AS CRIME WRITERS, ARE WE ENTERTAINING OUR READERS OR EDUCATING FUTURE KILLERS?

With all the information available today via the Internet, TV shows, textbooks, etc., concerning all aspects of forensics, it assists those of us who write crime to make our fiction stories ring true.  The characters, events, and possibly even the locations might be fictitious, but our killer's actions/reactions, and the processes of the investigators, courts and so on are taken from real life.  I do believe it is necessary to do whatever research is necessary to accurately depict all those elements since writers aren't the only ones watching the shows and reading the reference books--our readers do as well.

 

The other day I was watching one of those documentaries about a killer who, during an interview, stated that he based a lot of his methods of torture on a mystery book he had read.  He also had avoided capture for quite some time due to another book, also fiction, that went into great detail about how the use of forensics had caught the killer in the novel.  Now, this killer did not say that the books he read actually caused him to kill; he was not trying to place any blame on the writers.  But he did say that the books were very helpful to him during his 'career' as a murderer.  This man had a library card that he had used on a regular basis, all for true and fictional crime novels.  While he attributed no causal effect to the books, he did state that the information in them made him a better killer.  I guess he forgot to read the chapter about getting caught...

 

Anyway, my point being, have you ever wondered what your readers are actually getting out of your work?  I know we don't 'cause' people to do anything.  People 'do' whatever by their own choice.  But, the more advanced crime solving becomes, the more information we provide in our stories, the more entertaining they are to potential readers.  But, who are those readers?  Are they businessmen sitting on a plane on their way to close a big merger, or are they those teetering on the edge of becoming serial murderers trying to find out just how effective recovery of DNA from certain surfaces can be?

 

I'm not trying to suggest feeling any kind of guilt here.  My stories are hard, dark and violent, and I write only to entertain, as do we all.  I'm just curious if any of you have ever wondered what effects your stories have and who it is they possibly are affecting.

 

 

 

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Well, that should get some responses.  I don't do the sorts of books that ratchet up the shock value or heap on the forensic science discoveries, however, I think that most authors handle that sort of thing responsibly.  Yes, I expect warped minds will learn new ways of tormenting and killing, but such people would act out on their instincts regardless of the books they read.

What troubles me more is that the increase of especially shocking crimes in the media will harden people to the point where they come to accept such things as normal events, possibly even making excuses for the perpetrators.  A troubled childhood, or the fact that a killer loves his mother and small animals, does not excuse his actions.

I do agree, IJ.  In spite of the numerous criminals who have claimed to base their actions on books they've read and movies and TV shows they've seen, I have never believed any of those had any causal effect.  People are going to do what they're going to do regardless.  They may convince themselves and try to convince courts that they are not to blame, but it is not the writer who committed the crime--it is the individual.  Writers too, do not encourage or challenge readers to 'try out' events they've written about.  Most authors, as you say, write responsibly, even when it comes to crime.

Unfortunately, brutality and death have found an acceptable place in our living rooms.  Every week, there's another crime show's premier.  If they had no following, they'd have been pulled long ago.  While they are interesting (I watch most of them), there are individuals who do utilize the information in them to mount their defense.  It's like 'well, never getting hugs from his mommy got so and so off, maybe I'll try that one'.  That is beyond tragic.  They have only themselves, and not the content of any book or newspaper, to blame for their actions.

"I write only to entertain, as do we all."

I think this is worth talking about. I grew up believing that literature had more purpose than just to entertain. I know that's out of fashion these days, but I'm old fashioned ;).

Everything we put in a story is a choice we make, so how do we make those choices?

 

 

John, I put this discussion up on LinkedIn in the Crime Fiction Group, but I added a comment there to clarify my use of the word 'entertain'.  I believe that was a poor choice on my part.  I did not mean entertain as in a giggly good time or anything remotely like that.  I used it only to contrast with 'educate'.

I'm so glad you pointed this out because you are correct.  There is a greater purpose to literature than simply to literally 'entertain'.  Writers create different types of material for different purposes.  I believe that part of the writer goes into whatever we write and deliberately so.  I'd like to explore your points further.  Stories don't write themselves.  We consciously choose our characters' personalities, good points, flaws, details of their crimes.  We choose the same for our victims.  How do we make those choices?  Are they based on those we know, those we wish we knew, or on what's inside?

For me what makes good writing is really only one thing - insight. You tell a story because you have to something to say, right? Something you think no one else is saying. Isn't that one of the first pieces of advice we get, "Write the book you want to read."

of course, I like good entertainment, too, even entertainment with no insight (or very little beyond the obvious). There was a TV show on this year about a mother searching for her abducted son and the tagline was something like, "How far will she go?" Or, "How far would you go?" Something like that, and I thought, no one in the world searching for their abducted child would ever say, "Okay, that's it, I've gone as far as I'm going, I'm stopping here." The show may have been very entertaining, but I worried about its insights into mothers ;).

 

I don't know, John--I tell a story because I like telling stories.  I don't think I have a particular message or agenda in mind other than that.  Obviously I have opinions and a particular point of view that get into the work sometimes, but I don't write novels to express them--they just pop out of the characters' mouths from time to time.  I want to entertain, but I also want to tell a story that's worth telling, and engage with characters that seem worth following around.  Mostly I'm trying to entertain myself--if other people like it, great!  If it makes money, even better!

Jon, Well put.  There are no morals to my stories or underlying messages.  I write them because they are interesting to me and hopefully, interesting as well to those who read them.  No one ever said to me to write what I would like to read.  I was always told, and taught, to write what I know.  Of course, I don't write about serial killers from personal experience, but bits and pieces of characters and events all come from the writer.  I think that's why we enjoy our own work (once we feel it actually reaches readable level).  I am able to relate to my characters in various ways, and I want my readers to do the same.  Like you said, if there's a paycheck involved, super.  But I write because I enjoy the creation of characters, their lives, their deeds, etc.  That entertains me.

John, Interesting points.  I have read some crime fiction stories/novels that went so deeply into motivation and the psychology of it all, that it read more like a true crime story.  Quite obviously between the lines, were judgments on the actions and reactions of those involved.  Thing is, these morality calls did not come from any of the characters.  They were totally attributable to the writer.  I haven't seen that too often, but I will tell you, it made reading the story quite the uncomfortable process.  It felt like I was being preached to, and not just able to read, and enjoy, a story.  Which is not to say that the writers' beliefs and so on have no place in their stories.  Part of us needs to come through in what we write.  But we have to be careful.  The writer will always have their own perceptions about what is being written, but we must always allow the reader to have theirs as well.  We create and deliver; the reader absorbs and interprets--each in their own way.

One of the most interesting examples of what you're pointing out happened in 1961.  Two men, father and son, named Beardon hijacked a 707 over Phoenix.  The plane landed in El Paso, Texas for fuel.  FBI agents swooped in and shot out the tires on the plane to prevent it from taking off.  Over several hours, they persuaded the two to give up.  Later, Cody Beardon said they got the idea from an episode of the Twilight Zone.  

I was 16 at the time.  Along with several friends, I sat on a wall outside the airport and watched it all. 

I think that once in a while a criminal will use something he/she has read or seen.  It is a conundrum and I don't have an answer.  But I will write on.

Brian, One can never tell what triggers the commission of a particular crime in the offender's mind.  But I have never believed a book, newspaper article or TV show 'causes' anything.  Those may have provided suggestions to the criminals as to how to commit a particular crime, but truly, they were already looking for ways to rob that store, or kidnap that wealthy individual.  The fact that they read about or watched it in a movie provides them with a ready scapegoat, and believe me, come trial day, they will use that to deflect responsibility from themselves.

No one can predict how anyone will act, or react to something they've seen, heard or read.  If that were possible, we'd have no crime at all.  Just don't give criminals any ideas for any crimes.  And yes.  That is as ridiculous a statement as it sounds.  We write, readers read, criminals commit crimes, life goes on.  Is one related to the other?  Who can say...  I'm with you on your response.  I 'write on' as well.

I think the reverse is also true.  Much of my inspiration comes from actual events.  The age old question returns: Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?

I'll go with the answer that makes it clear that we make choices. 

I'm not sure that violence should ever be entertaining, or used in order to entertain.  But it's certainly clear that it has enormous appetite for some people. In pre-history, there were human sacrifices.  The Romans staged that sort of thing with gladiators and wild beasts.  It was one the least civilized things they did.  In the Middle Ages and after, they invited audiences to executions.  They thought it would have the beneficial effect of discouraging crime.  Perhaps the excessive amount of violence, torture, and gore in our current reading is a sign that we no longer have the publicly staged events.

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