Monday, August 04, 2008

Reality Check

Reality Check by Vicki

I’m sure most of you have heard about the horrific knife attack on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba a few days ago. If not, you can read about it at . (memorize that URL because it’s about to disappear!)

What bothered me, aside from the crime itself, was a selection of letters the following day to the Globe and Mail. Along with letters expressing shock and outrage and sympathy were two letters by men (it’s always men!) telling us that THEY wouldn’t have run, THEY would have fought the guy. Plus the now standard letter saying that if someone on the bus had a gun, it would all have been A-Okay. A gentleman from Texas let us know that all Canadians, including the RCMP, are cowards, for leaving the killer alive on the bus to desecrate the dead body. The police, he said, should have ‘neutralized’ him. And by the way, and I quote, “you people are too civilized”.

Let’s examine the facts as they’re known, briefly. The victim, Tim McLean, 22 years old, was killed by what has been described as a large knife, or a butcher’s knife, stabbed by a total stranger into his throat as he slept, and other blows. Mr. McLean was dead, or dying, by the time his fellow passengers even knew what was going on. The bus driver immediately pulled the bus off the road and stopped, the passengers got off the bus, without a stampede. Some of the passengers and the driver barricaded the door of the bus so the killer couldn’t get off. I read somewhere that the driver and a passing truck driver tried to get back onto the bus but were chased off by the killer waving his knife, but wasn’t able to find that report this morning as I refreshed my memory prior to writing this.

The police arrived and surrounded the bus while the killer waved his knife and, how hard it is to imagine, Mr. McLean’s head at them. After about three hours, the killer surrendered peacefully.

What more could anyone ask for? (Other of course than that the bus arrived at its destination in peace). No one else was hurt, no one was trampled in the rush to get off the bus, no one was taken hostage, a police sniper was not forced to kill a man. Tim McLean was dead, or dying, and no heroics would have changed that. If anyone had attempted to rush the killer, well, after a confrontation with a mad man armed with a butcher knife, they wouldn’t be writing letters to the paper. If anyone on the bus had been carrying a gun, it most probably would have been the killer, and he might not have been satisfied with one victim.

The two men were seated at the back of the bus – I’d say the worst possible scenario would have been some guy from Texas (or Alberta, even from Prince Edward County, Ontario) at the front whipping out his gun and shooting wildly as the passengers, including children, try to get past him and out the door. Remember, this is a bus, not the lobby of the Royal York Hotel with plenty of room and solid furniture for everyone to take cover behind.

Too many movies, I think, have warped some people’s ideas of reality.

I see about one movie a year, and my movie for 2008 was Vantage Point. In the film, after an attempted assassination of the U.S. President, the Secret Service chase a suspect (no one who could have actually fired the gun, just a guy acting strangely who runs when they try to grab him) through the crowded streets of Madrid. A president has been shot, a bomb has gone off, people are running in panic, and the secret service men are shooting through the crowd at the fleeing suspect who is, at a guess, fifty to a hundred yards away. They might have been shooting blanks because no one, not even the target, is hit.

What do people mean, when they write that they would have attacked the killer on the bus (bare hands vs. a blood-covered butcher knife) or that the other passengers should have been armed? They mean, I think, that they want it to have happened like it does in the movies, with themselves playing the Mel Gibson or Dennis Quaid role. Bullets swerve around innocent people (unless their death would add poignancy and a plot point), men’s reflexes are so quick they can weave their arms between a slashing knife, and their fists are so strong they can disable the knife carrier with a single well-aimed blow. If necessary they’ll drop on him from the roof a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And hey, it’s just a knife wound; the guy’ll be up in no time, trading witty one liners with the nurses. Happens all the time. In the movies.

One more thing – there is a beautiful woman (the type that wouldn’t be caught dead on a Greyhound bus) in the background with whom they are soon going to have sex. Sigh.

Does this rant have anything to do with writing crime books? I believe it does. I’ve said before that there seems to be a much higher standard of credibility expected in novels vs. movies or TV. Too many coincidences and the reader will close the book. In historical novels, the facts and the tone have to be perfect for the times or the writer will hear about it (if they ever get that thing published!) Criminal investigations – no fudging of the timeline to get the DNA results back before the characters break for lunch. Or the next commercial.

And the characters in mystery fiction have to be real people. That means police like Inspectors Rebus or Banks or Green, Lieutenant Decker, even Officer Cindy Decker, Chiefs Cork O’Conner or Russ van Alstine. Private Investigators like Joe Shoe or Russell Quant, lawyers like Arthur Beauchamp, not to mention, if I may, Sergeant John Winters or Constable Molly Smith. All these fictional characters are expected to be real people, capable of nothing but what real people can accomplish. Sure the plots might sometimes be a bit of a stretch – would you ever invite Jessica Fletcher to spend the weekend? – but we accept that in the cause of fiction. Because, if mystery fiction followed real life, truth be told, there wouldn’t be much of it and what there was would be pretty darn boring. There was a police road block at the end of my road the other day, when I came walking by on the way to the farm stand to buy blueberries. They were checking for drunk drivers. And what do you know – no child called out for help, no one pulled a gun and shot up the tomatoes, no squealing tires as a wanted terrorist broke the line and headed for the hills. Probably not even any drunk drivers, considering that it was 1:00 in the afternoon. I bought my carton of blueberries and went home.

So remember that you’re more likely to win the lottery (have you checked your e-mail lately?) than be the victim of a random crime, and spare me the wanna-be heroics and daydreams of Spiderman-like glory. And damn those letter writers for disparaging the people on that bus who actually had to live through a story so real it will never be made into a movie.

Now I'm off to read a good mystery novel, about a real person dealing with life, and sometimes doing it badly.

One last thing – the Globe ran a photo of Tim McLean on the front page. He was at a beach, holding a beaming little girl, both wearing their bathing suits. The tattoo on his arm was of a cartoon character. That was enough to break your heart.


Betty Webb said...

I enjoyed Vicki's comment on the bus tragedy (if "enjoy" is the proper word here) and agree with her totally. This "I'd do it better" feeling some some folks have whenever such tragedies occur usually arises from a combination of too many movies and too little experience. And those gunslingers should probably remember that if the lunatic had had a gun, more than one person would have probably been killed. Yes, knives can kill, too, but unlike with a gun, the body count tends to be lower. Okay, that's my rant.

Donis Casey said...

I'm sorry that I can't remember the name of the woman who has just authored a book on how people react during a disaster or emergency. She said that people tend to be calmer than she expected, instead of running about in a panic. But heroics? I think people wonder how they would react, and like Betty said, too many movies and too little experience makes Jack a stupid boy. I don't tend to panic, but fear that I would stand there with my mouth open trying to figure out what was happening and not quite believing what I was seeing. In fact, sadly, I know I would, because I do have experience.

Vicki Delany said...

I spent a few hours with the swift water rescue team of the fire department last winter, doing research for Molly Smith #3, and they told me what they don't want is to have to waste time rescuing the wanna be rescuers. I suspect you have a story Donis. You can tell it to me some time.