Crime Fiction—Agent of Social Change

Hi. Barb Ross here. Please welcome Maine author Charlene D’Avanzo back to the blog. Today Charlene writes about something I also strongly believe in–fiction as a vehicle of social change.

Welcome, Charlene!

Not long ago I was a college professor who wrote marine biology research papers—but not one word of fiction. Now I don’t teach at all, three books in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi mystery series are published, and number four is in the works. As an ecologist, belief in the power of fiction as a vehicle of social change motivated me to leave my job and write mysteries with climate change understories.

Many prominent mystery authors have societal agendas, including women’s rights. Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night is the work of an ardent feminist—and Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton), V. I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich) and Mary Russell (Laurie King) are certainly not your stay-at-home ladies.

Mystery authors also take discrimination head on. Walter Mosley exposes issues of race, poverty, and privilege with L.A. African American detective Easy Rawlins. In his eighteen book series Tony Hillerman explores similar themes for native peoples in the canyons, mesas, and deserts of Arizona’s Navajo Reservation.

In fact, I can’t think of any mystery/crime author who doesn’t seriously deal with some pressing social issue in their stories.

In this age of fake news and uncertain sources, why is fiction such a powerful vehicle for social change messages? Four years ago in a Sun piece titled “On Writing, Politics, and Human Nature” Barbara Kingsolver explained it this way:

Novels are an interesting way to cultivate a person’s trust. I like reaching people with information that perhaps they wouldn’t have accepted if it had been presented in a nonfiction book. Couched in fiction, ideas that might otherwise seem foreign or even unwelcome begin to seem reasonable, because the reader trusts the character and identifies him or her as somehow a member of the tribe. The character’s transformation is more compelling than a newspaper article about a stranger from another place.

As a cli-fi (climate fiction) author, I was astounded and delighted by the popularity of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. It’s not a traditional mystery, but there’s plenty of mystery in the story. In the Sun article Kingsolver says “Flight Behavior is an exploration of our tendency to avoid or deny unwelcome news, even when this denial is likely to ruin us”.

Then she adds—“It’s never irresponsible to speak of hope. It’s irresponsible to give up.”

I’m going to print these two sentences in big letters and post them above my computer. Given the actual and social climate these days, I need to be reminded about hope.

Charlene D’Avanzo received a Mystery Writers of America award for her Cold Blood, Hot Sea (book one in the series) submission and Demon Spirit, Devil Sea (book two) won an IPPY award. Most recently, her short story appeared in “Best New England Crime Stories 2017: Snowbound”. Charlene has written about the connection between sea kayaking, boating, and writing for Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors and Atlantic Coastal Sea Kayaker. An avid sea-kayaker, a sport key in her mysteries, Charlene lives on Little John Island in Yarmouth, Maine. A longer version of this commentary appeared in Sisters in Crime First Draft in January, 2018.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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1 Response to Crime Fiction—Agent of Social Change

  1. Gram says:

    Now I have more books for my t-b-r list…thanks.

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