Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Responsibility - Yours, Mine or Whose?

by Janis Patterson
Right now I’m still reeling from the ghastly Boston bombing on Monday. It’s one thing when we, safely seated at our computers, create horrors and crimes and deal in dark deeds as if they were bits of candy. It’s another one completely when the horrors are real, when the streets are full of blood and living, breathing people are hurt or killed.
I think people are drawn to crime fiction out of a love of justice and right. (You notice I didn’t say the law – the omission was deliberate.) Between the covers of a book all kinds of nasty things can happen, but even as we are horrified at the turns of event we can rest secure that the bad guy will be caught and pay the penalty for his crimes, that justice will triumph and all will be well. Would that things were so easily predictable in real life!
In real life things aren’t so clean. We can create the most logical motives and put out masterly clues that our sleuths can solve with assurance. We give our villains identifiable motives that are rational – at least in the book – and the skills to implement them. Real life… Where does crime start in real life? Name just about anything and it gets blamed – bad parenting, peer pressure, finances, politics, religion or lack of same, TV, video games, movies, books… just pick one or more.
I don’t know if I agree with such reasoning or not. Take two people with similar backgrounds – one will commit a heinous crime, the other turn into just an ordinary joe whose main criminal act is the occasional speeding ticket. What makes the difference?
Whatever it is, though, we who create those thrilling tales of murder and mayhem must walk a slender blade of responsibility. We must create interesting and on the whole realistic stories, but we must be very careful not to make our stories into an instruction manual for the criminal. Yes, we need verisimilitude, but we also need common sense. Let our villain build a bomb, but don’t give the reader step by step instruction. Same with poison or gun, knotted handkerchief or whatever, we need to be like the police and always hold back one crucial bit of information – one little piece that makes the thing whole and workable.
But, you say, there’s so much information out there – they can find out almost anything on the internet.
That’s true – and people who are so inclined will, but we will be in the clear. Self-responsibility and self-determination are two of the cornerstones of liberty. If a person is determined to commit a crime, they will and they must take the responsibility. No video game or book or film forced them to do it – no one jack-marched them down the street to find the ingredients. They did it themselves. We just have to be very careful that we don’t aid and abet them with detailed instructions. We can’t control their actions – we can only control our own, and we should act responsibly.

 Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson. 



Jacqueline Seewald said...


I do believe one reason we enjoy reading mystery fiction is because there is justice. The writer usually organized the universe in a satisfying way. This is, of course, not always the case in real life.

Alice Duncan said...

This is why I write and read comfort reads (also known as cozies). The real world is scary, unpredictable, bloody, and often insane. If I want mayhem, it's there all the blasted time. If I want to escape the madness, I'll read a book. I don't know the answers, either, but I can control everything in books, bless them.

Ellen Larson said...

There's a lot more responsibility to writing mysteries than not providing instruction manuals, isn't there? The risk of glorifying violence, for example. Great discussion topic.

Phyllis said...

I agree. I write dark anyway, but I don't have to help the jerk gain his 15 minutes of fame.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I love mysteries because in most cases the bad guy gets it in the end--one way or another. Live isn't always so neat and tidy. Good post.

Traci said...

Well said! Personal responsibilty is huge, and it amazes me how many people find ways around accepting it - good blog :)

Jan Christensen said...

This is a great reminder about thinking hard about how much we "instruct" readers on how to do the crime. Many don't like reading the details anyway, so I tend to err, even when writing noir or hardboiled, on the side of vagueness. Let the reader use their imagination!

Randy Rawls said...

Good thoughts well presented.
It seems to me though that entertainment in all its forms contribute to the problems of violence in our society. Certainly, the movies have led the way with bombings and explosions of all kinds. TV isn't far behind. And so many books today mirror them.
As some of you know, I'm a loud-mouthed advocate of cleaner language in our writing. Yet, we justify the gutterization of our language by saying, "It's realistic, the way things are." It only became "realistic" because it was allowed to become so commonplace.
Will a future generation of writers be justifying bombings and bodyparts the same way? I hope not.

Barb Schlichting said...

I love mysteries because justice is served, and it goes both ways. I walk away from the book feeling good. Thanks

Beate Boeker said...

That's the good thing about books - you can rewrite the ending if you don't like it! Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Marilyn Levinson said...

A thought-provoking topic. I believe a novel should never include instructions re how to kill without leaving evidence or how to make a bomb.
We read and write mysteries because of the sense of justice and closure they give us; they help us believe that though bad things happen, in the end good will triumph over evil; they give us the opportunity to explore our dark side from a safe distance.

Janice Seagraves said...

Good post. The nice thing about mysteries is the bad guy is always caught by the end of the story. That's not always true in real life.


Morgan Mandel said...

Yes, I like it when the bad guy doesn't win, and wish the bad guy would always lose in real life!

Morgan Mandel

Jana Richards said...

I second Morgan's thoughts. I like it when the bad guy gets what he deserves. That's why I read mysteries.