Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tough times and tough questions lead (hopefully) to good books

Things in the US aren’t going swimmingly. I’ve sat through two Presidential “debates” and shaken my head in disbelief. (Are we still calling them debates? I’ve witnessed a lot of insulting, not a lot of debating.) A close friend in Nova Scotia asks via Facebook if these are the best two candidates we can put up, given that the US has 320 million citizens.

It’s a good question. And right now in the US, there are many other questions that need discussion.

More unarmed black men have been shot recently. I teach a course titled Crime Literature in which we discuss everything from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus’ The Stranger, to police procedure, to the death penalty, to my school’s long-standing unsolved murder. The recent and well-publicized Tulsa, OK., shooting led to this writing prompt: 


Crime Literature offers readers (and students and teachers) the opportunity to roll up our proverbial sleeves and examine, as your anthology editors Deane Kelley and Lois Marchino write, “the best and worst of society.” Your term paper calls on you to simply (or not so) discuss the symbiotic relationship between society and crime. And there are times, like now, when themes discussed in class (police training, race in the criminal justice system, socio-economics in the CJS, justice in the CJS, systemic racism and its impact on the CJS, the challenges facing members of the CJS) meet American society. Many of your authors, Sara Paretsky among them, tackle large issues like these head on. 

Now it’s your turn.


Please read the following CNN article titled “Tulsa police shooting investigated by Justice Department.” Then write a 750-word response in which you examine how the incident occurred, what went wrong, and where the US criminal justice system goes from here.

This paper, an obvious departure from our daily analysis of Paretsky’s Blacklist, admittedly mixes politics with crime fiction. But, as I say repeatedly in and out of class, that’s what crime fiction offers -- an exploration of themes transcending the genre that Poe established when an orangutan climbed in a window back in 1841. So while there is much ado about much in the US right now, current events provide fodder for water cooler discussion and for writing (not to mention some hysterical Saturday Night Live skits, thanks to Alec Baldwin).

Questions abound in the US right now, questions worthy of contemplation, questions I’m hoping will find their way into our genre and our books: How and why are unarmed black men being shot? (Police officers I know certainly don’t wish to draw their firearms, let alone shoot anyone. In fact, the lone officer I know who has shot someone, returning gunfire, never worked again, of his own accord, due to the emotional anguish upon taking a life). So how is it happening? Why are officers receiving so little de-escalation training in comparison to other types of training? What role does systemic racism play in some of these situations?

Serious times lead to serious questions, so while this isn’t a great time to read newspapers in the US (unless you’re Alec Baldwin imitating Trump on SNL), perhaps we can look forward to some excellent crime novels in the coming years.

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