- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Murders She Didn’t Write

Image – iStockphoto: Jelena 990

With All Due Respect to Agatha and Angela

I trust that it’s needless to say that the shooting incidents of the last couple of weeks in the States have rightly refocused the attention of many Americans–though not enough Americans–on gun violence.

I can offer you a few non-politicized, undeniable facts, thanks to the work of the independent nonprofit news organization called The Trace [1].

If you’d like more specifics, here’s a good article [2] with charts. The gun lobby in this country has suppressed the kind of research that develops this information. You may find it illuminating.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

My provocation for you today is about homicide in literature–and, of course, associated entertainments, but let’s focus on books because that’s what we’re about here.

We have a long, long history as writers and as a publishing industry, with crime fiction. And I’ll confess that I’ve never liked that vast set of genres and sub-genres. That’s a personal bias and I want to be sure that I present it to you so you can count out the correct number of grains of salt.

I find crime repulsive and criminals disgusting. I revere the best of our police forces in real life–what shows of heroism we’ve seen in tactical responses to the recent inexcusable attacks! But if I never read another police-procedural again in my life, that will be just fine. I find quirky detectives ridiculous and I simply won’t watch or read something that involves one of these sleuths “coming out of retirement for one last case.” Like cowboy westerns and doctor shows, I really wish we could give this whole thing a rest.

However, I can also assure you that I see murder-mystery writing as one of the most demanding challenges of the canon, not least because readers seem so obsessed with finding flaws and guessing culpability–and the ways and means of taking human life–despite the author’s best efforts to conceal things.

And among the crime-writing authors I know, the cozy mystery folks are among the hardest-working, best-organized, most assiduously conscious fiction writers I’ve ever encountered. By that, I mean that they know their stuff, they know how they make it, and they know what works and what doesn’t with a precision that would make a literary writer weep.

So please understand that my comments here today are in no way, shape, or format meant to suggest that our crime-fiction and particularly cozy-murder writers are anything but superb professionals and great people. If you write this literature, do not feel criticized here. In fact, please, help us think about this with your experienced head.

What I do think we need to ask ourselves is how much crime fiction and especially the more genteel, soft elements of that world may be fogging over the actual horror of death–in a world now far more weaponized and angry than it was when these genres and traditions were originally developed?

A few lines ago, I used the phrase “cozy-murder,” not “cozy-mystery” deliberately. Did you catch it? That’s what these stories are. They always involve a human life, maybe more than one, taken in what normally is a community setting (the village), and oh yes, here comes the amateur hobbyist sleuth revered by professional police for her amazing savvy–yeah, she probably reports to each murder scene on a bike, and you know the routine as well as I do.

But that’s the problem: routine.

These things are routine to us.

Deaths and the investigations of them are entertainment to us.

And after answering a couple of great comments, I’ve realized that I should offer you the concept of a “stochastic” environment–that’s really what I’m talking about. Our intelligence community these days is discussing this. It’s the context of OK-ness that can be generated when leadership doesn’t condemn something–the theory being that a lack of condemnation for white supremacy and these days could create a context in which “stochastic terrorism” can seem acceptable to some.

Crime-fiction entertainment, of course, is nothing so dreadful as what’s driving many assaults today. But if you ever get close (I pray you don’t) to a violent attack, you’ll find there’s nothing about it that’s cozy.

Which brings me to my questions for you today.

Is it possible that we may be looking at a world so changed by violence and hatred that the book business’ (and its readers’) fondness for making murder cozy needs rethinking? How many “Bloody Good Time” book festivals built around death literature do we need before those red-dripping, weapon-festooned logos start to look wrong to us? If the hamlet’s murderer offs her victims with a candlestick in the drawing room, does that make us feel better than if she’d pulled out a gun? Is the taking of human life an entertainment theme you feel as good about after a mass shooting as you did before it? 

There are no right or wrong answers, of course.

And–another update from earlier–I’m not telling you that you “shouldn’t write” what you want to write. I’m asking, in honest concern, and I think that’s healthy for us, not bad: Could it be that “entertaining” death literature is a form we need to consider leaving behind us?

About Porter Anderson [3]

@Porter_Anderson [4] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [5], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [6] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [7]