Hi there. Gerry here. Just want to let you know that plummeting stock markets, reckless politicians, crazed rioters in England—all this bad news makes me want to kill somebody.
So I did.
No, don’t call the cops. But I did get up early yesterday morning, checked the Dow, read about London, and went out and offed this guy who’s been driving me crazy.
I didn’t like him. He met a horrible end. I felt much better.
This was in my study, at my computer. I was working on a new mystery novel. I suppose you could say it’s sad commentary on our times when murdering someone is a relief from real life. But that’s not really true. Good times or bad, a mystery novel is always the best escape.
If you’re reading this you probably know exactly what I mean. But you also have to admit there’s something a bit odd about it. When reality is too burdensome, stressful, or maybe you’ve just had a long day, your refuge is a fictional world where most likely somebody is about to, or already has come to a violent end. As in shot. Stabbed. Strangled.
There’s good reason for this, and, no, we aren’t all psychopaths. The people who write these books (look at those smiling faces at the top of the page!) are pretty normal and well-adjusted, as are most of the people who read their books. But we know that there is something in many of us that needs a good murder story.
I’m not talking about graphic violence, as I don’t have the stomach for it. I’m not talking about true crime, where justice often isn’t done. I’m talking about books that give us entry into a world where there is good and evil, cops and criminals (sometimes blended together), where the villain usually gets his or her just desserts.
This is an idealized world, in many ways. It usually includes someone who is a threat to good and law-abiding people. And a hero or heroine to arrive and make things right. For a time—a few hours, a few days—we are in a world where, yes, there is evil. But good (presented in many variations) usually prevails. We’re counting on it.
I once asked Robert B. Parker about the detective novel and the originators of the genre. I thought we’d talk about Raymond Chandler. Instead he started talking about Paladin and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
There is something in us that needs these morality tales, I guess. I know that this week I’ve felt like fleeing real life for the books on my shelf and the story on my computer screen. In those worlds of murder and mayhem, at least, all is well.
I absolutely understand how writing about crime can be cathartic. My first Joe Burgess mystery, Playing God, arose from a blend of despair over my sister’s death in the care of clumsy doctors and a story I was told by a cop down in Newark, Delaware. Somehow, that black anger and the story of a damaged cop came together, like a ship standing up in a bottle, and I just started to write. Four and a half months of obsessive writing later, I typed “The End” on the manuscript and felt a whole lot better.
In part, perhaps, because this is a world we can control. And librarians tell me that one of the pleasures of reading mysteries is that readers can escape to a world where they walk on the wild side and flirt with danger, and dangerous characters, from the safety of their armchairs.
I still miss Bob Parker. And still reread his early books. Mystery writers, for the most part, are a really nice group of folks, maybe because we get to write it out of our systems?
I have to leave one of my favorite quotes from one of my very favorite writers, Katherine Patterson, who is officially one of our National Treasures. In 1981 she wrote, “What am I doing while the world is falling apart? I am sitting in my little study in front of my typewriter .. Sometimes I see this as an evasion of responsibility .. but still I believe that .. to give the children of the world the words they need is to give them life and growth and refreshment.”
Adults, too, need words .. as escapes, as confirmations that life can get better, that the bad guys will be caught, and that their is hope, if only for 300 or so pages. Thank you for writing this, Gerry! Lea
Thanks, Lea. Love the Katherine Patterson quote. Sitting in our little studies may be the best thing we can do. It’s a bit of pushback, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Amen, Lea. And we do look for the moral in the story, which matters.
Something to be said for a murdersome fantasy.