsible for what someone chooses to do. It is an unfortunate truth, but the Sandy Hill tragedy would have happened even if all the Jungle Red writers didn't write and the Jungle Red readers didn't read. Senseless violence is still going to happen.

Jan Brogan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Brogan said...

Roberta,
I was so completely moved by the president's speech. We HAVE to do better.

I am with Karen on this one. . Although I don't think the majority mysteries inspire violence, I do think its something we should always think about.

There is something in our culture inspiring so many young men to mass murder. We glorify violence every day.

I am all for gun control - and at the manufacturing level, but I also think that if we keep glorifying violence through movies, television shows, VIDEO games, and yes, even books, those crazy young men will just turn to other weapons, home made bombs ala Timothy McVeigh, to get the glory they seek We have to stop shifting the blame to one sole source. Yes, absolutely. Gun control. But the answer has to be COMPREHENSIVE and we all have to take responsibility to what we contribute to our culture of violence. Hollywood, the media, Smith and Wesson, and those god awful video game creators.

Deb said...

I'm always very concerned in my books with the grief and reaction to loss of my characters, and not in glorifying violence, but rather in showing the consequences. I don't read books with graphic violence against women and children. But I do like action movies, although it would never in a million years occur to me to actually go out and shoot someone. So where do we draw the line? I don't know.

I do think there is something very wrong with certain young men in our society (the "I am Adam Lanza's mother" meme appears to be fiction, but I've known people with children like that, and done enough reading about sociopaths to know how difficult it is for families to cope with disturbed children.

Why are they like this? Why does this happen? What can be done to help them, or to protect us? More questions. No easy answers.

Hallie Ephron said...

I'm with Kristoher - IF ONLY it were that easy to change behavior. All we'd have to do is write cheery novels with Pollyanna-ish characters and all would be well.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Kristopher said it so well. Writers cannot be held responsible for what others choose to do. I find fiction my escape from reality, as others said.
I do agree with Karen that too many grisly details can turn me away from an author.
In crime fiction we know good usually will win. Would that it happened more in real life.

Jan Brogan said...


Debs,
I don't think HEALTHY people are going to watch even the most violent movie or play even the most disgusting video game and go out and get a semi-automatic weapon, but even if the mental illness rate remains constant, the population is large and growing at such a clip, that the sheer number of disturbed young people is going to rise. Most people with mental illness are not violent, but the number of those who are is going to increase exponentially.

So I think we either try to address what it is about our American culture that makes for so many mass murders, or we accept it.

I'm all for addressing.

Rhys Bowen said...

I write a humorous mystery series, but I'm always careful not to trivialize the murder or to make it in any way funny.
I think we read and write mysteries because we want there to be justice in the world. We want to make sense of the senseless.
But I'm glad I'm not writing now. I'd find it hard.

Jenn McKinlay said...

Thank you, all, so much for posting this. I have been struggling with this all weekend. Given that I tend to write humorous mysteries, I have been questioning my motives and intentions and wondering if I am a part of the problem. Very difficult self examination and I have yet to come to any conclusions. It gives me heart to know I am not alone.

Kelly said...

just thinking on the blessing of ordinary days and activities - and how those can, in an instant, be turned upside down

also, thinking on my favorite type of read - the mystery - and what about reading and writing such

what did i reach for on Friday night, Saturday night and last night? my current murder mystery

no answers - just thoughts

Leslie Budewitz said...

Murder and other violence happens whether we write about it or not. Important topic -- thanks, Deb, for raising what many of us have been pondering the last few days.

In most crime stories -- and certainly in the traditional and cozy subgenres -- the killer is caught and punished, or if not punished in that book, we trust that he or she will be, off stage. The police restore external order; the protagonist and other core characters restore order within the community. Seems like the ultimate tale of social justice.

Sans Souci said...

Excellent topic and discussion and it made me think a lot about why I read murder mysteries.

Some thoughts - yes, definitely a way to find resolution. I avoid like the plague any really violent stories, those featuring mass murderers, rapists, any kind of cruelty and torture, whether physical or mental. So in the books that I read, I can count on the bad guy getting caught and going to some kind of justice. Yes, I need that. And I know that it isn't always the case in real life.

Another reason - the point is the MYSTERY, trying to figure out who did it and why.

The best are books with interesting people coping with the shocking circumstances of murder, which reveals a lot about the type of person they are and their relationships with each other.

And obviously, escapism. I deliberately choose books that take me away to another place and time.

As for this terrible tragedy, I am also NOT following the news reports on it. Part of it is the horror but even more, I don't agree with what passes for news these days. I mourn with the families but I don't want cameras stuck in their faces or questions asked of them. If they want to share their story, if it offers them some healing, then they'll volunteer to speak.

By the way, Karen in Ohio, I completely agree with what you wrote. There are authors that I avoid because they seem to focus on really horrific crime. I don't know why they do but I can't find any good in it at all. Don't rachet up the violence, rachet up the clever dialogue, the twists of the plot, the level of character development. Depending on brutal shock is cheap and lazy.

Denise Ann said...

I have been with my grandchildren (boys, 8 & 5; girls, 4 & 2) on Saturday, Sunday, and today -- so I have only read brief news reports and have seen no tv, and I am very grateful for the peace of mind.

I did read the president's entire speech, and I think he addressed some of the major concerns people feel.

We cannot stop those who are determined to be violent, but we do need to, as a society, address some of the mental health and weapons issues.

Mystery writers offer comforting solutions to problems related to crime -- and, as people have pointed out, different authors describe the horrors in more or less detail.

I actually think that any BOOK, even the most explicit, does not work as an agency of violence. Just as I don't think that pornography in words, as opposed to pictures, incites sexual deviance. I have fought for a long time against censorship of books.

I have been reading a crime book this weekend -- Amanda Knox (Perugia, Italy).

I appreciate that t JRW is taking this subject seriously.

Annette said...

I stopped watching the news after the Challenger - they kept repeating over and over the film of the explosion. All I could think about was if it were my child or my loved one, I would die every time it was shown. I am unable to look at anything about 9/11 because I spent the day watching events unfold and cannot take in anymore about that day.

Reality hurts. I am sure it is not just me, but others as well. My choices for mysteries are not violent ones because that is not what I can enjoy. But, I do not believe that a healthy person reading a mystery would be influenced by the book. On the other hand, a sick mind will choose excuses for actions taken.

Friday's event is a horror. But, I believe this young man was so ill that nothing would have been able to influence him. I think he was past relating to the rest of us in a normal manner.

superauntie said...

I read mysteries for the puzzle and to meet old friends who are on the side of justice and, usually, kindness. I am a big fan of series mysteries and I trust that my heroine/hero will lead me through the process of finding out who did this dreadful thing (even when it happens to people I didn't like very much and who "deserved" it), how they did it, why they did it and sees that justice is served. This makes up the majority of mysteries I read.

It is an escape for me because I expect these things while I am involved in the twists and turns of good story telling that are also written well. In these stories I may be confronted with my own views of characters who surprise me with their innocence, their real motives and their secrets. I may constantly have to re-evaluate my assessment of these characters.

In the end, I am usually satisfied that justice is served and that anyone harmed will eventually heal.

In addition, I am taken to places that I haven't been and learned things about people and issues that are interesting and informative. (I've loved learning new things since after a Nancy Drew mystery I spent months pouring over maps and encyclopedias listing as many Florida Keys as I could find.)

I love finding new authors and learning about new characters as well as looking forward to a new editions from authors I've been following. I'm also willing to spend far more time on each one than someone who is playing a video game or watching a movie can for each episode.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that books remain a place where I can count on a solid, satisfying ending most of the time, which is a far cry from what real crime, its causes and consequences and unsatisfying endings leave me with.

Carolyn













Reine said...

Debs, dear Debs, and all Jungle Reds,

After my friend and next-door neighbor was murdered by a serial killer, who had been stalking us and other women in our neighborhood, I was shocked to see myself turning to murder mysteries.

Not long after Betty was murdered, our congresswoman and several of our neighbors, including a wonderful little girl, were shot and killed at our local grocery store - by another neighbor - a young man who had recently been a volunteer at the Tucson Festival of Books. Whatever caused him to do that terrible thing, his love for books had nothing to do with it.

I had always been an academic, of the card-carrying faculty persuasion, who turned to research when trying to understand social problems. When Betty was killed, after our experience, that no longer worked for me. Research, sterile research, is not comforting. It no longer held answers for me.

Only person to person understanding offered me any sort of resolution. I did not project our experience into the books, and I did not seek an answer through the books. What I wanted, and what I got was shared human understanding in a way that I could not possibly get from living out my day-to-day life.

Thank you, JRW.

Deb said...

Oh, Reine, so sorry to hear that about your neighbor. How frightening.

And thank you all for sharing such very wise words.

I stopped watching the news on Friday night, after seeing what was supposedly a "debate" on CNN on gun control, but ended up being a bunch of men shouting at each other. I could not stand to see this terrible thing used as an excuse for people of any viewpoint trying to prove that they are right and everyone else is wrong. What a disservice to the victims and their families.

I did watch the president's speech last night, and hope it gave as much comfort to the victims' families and the people of Newtown as it did to me.

Reine said...

And... some of the understanding I felt, some of the books I turned to, came from authors who wrote some very descriptive violence.

NancyM said...

I'm with Rhys on this. We may write about crime, but we don't trivialize it. (At least, the crime fiction I read doesn't, but I know it's out there.) Writing about evil to "highlight it," as one writer recently said to me feels......exploitive. Even stupid. But writing about crime in a meaningful---if sometimes humorous--way can be thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating, even cathartic. I like crime novels that have more than the theme of "murder is evil" or somesuch equally flat-footed observation about the world. Maybe it takes events like what happened in Newtown to make writers more aware of what we do and how it affects people. Just writing a thrilling plot may not be enough.
I read books to find meaning in horrific acts.....which are, unfortunately, part of the human experience.

Reine said...

Debs,

"I stopped watching the news on Friday night, after seeing what was supposedly a "debate" on CNN on gun control, but ended up being a bunch of men shouting at each other."

Me too. I was glad they didn't have guns at the ready.

Deb Romano said...

In addition to liking the puzzles and character studies I find in mysteries, I read them because justice usually prevails.There is so much injustice in the world. I like to escape to places where the bad guys get what's coming to them. But I avoid reading books with graphic violence; I've had too many nightmares as a result of reading those books. There are authors whose books I stopped reading because it sounded to me as though they took pleasure in writing the details of torture, or enjoyed throwing in scenes of people being brutalized by the protagonist because he felt that he had a right to take justice into his own hands (and seemed to take pleasure in being judge, jury, and executioner.)

I also avoid reading true crime. I read In Cold Blood not long after it came out, and it left me shaking. That was the end of that kind of reading for me.

However, despite all this, I think that a normal person who reads extremely violent fiction is not going to become violent. It seems to me, and I can certainly be wrong, that the people who become violent after reading violent fiction have some sort of underlying disorder. And there is no way we can keep this material out of their hands. Identifying people at risk for violent behavior and providing adequate treatment or whatever they need seems to be what is needed. (I do NOT believe that most mentally ill people are violent and I will not read fiction that depicts them as killers.)

Linda Rodriguez said...

Debs, I think we, as crime writers, must ask ourselves this question, of course. Like Karen, I avoid some authors who write of ever-escalating and egregious violence against and sadistic torture of (always) women. Some of that becomes almost voyeuristic, I fear. (And to be fair, some of it comes from female authors.) But that's a tiny percentage of crime fiction.

I know, in my own work, I try to portray the turmoil in which violence throws the lives of those it touches, even peripherally. In many ways, I write to make sense of the world. I'm always asking questions--how do we reclaim our equilibrium after our trust has been betrayed? how do we manage forgiveness? how does our own hidden fear twist our view of the world and our actions in it?--and trying to answer them within my fictional world. I love the concept of the novel as a thought experiment, pioneered by Emil Zola, I believe.

And I think it's only when we don't ask ourselves these questions about our motives that we will find we're contributing to the problem.

Lynda said...

Mysteries have been my favorite genre since I was ten years old and discovered Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew and then the amazing Agatha Christie. I devoured every one of those books our Bookmobile carried, and later spent my allowance buying the rest of them when my parents took me to a bookstore.

My reading habits have expanded, but mysteries are still what I read most. I've never been a fan of modern-day thrillers, slasher-type stories, any story with explicit violence against women or children, etc. I'm currently making my way through Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series. It's always been about the puzzle for me.

Between 1985 and 1990 eleven people in my family died. I ended up with a suicidal depression that lasted three years and PTSD that's still with me today. One of the things I learned from this experience is to not be a voyeur of other people's tragedies; to not pretend that someone else's tragedy is mine.

For instance, with both Challenger and the Simpson/Goldman murders I prayed for the surviving family and friends, but never watched or read any of the endless news coverage. None of it.

And when my husband woke me on the morning of 9/11 to show me what was happening in New York (we're in California), I began praying. I watched for a few hours, just long enough to get an idea of what was, and was not, happening. Then I turned the TV off and left it off until he got home that evening. He had it on all night long. I went upstairs and read. Probably a mystery. This went on for weeks.

How many of you can remember the number of school/office shootings there've been in the U.S. in the last 25 years? Can you name the killers? The victims? Did you follow the stories, did you weep for the dead, did you bemoan the fact that this tragedy had occurred? Did doing any of that improve or change your life in any meaningful way? If so, how?

While so many people are saying the same things after this shooting that they did after the last one, and they'll say after the next one, I think about other children. There are tragedies occurring all around us, every single day. I think of the children who're going to sleep hungry and cold. The kids living with AIDS. The ones who're living in cars or in cardboard boxes, doing their homework by streetlight, struggling to stay in school. Kids living with addicted parents, or incarcerated parents, or abusive parents. So I donate to Project Night Night, The Heifer Project, The Gift of Reading, StarCross Community and a bunch of other organizations staffed by people working to make a difference. I'm blessed to be able to do this, and I NEVER forget it.

What I'm trying to say is that instead of following all the stories about these unfortunate people, that until a few days ago we'd never heard of, and getting all caught up in their lives, how about saying a prayer for all those affected and then unplugging and moving on. Move on to the living, and do something, anything, for someone who could use a hand. It's a great gig.

Nora said...

I'm another life-long reader of mysteries and police procedurals and true crime. I'm now the author of a mystery, with two murders in it.

I've asked myself many times what it says about me that my preferred bedtime reading is dark. I'm even embarrassed to admit it sometimes.

It now seems odd to me that I wrote Until Proven without asking the the same self-searching question. The murders in the book are both prompted by actual deaths that caused my hometown to look at itself straight on. I could explore and respect the impact on the families that were devastated and I could explore community reactions.

As a reader, I need the light you Reds and others shed on human nature. Now that I think of it, I will proudly proclaim my reading tendencies from here on out. Thanks to all for putting yourselves out there. Nora Gaskin