Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Taking Crime Personally

I live in a relatively big town -- maybe 1/3 to 1/2 million in the overall metro area -- but overall it kinda feels like a small town, or maybe a collection of small towns.  Years ago, my sister the big city newspaper editor and former crime reporter, came to visit and was shocked that  a "drive-by" shooting of a neon sign not only made the news, but was the lead story for days.

And even though the economic down turn has been particularly hard on Michigan (and has been for decades) and crime has risen...

It still feels kinda personal when there is an active shooter situation on your side of town.

Late this morning, about the time I was getting up after an awful night's sleep, this guy walks into the pharmacy just a few blocks down -- a place I buy Sudafed -- and shoots one of the pharmacists.

Fifteen minutes later we get the report that there's been another shooting just up the street, across the street from where my dad used to live.

Schools are locked down. Thunderstorms and tornadoes are flying around overhead.  Rumors are flying even faster.

Thanks to Twitter and other internet resources (such as Broadcastify, which allows you to listen to police scanners anywhere in the country) we were able to keep tabs on the situation much better than we could have if it were a big story with CNN broadcasting wall to wall.

Because, after all, it's a small town really, with two or three degrees of separation at most. Odds are you know somebody who knows somebody who is directly involved.  You likely bought something and passed the time of day with the first victim, if not the second as well.  You actually know the house -- yeah that house -- where the guy lives and took shelter in the basement until the cops talked him out.

(And yeah, they did talk him out.  It's the midwest.  Our special tactics teams don't like to call themselves SWAT: "We don't swat 'em, we rescue 'em!")

In the end, it wasn't much as active shooter incidents go.  It probably would have made the paper in a big city, not more than a line or two, anyway.  Through out most of it, we didn't feel personally in danger.  But things we knew and cared about were.

And no, I didn't get any writing done today.  Almost did after the guy surrendered, but then more information started trickling in, and you get notes from out of towners who want to know if everybody is okay, etc.

I did get some interesting thinking in, though.

Yeah, I'm a mystery writer.  We did a lot of speculating on what had happened, as fragmentary information trickled in at first.  And that part of the brain just naturally starts plotting.  What would drive a person to do that?  What if this rumor is true? What if this or that thing goes wrong?  How would you deal with it if he did show up in our back yard?

But you know, I think there is a lesson in here for cozy mystery writers.

Sometimes we like to think of our mysteries as all in good fun. And "safe."  We think of the cozy mystery as a place where evil is just a bogeyman, a paper tiger to be defeated and everything made nice again.  If you want reality, after all, you can read a hard-boiled novel or a police procedural.

But I think cozy mysteries have something more they can do.  They don't have to be just a bit of fluffy entertainment, and that's certainly not how Agatha Christie wrote them.

The cozy mystery can be exactly what happened today.  It's about reality from only a few degrees of separation.  You're not so close as to be traumatized, but not so far that you can possibly be impersonal about it.

Crime should touch you.

We can depict how life goes on. We can be funny. We can warp reality to feel safe.  We can make our characters heroic, and yes, make villains less complicated.  Because, after all, reality is more like we want it to be than we will ever believe.  People do their jobs.  They care about each other.  Cops really do want to keep the community safe and bring a crisis to a peaceable solution.

But I think it behooves us to remember that our stories aren't really about solving a puzzle. That's just the form.  Our stories are about surviving.  They aren't just about justice. They are also about the injustices that make justice necessary.

If anything, a mystery -- even a cozy mystery, or a comic crime story -- is more about the crime than the solution.  It's about injustice and tragedy (and yes, sometimes even the tragedy of what drove the killer to it) because those things are why we need a solution.  That's what drives our heroes to act.

And just.... remember that the characters, whether it's the victims or the killers or the witnesses or the sleuths, are people.  Take it personally.

See you in the funny papers.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Good thoughts. I know that I too, as a writer in general, but even more as a mystery reader and writer, find my mind applying those questions to any interesting situation in real life: "Why? How? Is it really what it seems..?"

And I'm a bit ambivalent about the term "cozy," too. On the one hand, it's a handy code-word that lets the reader know they don't have to worry about blood and guts and profanity in your books; and only in that sense does it apply to Golden Age mysteries. But if you strike any kind of a serious note in a story, as Christie & Co. often did, "cozy" doesn't always feel like the right word anymore. Defining it as a mystery that strikes close to home is a really interesting idea.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I like this: "But I think it behooves us to remember that our stories aren't really about solving a puzzle. That's just the form. Our stories are about surviving. They aren't just about justice. They are also about the injustices that make justice necessary."

Well said.

The Daring Novelist said...

Elizabeth -- ironically, "Cozy" used to be synonymous with "Thriller." Although it was mostly a term to separate it from "Hard-boiled" and "police procedural."

I'd like to take back the term, since it really is about stepping back from reality to a safe distance, not about denying reality. It's about how you feel on a stormy night, wrapped in a cozy blanket, reading a good book.
(Wrote about that here: http://daringnovelist.blogspot.com/2012/12/what-cozy-mystery-means-to-me.html )

I don't mind using another term (traditional mystery). It's just that's the one we've used for so long. It means something to us.

Jacqueline: Thank you!

chacha1 said...

I associate the term "cozy" with a mystery set in a small town, generally with a female protogonist, with all violence safely offstage and probably a plot moppet and/or a pet.

When there is a male protagonist, he tends to be neuter. In other words, a male completely devoid of sexuality. (Likewise a female may be "in a relationship" or dating but the emotional resonance will typically approximate that of a 15-yr-old.)

This impression was formed some time ago, and the genre may have moved on or diverged. As you can imagine, with the above-stated biases, I don't gravitate to "cozies." :-)

All that random babbling aside, I think that it is important for a mystery, *particularly* a murder mystery - cozy or not - to own up to the fact that there are consequences. There are ripples. People are hurt, and they stay hurt. There is no person who can be killed, especially in a small town, without other people feeling the effects. In my observation, there is a too-facile lack of pain in the modern "cozy."

The Daring Novelist said...

Yeah the meaning you describe was first use as a perjorative (before it was an actual definition of the genre) but the genre really narrowed (and don't mean just cozy mysteries, but all mysteries other than thrillers) during a publishing shake out in the 1980s and 90s.

The genre shrank, and we lost a lot of variety. It has been coming back, but because the word "cozy" has been applied to a narrow stripe of what it used to be applied to, people are casting about for new words.

I think "traditional mystery" is more commonly used now.