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.
“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.
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