Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A question of just desserts

Aline has written a terrific and thought-provoking post on the question of the death penalty in detective fiction. In jurisdictions that still have it, or in historical fiction, crime writers have to deal not only with the guilt and capture of their fictional villain, but also with the possibility that the actions of their clever detective will lead to the death of that person. Moral and emotional questions come into play that can add depth and power to the story.

In most detective novels there is an implicit contract between writer and reader that justice will be served, which usually means that the "bad guy" will get their "just desserts". You can leave several loose ends at the end of your novel, but if you don't reveal who the killer is and give at least a hint that they will face justice, the reader is likely to throw the book at the wall.

But what constitutes just desserts? And indeed, what constitutes a bad guy?

Those of us who love to explore the grey area between right and wrong, between good and evil, often play with these two questions. Sometimes the victim is the truly bad guy, and the villain is the one righting a wrong, albeit in vigilante fashion. One of my books dealt with this moral ambiguity, and once my detective figured out who the killer was, he (and I) had to decide what would serve justice; compounding the suffering or letting the person walk away. Interestingly, I never had a single reader complain about the way I chose to solve that dilemma.

For me, the most complex villains are ordinary people pushed to desperate ends or thrown into extraordinary situations for which they know no other answers. Ending the novel in a way that acknowledges that desperation but also serves the course of justice is part of the challenge. That's why serial killers and psychopaths don't interest me. Unless you want to argue they are victims of their faulty biology, there is little moral ambiguity there. Little humanity to sink our teeth into.

Another question raised by Aline's post, and by the thoughtful comments on it, is whether the detective (and writer) need concern themselves with what happens after the killer is caught. Of course some novels deal expressly with the trial process, but in the classic whodunit, the story usually ends when the killer's identity and motive are revealed. Sometimes the writer may hint at what comes next, but most is left to the reader's imagination. Is that enough? Does the reader need to know the police have sufficient hard evidence for a conviction in court? Or conversely, that although the detective knows the killer is guilty, there is not enough evidence to go to trial? How much certainty do readers need to feel satisfied?

I rarely worry about what will happen in court., but I do have the luxury of writing contemporary stories set in jurisdictions without the death penalty. Having that hanging over my head would add a whole other level of moral complexity to my detective's choices. But justice can be served in many other ways besides in a court of law. Life itself can provide its own punishments. I usually end my novels not with a certainty but with a hint of what is likely to happen to the villain, either in court or on the streets of their life to come. I make a moral decision on what punishment I think fits the crime, and I hope my readers share my sense of satisfaction. Those who want the definitive answer of the hangman's noose are unlikely to enjoy my novels anyway.

I will end these rambling philosophical musings with the story of two horrific murderers recently sentenced in Canada. Both men pleaded guilty. One killer was a young man who shot six people (and wounded numerous others) during prayers at a mosque. In Canada, a life sentence means twenty-five years before the possibility of parole. Automatic life sentences can be served concurrently or consecutively, but in this case the judge chose the rather odd middle ground of 40 years before the opportunity to apply for parole. Both sides were outraged; the Muslim community who felt the sentence was an affront to all the lost and traumatized lives, and the killer's family, who felt it took away all hope. Two very different views of "just desserts".

In the other case, a 67-year-old serial killer of eight (at least) men who could have served 200 years in prison was given concurrent life sentences, meaning he will serve 25 years and be eligible for parole at age 91. Once again, outrage in the community. Although in this case most wanted him to rot and die in prison, some felt that the sentence almost certainly assured that he would do just that.

So equally tricky for the writer trying to see that justice is done, is that justice is partly in the eye of the beholder. Thoughts?


Tom Burns said...

So far, my detective Natalie McMasters has applied the death penalty to her adversaries, in self defense of course, but she's not been unhappy to see them go...

Donis Casey said...

I love moral ambiguity in a mystery. I agree that sometimes the "villain" is the better person than the "victim", and as I think back on my own books, I don't think any of the murderers have faced the death penalty. The evil ones got their comeuppance right then and there, and the not so evil ones received a lesser penalty or got away with it!