Monday, August 16, 2010

Escapist Fare

by Gillian Roberts

It should be relatively easy to write about murder, especially when a perfect premise is given to you. Without such a ‘gift,’ I’ve done it in sixteen novels and a few dozen short stories. I’ve even written a how-to-write-about-murder.

Here’s what I know now: It is (relatively) easy--as long as it’s a mystery.

And it’s fictional.

The resulting puzzles or pulse-racers are called escapist fiction. It’s suggested we read such works on a plane where anything that makes travel less onerous is a plus, or at the beach (what on earth are we escaping there?).

“Escapist” is generally not a compliment. There’s a small sneer in the term, as if the crime isn’t on the page but within us. Our brows are low. Nobody gave us permission to escape. It’s a critical form of Mean Buddhism: Be Here Now--Or Else.

But we do escape, even when we aren’t flying or sunbathing and return to the pleasures of crime as readers and writers.

I did or thought I did. And then real-life murder hit home, almost literally. A gentle woman--who was active in the library, who wanted to write, who had been a career counselor, who had dreadful back problems about which she didn’t complain, whose husband, a lawyer and wildlife photographer died of Alzheimer’s a few months earlier, who had fine sons and grandchildren--was killed.

Early one early-summer morning in this quiet town she was murdered a few feet from her front door, with a point blank shot to her skull.

Nothing was taken from the house.

Nobody heard the shot.

The local weekly just won a national prize for their coverage of the crime, but a year later, it remains unsolved. And a year later, I find myself still thinking of her on a daily basis, and looking at life differently. I was a casual friend. What is her best friend feeling? Her children and grandchildren? Her next door neighbors? Everyone in this small town is changed in many ways. One gunshot echoes forever.

“You ought to write about it,” more than one person said. “You’re a mystery writer and here it is--a real life mystery in our own town.”

True. It has every element the crime novels I most enjoy reading and have written. It’s a classic mystery.

And yes, I spent a lot of time puzzling who could have, why anybody would have, done such a thing, and I have a working, if unprovable idea. I also know that to a writer, ‘everything is material.’ I have borrowed shamelessly from news stories that gnawed at me. The books that resulted weren’t of the ‘ripped from the headlines’ type because big headlines interest me less than small, human stories. Like this one.

But when I think about borrowing this woman’s death--even though it haunts and mystifies me and feels important in ways I can’t yet articulate--I feel as if I’d be dishonoring her because of what a writer must do in order to turn her story into mine.

Everything I know about her is benign, loving, wry, kindly. She was ordinary, in the nicest of ways. That’s what gives her story such power--it makes no sense.

But what we demand in a mystery is to go beneath smooth surfaces and find fissures, secrets, and dark places, a handful of enemies--suspects--who have cause to have wanted her gone. I couldn’t do that to that good woman, but then I’d have no plot, no story, no motives--no book. I’ve been trying to think through this, about why I never felt this queasiness and revulsion when I’ve borrowed bits from real events and real people’s behavior and turned them into something new. We say we want believable stories, and believable characters, but we don’t, not really. We want art. Escapist art, if you will.

Only since my friend was killed did I consider what, precisely, we’re escaping. I know our books can help us assuage grief and anxiety. I’ve heard from readers who said my books got them through long sieges by or in a hospital bed, or sleepless nights, or just plain bad times, and I am so grateful that is so.

But after a year of thinking about the unfathomable insanity that took a good life, about real crime and its aftershocks, I think that we turn to fictional mysteries to escape the terrible lack of a plot in “real” life. We’re escaping the randomness and meaningless of the evil we cannot escape in the ‘real’ world by diving into a book where loose ends are woven together, motives are clear and maybe most of all, we’re given an ending, a conclusion, a meaning--whatever that might be.

It’s a good thing. Thanks be for the magic and the solace escapist fiction provides. Without it, life in its amoeba-like shapelessness might smother us. So while I won’t ever ‘use’ the one murder story I know, I will keep writing escapist fiction and consider “escapism” a necessary blessing and a term of praise.
Gillian Roberts is the author of the Anthony-award winning Amanda Pepper mystery series, the Emma Howe series, and the how-to guide You Can Write a Mystery. All's Well That Ends is the fourteenth and final Amanda Pepper novel. For more information on Gillian and her novels, check out her web site.


Linda Leszczuk said...

Very well said.

Joyce said...

Beautiful post!

I think crime fiction appeals to readers because it makes sense of things that don't always make sense in real life. When someone sits down with a mystery, they know the crime will be solved. That doesn't always happen in real life.

I know a couple of writers who have fictionalized crimes that occurred to people they know. Even though the finished books bear little resemblance to what really happened, the fact that they're able to solve the fictional crimes brings them a sort of closure.

Sheila Connolly said...

You're absolutely right: readers turn to certain kinds of fiction, particularly cozies, because they know that the crime (usually involving a death) will be solved by the end of the book. That gives the reader a sense of closure that is all too often missing in real life. I don't know that I'd call that escapism--it's more like imposing order on a disorderly world. It's the way we wish things were.

I will miss Amanda Pepper.

Leslie said...

Hear hear! Life lacks narrative structure, so we turn to fiction to provide something on which to hang our hats.

Eileen said...

Yes...a friend of mine was murdered about a year ago, and I couldn't bear the thought of turning it into "a story". Though it was tempting...I should like to give the murderer his comeuppance.

Real life is quite different, but I will continue to take comfort in mystery fiction!

kathy d. said...

This is very disturbing about this nice woman who was a friend. Do the police have any clues?

Maybe she was killed by a serial killer at random, just because she was there. Maybe a sociopath who lived in the area knew she was alone and for some bizarre, unknown reason targeted her.

Wish the truth could be known, for her family and friends to have closure and so others could be protected from whomever did it.

Triss Stein said...

A wonderful, insightful essay

Jan Brogan said...

What a terrific essay, and I think you are so right to honor your friend's death this way.

Also about the escape from life, which so often refuses to conform to plot structure.

Sheila Lowe said...

Since my daughter was murdered 10 years ago I've always thought I would write about it, though there's no mystery about her death--her boyfriend, a federal agent, was the killer. Still, writing directly about it has proven too difficult. Instead, though she was 27 at her death, I brought my daughter back to life through one of my characters, a 14-year-old troubled girl.
Murder as fiction is very different than when it slaps you in the face in real life.

Anonymous said...

I understand your feelings and think you are still grieving for this person.

In time, you might want to honor her by using a character like her in one of your stories. Even created a resolution that would satisfy you and perhaps avenge the memory and spirit of the real murder and its complete lack of answers.

The woman you describe is someone I would like to read about, characters don't always have to be flamboyant to be appealing.

Thank you for posting, I enjoyed your thoughts.