Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I am a wanton, unrepentent killer.

Now, before you start thinking that I am about to confess to some heinous unsolved crime, let me explain.

Several years ago, shortly after the release of THE SIXTH SENSE, I made a couple of tee shirts with pictures of my book covers on the back, and the legend "I WRITE DEAD PEOPLE" on the front.

I still wear them all the time, mostly because I have reached that point in life when I need to wear reading glasses, and these tee shirts have breast pockets where I can keep the glasses. I haven't yet given in to wearing the strap around my neck so I can find my reading glasses any time I need them. I'm just that vain...

I get a lot of questions about the shirts when I go to the hardware or the grocery store. Sometimes I just get stares, until people see the book covers on the back. When the cute checkout girl at the Harris-Teeter discovers what the shirt is really about, I often find that I've made another sale. Groovy.

This post isn't about book promotions, though. It's about the philosophy behind the saying, "I Write Dead People."

Mystery authors have a lot of power over our characters, which we often wield like a ten-pound sledge hammer. Writing mysteries may be the quintessential act of sublimation - a Freudian defense in which people redirect inappropriate impulses into marginally appropriate activities. If someone we know pisses us off, we write a character with his characteristics, and then have him horribly bludgeoned to death, or poisoned, or maybe just shot ten or twenty times.

Sometimes we're aware of what we're doing to this character. Sometimes we don't give it a second thought. Sometimes, a little murder in our stories does little more than move the story along, a sort of literary goose in the shorts to get us from Point A to Point B. We kill the guy off, and leave him in the dust to rot while we move on to the important interactions between our protagonists.

In my last Eamon Gold novel, no fewer than seven people were killed by page 300. Most of them died very badly. I, as their literary deity, ordained their demise, and carried out the executions. Each time I did it, I could feel my pulse quicken a little. It felt pretty good. It made the story exciting. Readers ate it up. The book was nominated for a Shamus Award. Mystery Scene Magazine actually pointed to the Wild West-style shootout at the end as a high point in the book.

Through my semi-noble hero, I had killed again, and had gotten away with it.

I don't think much about those dead characters anymore. I've moved on to new books, and new murders. Sometimes I wonder if the people who enjoyed that book recall the names of the people who died. Sometimes, I even have a hard time recalling them.

Last week, a man walked into a Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and shot nine people with a shotgun, the same weapon Eamon Gold used in my novel. Two of the churchgoers died. The shooter reportedly opened fire in the church because he ''didn't like liberals".

For the record, the people who died were named Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry. They were 61 and 60 years of age, respectively. Linda Kraeger was a retired teacher from Texas, and and author. Greg McKendry was an usher at the church who, with his wife Barbara, had taken in a foster child. He died protecting his friends. I mention this only because I think we shouldn't let this event just pass by us, to be swallowed up in the big parade of world events, national elections, geologic upheavals in California, or a lousy race at Indianapolis. These were real people, with full, rich lives, and some guy walked into their church - their church! - and blew them away because he didn't like their politics.

Seems a lousy reason to die to me.

I know the name of the shooter, but I choose not to repeat it. Whatever his motivations, the people in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation had done nothing to him at all, and none of them deserved what happened to them. The shooter deserves even less to be remembered or recognized for his ignorant, irrational actions.

This week, two people who only wanted to love their fellow humans are going into the ground, long before they should have. We should feel really bad about that.

It makes me think.

If we felt that badly about the fates of the people we kill off in our books, maybe the readers would share that concern, and want our protags to solve the cases just as badly as we, the authors, want it. It seems to me that the really great crime writers are able to somehow connect with readers that way, and make them care as much about the dead as they do about the living.

As authors, we should think twice the next time we are tempted to toss in some random violence in our books, and decide whether this is going to make our readers care more about the people we're wantonly, perhaps remorselessly killing off, or whether we are taking these characters' everything away just to stretch the book out for ten or twenty more pages.

Gotta go. Things to write.


Judy5cents said...

Well put, Rick.

Like most mystery writers, I read A LOT of mysteries. I admit that I'm left cold when the bodies pile up without a word from the author as to who these people were and what they left behind. In my books, the victims are always living, breathing people when the reader first encounters them, and there's always a scene where they are mourned after their death.

In the real world when someone dies a sudden, violent death, their families are shattered. I've heard victims of violent crime find those "Dinner And A Murder" events terribly offensive and point out that no one would ever think to have a "Dinner And A Rape" event, or a "Dinner and A Slow, Agonizing Death By Cancer" event.

I think we should keep in mind that even though what we write is intended to entertain, we have a responsibility to treat our subject with respect, especially victims.

Lynette Hall Hampton said...

Some good things to think about, Rick. In my first two Willa books I've only killed people I didn't care much for, but hope I gave them a few redeeming qualitiesm if not them, at least the families they left behind who did care for them. The third one is different. A much loved character is killed and in a burtal way. I hope the reader will be sorry that she died, too. Thanks for your words.