Hi, Maureen here. Just back from seeing the movie Spotlight.
I grew up reading newspapers. I’m the daughter and granddaughter of newspapers editors. We always had them in the the house, for many years getting two or three a day delivered.
I can remember having the Sunday comics read to me and thinking I couldn’t wait until I knew how to read so I could read them myself.
I’ve been drawn since I learned how to read to stories of carnage and tragedy, people’s lives upended and sudden unthinkable events. But I’m equally drawn to stories about liars and cheaters and abuse of power being uncovered. Any story where human beings behave in inexplicable ways — though I want that behavior explained.
Whenever I hear mention of the Kent State shootings, I have a vivid memory of being home from school that day and reading the story in the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. I still remember the layout of the page. I was nine at the time. The other night I was watching an American Experience episode about the My Lai massacre and had a memory just as vivid as the Kent State one of reading about it in Life magazine. Minutes later, that very story popped up on the screen in the documentary. I later found a picture of the page online and realized I was eight when that story was published. But I remember looking at the pictures endlessly, and reading the story, horrified and fascinated by it.
I was also an avid mystery reader from the moment I realized mystery books existed. Starting with Encyclopedia Brown and Mary C. Jane and discovering Dorothy L. Sayers at the age of fourteen. I honed my taste for mysteries even tighter than my taste for newspapers stories. I wanted character interaction. I didn’t want horror and violence for the sake of horror and violence, I wanted people to behave in complex, tragic and haunted ways and that behavior to have an impact on those around them. And I wanted others to behave in brave and righteous ways, even if they were misunderstood. Sometimes especially if they were were.
Driving home after seeing Spotlight, I realized that there isn’t a lot of difference between good journalism and a good mystery. It’s no surprise I’m so drawn to both.
Spotlight — it’s great by the way — is a lot like my until today favorite newspaper movie All The President’s Men. It starts out with the reporters discovering information that many dismiss. No one recognizes the tip of the iceberg. But a dogged few feel in their gut there’s more there. And by the end, despite the forces against them, the good guys win and corrupt institutions topple. Sorry for the spoiler, those of you who haven’t seen Spotlight. On the other hand, if you don’t know how it ends, you haven’t been paying much attention over the last twelve or so years anyway.
I always knew that when I finally started writing mystery novels for real they would have a journalism angle. Every writer knows that if the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, there has to be a compelling reason she gets involved in a murder investigation. Journalism is a great vehicle for that. What better excuse to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong?
But it was more than that for me. I not only wanted to write a mystery, I wanted to write about journalism. There are a lot of crime writers working right now who get it right — Gerry Boyle and Brenda Buchanan who both post on this blog are two of them — but I’ve read a lot of books over the decades that got it wrong.
The even bigger issue is the same one that drives me to be a career journalist. There’s a truth that needs to be told and I want to be the one to do it. When we do journalism right, it can change the world. The Spotlight team’s work to uncover the priest abuse cover-up by the Catholic Church certainly did that. But even when it’s a micro-issue — which is what most journalists deal with — it’s a public service, a voice of the people, a watchdog over government and those in power.
I know that sounds high-falutin’ and some may think I’m a little to full of myself and my colleagues. I’m not saying we get it right all the time. There are plenty of rewritten press releases, one-source stories, articles that pander or promote when they should be digging deeper. But the overall goal is to get it right and that’s why many of us stick with it.
When I started writing my debut mystery novel, Cold Hard News, I had some characters in mind and interactions I wanted to write about. I’m fascinated by people, how they relate and why they do the things they do.
But I also had bigger things I wanted to say about the damage people in power can do when everyone just goes along with them, how the old boys’ network can control things, how people make assumptions about those around them based on position in society and other superficial factors instead of digging deeper.
On top of it, there was a specific incident in New Hampshire that happened a few years
before I started writing. A Franconia police officer and a local young guy who didn’t get along were both shot dead. The cop was shot by the young man, the young man by a passerby. I was bothered to the point of anger at how that second shooting was resolved. I couldn’t change reality, but I could make my own. And I hoped through fiction, I could tell some truth.
So, yeah, journalism in way, even though I made stuff up.
I highly recommend Spotlight. I loved it for the journalism story. But I also loved it for the mystery, even though I new who the bad guys were from the start and how it would end. And I really, really loved it for the truth: that journalists and other people who believe in what’s right no matter what the common accepted believes are, who won’t take no for an answer and who won’t let the people in power get away with abusing it, triumph in the end.
CRIME WRITERS NOTE: If you’d like to do some Christmas shopping or just say hi, fellow Maine Crime Writer Kate Flora and I will be at the Belgrade Holiday Craft Show, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, at the Community Center for All Seasons, Route 27, Belgrade, Maine.
Stop by and chat about mysteries or whatever, take a look at our books, pick up some bookmarks for stocking stuffers. We’d love to see you.
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and Facebook at Maureen Milliken Mysteries. Her website is maureenmilliken.com
Another thought-provoking post. Thanks, Maureen. Sorry I won’t be able to scoot over to Belgrade to say hey to you and Kate on Saturday, but I’m stuck here at the house on weekends during Christmas tree season. On the bright side, it’s going to be a gorgeous weekend in both Wilton and Belgrade.