When we write about life and death, as we do as crime writers, it’s often with a cavalier sort of attitude. It’s fiction. It doesn’t mean we hate people, want them dead, think like psychopaths, or even think that much about homicide. In some way it’s a trick we play on ourselves and our readers. For the most part it works, it’s accepted. But every so often death touches of each of us. As writers, if we are sensitive to these feelings, it gives us pause.
Sometimes these moments jar us from afar. That’s what happened to me after the events of September 11, 2001. I had just taken my youngest son to college and, I’m not ashamed to say, had shed more than a few tears onboard the plane home. Then I went to the Montana Festival of the Book. I had a recipe in the Montana Humanities cookbook, Eat Our Words, a brownie recipe with a secret ingredient that the Festival folks had whipped up for the writers reception. A group of French writers came to Missoula, making the fest even more fun. I went home on Sunday. Tuesday morning, everything changed.
The days and weeks after the tragedies of September 11th put my writing on hold. I couldn’t pretend that murder, violent death, was “funny” or “cute” or merely curious. It all seemed too significant, too tragic for my words. Definitely too tragic to make mock of, to whip into a silly little fiction.
In our own lives death comes to us all. While sad and painful, it doesn’t have to be sudden, violent, or awful. Not only do we face our own ends but we all have family members, friends, and acquaintances who die. It reminds us that life is short and precious. Death is part of life. It makes us human, this knowledge. Maybe that’s why as crime and mystery writers we are fascinated with it, with the finite nature of living, the crazy, dazzling moments when we feel so alive.
This is the gift of mystery fiction, an ability to give us a glimpse of the inevitable, to come to terms with the limitations of our existence, to help us understand that we will not always be here. That we should get it together now, love the people we love, do the things we want to achieve, because life ends at some point.
I often say that I like crime fiction because of its dramatic qualities, those intense moments that make us see what a person is really like, in fiction or real life. Have you ever been disappointed by the way a person acted when push came to shove, or been surprised and pleased when they stepped up and did whatever hard deeds were necessary? I have, and if you haven’t, you will, sooner than you hope. There are moments in life where you suddenly understand what people are made of. Sometimes it cheers you, warms you. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Mystery fiction doesn’t need to be hyper-realistic to give us insight into our own lives. There are so many kinds of mysteries: comic, romantic, thrillers, the puzzle, the cozy. But the story should provide some genuine emotion about life, what it means to be human, and what it means to lose someone you love forever.
Because crime fiction is about life. And its exact opposite: death. And how we, as humans, deal with it all.
Looking for a writing conference? Come to Bozeman on June 6 for the Get Published Conference with featured speakers Leslie Budewitz, Barbara Daniels, Kat Martin, and more. I’ll be talking about small press and self-publishing. See you there.