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 www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. 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.