Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Setting things right

by Rick Blechta

“But you write about ending people’s lives! How can that be a good thing? How do you live with that?”

I got into a discussion about this a number of years ago with a dear friend, and it popped back into my life this past week when someone I know a lot less well brought up the same topic and basically asked the same thing. The difference this time was that I’d had time in between to really think about this.

First off, I have to admit that it can be tough on a writer to craft a murder scene, whether it’s a major or minor character. In my case, I can’t just dispatch people without a thought, and over the course of ten novels and novellas, I’ve killed a lot of people.

I remember the first time quite vividly. I had to stop writing for days, trying to wrap my brain around what I’d written. I’d been a huge crime fiction fan for a long time by then and had probably read two or three hundred mysteries, so naturally I’d been thoroughly exposed to literary death. However, it’s very different when you’re doing the deed yourself.

It’s tough to kill characters, and for me, it hasn’t gotten any easier over the years.

I was exposed to my first real death by violence when I was 16. After seeing a concert at the old Madison Square Gardens in NYC, a group of us was walking back to Grand Central Station to catch a train home. We saw a crowd on the sidewalk ahead, standing in front of a grungy-looking bar. We stepped into the street to avoid the crush and as I came even with the bar, the crowd opened slightly and there on the sidewalk was what looked like a dead body. I don’t remember a lot of blood, but this poor soul certainly appeared to be deceased. The cops arrived shortly after we passed, but we didn’t stick around because we had that train to catch.

I was haunted for weeks by that brief encounter, but eventually the scene faded. The other time I saw a death by violence was while I was driving cab in Toronto in the mid-70s, I saw another victim of a violent death, also lying on a sidewalk.

So yeah, the death of someone by violence carries a lot of weight for me, even though the people never existed except in my head.

The question is, though: why do I do this? Why do I write about violent death? I’m sure every writer of crime fiction has thought about this, so I’m not special in that regard. You might get different reasons from other writers, but here’s mine.

For me, it’s because in the aftermath of that death, I’m setting in motion actions that will bring the perpetrator of that outrage to justice in one way or another. I believe people read crime fiction for the same reason. The plots in crime fiction almost always set things right by the end. Justice is meted out. The guilty are exposed and will be punished. It’s a pretty rare — and grim — novel where the killer gets away with it.

This is what I told the person who asked the million dollar question last week. I do what I do to bring justice to the imaginary world I’ve created. Having spoken to fellow writers, I know I’m not alone in this.

And right now, the world could use a lot of that.

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