Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Violence and Crime Fiction

Vicki brought up a wonderful question—does a murder have to take place in crime fiction? I don’t think a murder is necessary, but I do believe the genre requires the author to put up a large ante. Every day, real life reveals horrific examples of crimes people commit against one another. Movies bathe viewers in sex and violence. The U.S. is in a bloody war, and I recently heard of a You Tube site where one can watch gory videos of real-life gun fights, suicide bombings, and roadside explosions in Iraq. I won’t be seeking that out.

Why do we read—and love—crime fiction, anyway? Do we seek an escape from real life, which isn’t tied up neatly? Do we want to learn police procedure? Or become familiar with fire arms or high-tech forensics? Do we love to fall in love with fictional people who put their lives on the line? Do we read to see these characters learn from their mistakes and reach a deeper level of humanity? Do we read to see the bad guys humiliated, then put away, where they can’t do any more harm?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have a hunch it’s a bit of everything. And perhaps it changes a bit with each book and story.

Vicki’s examples of real life villains Conrad Black and Barbara (‘my extravagance knows no bounds’) Amiel are great examples of characters we’d love to hate. And then see making license plates for the next thirty years.... But it sounds as if Barbara is still free, out buying three thousand dollar handbags and spewing hateful rhetoric. Which got me thinking about the difference between writing truth and writing believability (and justice, for what it’s worth).

I had the good fortune to go to the Edgar Award Ceremony this May, and had the further good luck to chat with S.J. Rozan. I admire her both as an author and as a very insightful woman. We were talking about how we (and this doesn’t apply to everyone!) prefer crime fiction over true crime. As I was pondering why this was the case, S.J. said, "Fiction just seems more real."

And I agree. In fiction, there has to be a motive (aside from serial killers, who have the excuse of horrible childhoods or some other trauma) for murder; the fictional crime needs to make sense. The end, of course, brings justice. In fiction, if a high-ranking politician lies and schemes, a hero will appear to root out the corruption, punish the perpetrators, and stop the crime before disaster unfolds and thousands of lives are lost.

Alas.

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