The Mystery of Cranium 17
I was on a plane recently (something I’ve spent far too much time doing lately) and got into the usual conversation with a seatmate.
“What do you do?” he said.
“I’m a writer.”
“What do you write? Anything I would have read?”
“Crime fiction, mostly. Murder mysteries.”
“Oh, I can’t read those. All the violence just makes me sick.”
Aside from the disheartening sense that we weren’t going to have anything else to talk about for the rest of the twelve-hour flight, it did set me thinking why, with all the actual violence in the world, I was engaged in creating stories where violence was such a central component. Was I, in effect, just adding more violence into a world already surfeited with it? And, if so, how could I justify that?
The earliest written tale we have is the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, created over 3000 years ago. Incised on the twelve clay tablets, among paeans to the beauty of the king of Uruk and episodes of droit du seigneur, is an ode to violence, from the first fight between Gilgamesh and Enkidu to their mutual quests, in which various monsters, animal guardians, and gods are attacked and/or dispatched. So at least we’re working out of some sort of tradition. Violent stories are as old as writing. As is murder, apparently.
This skull, catchily named Cranium 17, was different from all the other skull bones in the pit because it showed two holes in the forehead, just above the left eye. CT scans and forensic analysis demonstrated that the skull’s owner died from these wounds and that the positions and angles of the impacts indicated that the blows were struck, not incurred in a fall. That is, the person whose skull this was was murdered. Nearly half a million years ago, we were killing each other.
So do we accept that violence is an inherent part of being human?
I suspect one of the reasons crime writers are drawn to violence is that we recognize the violent tendencies in ourselves, in all of us. Even the mildest mannered rage in traffic, flare when someone angers them, curse an unlucky break. By creating situations and characters that partake of violence, sometimes in extreme forms, are we sublimating our own violent tendencies? Or bleeding off that emotion somehow?
Or maybe we write about it so we can experience it, indulge it, vicariously. Maybe we are voyeurs of an experience we don’t want for ourselves but are avid to see, to understand, to show to others.
My belief is that senseless violence frightens us most. When the trigger is a perverted interpretation of a religious impulse we do not empathize with or the pure evil of a psychopathic personality that we cannot comprehend, we shy from it. But by writing about it, we can certainly try to understand.
But the interest for me in writing about crime and violence, as it is for most interesting writers, I think, is the why of the violence, not the who or the what. Descriptions of fistfights, gun battles, car chases, even torture, get boring very quickly. But the human pressures, the emotions, acts, or desires that provoke someone into the violent act? We all want to know the causes, root and immediate, that sling the punch, that fire the gun.
What I wish I’d answered to my interlocutor was this: my writer’s interest in violence is motive, which is to say character. I write my stories to find out not what happened but why. Is this every writer’s motive? I would never suggest that. But I believe it’s part of why we choose to write what we do.
And seriously. Wouldn’t you like to know why Cranium 17 was murdered? And by whom? Solve a murder mystery half a million years old?