Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Cozies and the Death Penalty

I turned my fifth book, GHOSTS OF PAINTING PAST, in to my publisher last week actually on the day it was due. I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to finish it on time until the last few days. But I did it! This week I’m in Las Vegas attending the Creative Painting convention so the most serious thing I’m thinking about is where we should eat our next meal or who we should get tickets to see.

I wrote this last week when I was in a more serious mood.

I thought I’d continue the thought provoking discussion about the death penalty and stories from the last couple weeks.

In the U.S., the death penalty still exists. People can be executed by the federal or state governments. Not every state has the death penalty. Some have opted for life without the possibility of parole.

I write cozies and most of the mysteries I read are cozies. As a reader, I’m interested in the characters, the setting and the puzzle of figuring out whodunit. By the end of the book, the killer is always unmasked and brought to some kind of justice. What happens after that is never really talked about. And, as a reader, I don’t much care. I assume the person will be convicted and get some sort of punishment. No one ever mentions the death penalty. I think a discussion of that sort belongs in darker mysteries.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of TV shows that explore the topic. The plot usually goes like this: (1) a man (it’s usually a man) claims he’s innocent, but is shortly to be executed, (2) a lawyer is brought in at the eleventh hour to stop the execution, (3) the lawyer meets his client and comes to believe in his innocence or, at minimum, said lawyer is opposed to the death penalty on principal, (4) the lawyer fails, the prisoner is executed and (5) after the execution, irrefutable evidence is found that the man is truly innocent. The lawyer feels awful because s/he couldn't help.

After watching a few of these, I started thinking, “Why can’t there be a happy ending?” Then it dawned on me why. If you’re trying to show that the death penalty is a bad thing, you need to show its consequences when it’s applied wrongly. Namely, you need to see an innocent man executed. That has much more power on the viewer than freeing said man.

So those are my thoughts on the death penalty and fiction.


Rick Blechta said...

Cozies inhabit a very special place in crime fiction. Really, they're not meant to be completely accurate reflections of reality. So you're correct: post-trial issues have no place because that part of a crime story will seldom be happy.

I do have a question, though: do you know of any cozies that don't have an ending where the killer is unmasked and dragged off to stand trial? In other words, he or she escapes and justice isn't served? I can't think of any, but then I don't read cozies all that often.

Or is that a cozy plot rule that Must Never Be Broken?

Sybil Johnson said...

I don't recall a cozy where the killer isn't unmasked. They are always brought to justice in some way. I think that's a cozy rule that should never be broken.