Real Life isn’t at all Cozy

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett here. Readers will have to forgive me if this post isn’t as coherent as most. I’m still processing events that took place about a week ago. A lot of what’s going through my mind isn’t stuff I want to dwell on, but I don’t seem to have a choice. For others in my family, shifting their focus to something else is a lot harder.

In the wee hours of the morning on Monday, March 8, an intruder broke into the house where my brother-in-law, niece, and great-niece live. He was armed with at least one gun, a taser, restraints, and an appalling number of pipe bombs. No one knows what his original intention was. Nearly twenty hours into a standoff with police, he killed himself. By that time, the only hostage still in the house was my brother-in-law (my husband’s late sister’s widower). My niece ran for help the moment she recognized the intruder. My great niece, hours later, managed to climb out a second-story window and jump off the porch roof. She and her grandfather suffered minor injuries, but they’re alive, which is all that mattered to family members and friends anxiously waiting for news.

I’m not going to give more details, other than to say I also knew the hostage-taker. For five or six years, until about three years ago, he was treated as part of the family he took hostage. I knew him from holiday gatherings, which for the last ten years or so have taken place at the house he broke into. Back then, I didn’t have strong feelings about him one way or the other, but I never imagined he’d end up harming people I love.

Anyone who wants to can Google “Livermore Falls, Maine hostage situation” and find (more or less) accurate accounts of what happened. What I’m compelled to write about, since I have a post due today at a writers’ blog, is the disconnect between the horribleness of this real crime, which could so easily have included at least one murder along with the suicide, and the mystery fiction we read (and write) as entertainment. In the past, I’ve tended to ignore crime reports on the evening news, preferring the calmer, pleasanter world of my imagination. I can’t do that anymore.

In a traditional mystery novel, the good guys win in the end and the villain gets his or her just desserts. Both readers and writers find that formula reassuring. There is even an argument, one I’ve made more than once, that justifies putting characters in mortal peril for the sole purpose of letting them find some clever way to turn the tables on the villain, usually after said villain has had the opportunity for the “obligatory spilling of the beans.” In the cozy mysteries I write, these scenes have sometimes had elements of humor.

I don’t find them so amusing right now. It’s probably a good thing I’m not currently under contract to produce more of them, because I can’t help but feel that those of us who write cozy mysteries have been doing a disservice to the victims of real-life crimes. It’s not that we’ve made light of their experiences. The humor, at least in my mysteries, comes from eccentric characters and human foibles not directly connected to the crimes. But the inadvertent result may well be that real-life crimes, at least those that don’t involve people we know, have less impact. They don’t affect us on an emotional level any more than reading a gripping scene in a novel does.

But here’s the difference—in real life, no one gets a chance to revise the story. The outcome doesn’t change, nor do the events leading up to it.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published and has self published several children’s books and two works of nonfiction. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her next publication (as Kaitlyn) is the fourth book in the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (Murder, She Edited), in stores in August 2021. As Kathy, her most recent book is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at and A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen, now available in e-book format.


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15 Responses to Real Life isn’t at all Cozy

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a harrowing experience for you and your family. Thankfully all relatives were saved. Cannot imagine the horror of this scenario for you May you all stay save now and in the future.

  2. Heidi Wilson says:

    A terrible happening for you as well as your loved ones. So sorry that it happened, Kathy. But please don’t stress over your books. I’ve never, ever heard of a crime victim who objected to mysteries. You’ve given a lot of pleasure in a world that needs it.

  3. Kathy, how awful for your family and you. I agree that it hits us cozy authors in a different way. Last year, just around the corner from me, a trouble adult son killed his mother with a knife and attacked his stepfather. I had met this lovely couple at their neighbors’ home for a dinner only a month earlier. It really made me think about my own writing, and I vowed to make sure I brought the real feelings I and their friends were having into my books.

    Sending you hugs for healing and all best wishes for the survivors. Hard stuff.

  4. Vicki Erwin says:

    Kathy, so sorry you and your family experienced such an awful event. I have written two true crime books and have the same thoughts about them at times. I try to champion the victims and to not glorify the perpetrator and crime. Yet, am I doing that by writing about it?

  5. Oh, Kathy, my heart goes out to you and Sandy and the rest of your family. Because Maine is such a small town, I always wonder when I hear of a situation like this whether anyone I know is connected to those directly involved. And because I handled some criminal cases early in my career, I’ve seen (and never forgotten) first-hand the emotional impact of incidents like this.

    I hope real, effective, lasting support is available to all of the survivors and their loved ones, including you, as you work through the emotional fallout of this sad and tragic event.

  6. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Oh my God. So grateful your family is safe, although I imagine they won’t feel that way for a while to come. There’s no happy ending here. My heart goes out to all of you.

  7. judyalter says:

    A powerful reminder for all of us about the disconnect between our books and reality. Thank you for sharing. Hope your family can recover to some small measure though I know the trauma will live with them for a long time. Wrapping you and yours in healing thoughts.

  8. Leslie Budewitz says:

    Oh, Kathy, what a dreadful experience — and to think you all knew the man. Most of what I write is also cozy mystery, and I think it’s important for us to ask ourselves occasionally how we are treating crime, the victims, and the impact on society. Few cozies make light of the actual crime — readers wouldn’t stand for that — but the larger question is whether we’re treating the impact seriously enough, whether we’re giving readers a way to help process their own experiences. I’ve thought about that occasionally this past year and whether it’s appropriate to write about crime in the midst of such real-life loss and grief. Ultimately, my answer is yes, because those are universal human experiences, and if we can help people get through them, either by our characters’ example or just by a few hours’ respite, then we’ve done a good thing.

  9. Very upsetting. We never know who has the capability for violence or unpredictability. I was so glad when I read that the hostages were all free.

  10. Janet E Anderson-Murch says:

    It is different to watch the news and then learn a horrible crime has occured against family members. Our souls tell us what we need, if we listen. Talk about it with trusted people, vent it out, don’t hold it in. Connect with nature, with humans, with pets. It takes time to recover from the shock and scariness of this. Nurture yourself and your family. May love and support surround your family at this time.

  11. patriciarice says:

    so horrifying for you and your family, I’m sorry! And yes, that has to do a number on your Muse. We might murder a villain off screen, but we never see the true horror until it hits us personally. Take care of yourself!

  12. itslorrie says:

    How awful. I am so very sorry that this has happened. It is understandable that this event would have you questioning in this way. In my opinion you in no way are doing a disservice to victims of crime, mentally healthy people are not desensitized to real life crimes by cozy mysteries. In time, hopefully, you will continue to write your books and feel the same sense of enjoyment and accomplishment that you always have. Again, I am so very, very sorry for you and your family.

  13. kaitlynkathy says:

    Thank you to everyone who left a comment. Your good wishes and encouragement are greatly appreciated.

  14. Dru says:

    Kathy, you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

  15. Nancy Cantwell says:

    I can’t imagine what your family has been through, and I’m so sorry. Please keep in mind that your books can transport readers out of their current reality which is incredibly important. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and can’t imagine a life without books. Please take as much time off to heal yourself and your family as you need, but don’t stop writing!

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