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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The simple answer to the practical part of your question is no. Yes, perhaps a few people who for whatever reason feel the need to commit serious crimes use novels as textbooks. Perhaps, if they picked an author who happened to have done really conscientious research, the information about police procedure in the book was so precise that it helped them avoid capture. Though applying Sturgeon's Law (90% of books in any given genre are crap), they were far more likely to have picked a story in which the author saved time by writing more or less what he'd read somewhere else, and filling in the gaps with his imagination - not a good basis for planning a real crime that will baffle real cops!

However, let's assume that the author is a true craftsman who has done his homework, and his novel could literally be used as a blueprint for murder. Was he irresponsible to write it? Well, hang on a minute - how did he find out all this information? (I'm assuming for the sake of argument that he hasn't actually murdered anyone.) If I can find out the precise details of how police procedure works just so I can write some probably crappy thriller, I can also find out the same information with a view to killing somebody and not getting caught. And if anyone gets suspicious, I can say I'm writing a novel. It's true that if somebody else has already written such a novel it'll save me a bit of time. But at a guess, I would say that anyone who intends to commit murder or any other major crime is even more dedicated than the average novelist, and having to ferret out a few textbooks isn't going to stop him.

As for the influence of the media, here's something to consider. Victorian England had some of the tightest censorship laws ever, and although it's a myth that the VIctorians considered bare legs so shocking that they put skirts on tables (they did, but not for that reason - they just thought it looked pretty), any direct mention of sex whatsoever was utterly taboo. Yet seething just under the surface were staggeringly horrific levels of sexual exploitation, children included. Pretending that human beings do not have certain tendencies which sometimes have unfortunate consequences never, ever makes them go away. Indeed, in the case of the Victorians, flatly refusing to admit that elements of human nature they found shocking even existed just allowed them to run rampant.

The supreme irony was that in order for enough people to realize that this sort of thing was going on to persuade the government to address the social issues that had driven the lower classes to that level of degradation in the first place, one courageous social reformer had to do something so dramatic that nobody could possibly ignore it. Unfortunately his name happened to be Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, there's been this debate throughout history. Are you familiar with the Classical Greek theory of catharsis? The basic idea was that if people experienced, in a fictional context, the most extreme negative emotions possible, they'd harmlessly get them out of their system. Of course, they didn't have movies, but their tragic plays were specifically designed to draw the audience in as much as possible and give them a truly intense experience. Look at Oedipus Rex - our hero murders his father, impregnates his mother, and then, on finding out that he has accidentally done both of these things, gouges out his own eyes! If Sophocles was alive today, what kind of movies do you think he'd be making?

The fact is, people have always gotten something out watching, reading, or otherwise vicariously experiencing Very Bad Things, even though very few people seriously enjoy the idea of doing those things for real. There may be a biological basis for it. Almost all fairly intelligent animals will of course run from anything in their immediate vicinity which is obviously a potential threat. But if something which may be a threat occurs a long way off, they'll tend to move towards it, because in survival terms it makes more sense to check out something which may or may not be dangerous the moment you perceive it, than to ignore it and maybe give it time to creep up on you.

So we've all got a very basic instinct to check out ambiguously semi-threatening things like movies that are probably going to alarm us, but which we know are just movies. Or read stories about terrible people doing terrible things, the more realistic the better - just so long as they aren't happening right here, right now, to us. And then, once we've investigated the pseudo-threat and found it to be harmless, we're rewarded by feeling oddly good - it's all pure Darwin! I mean, have you read the works of the Marquis de Sade? In particular, The 120 Days Of Sodom? There are things in that book - and in a great deal of his other writing - which absolutely nobody remotely sane (including himself) would remotely contemplate actually doing for real, and for fun. Yet these books were incredibly popular at the time.

Basically, yes, it's conceivable that if I were to hypothetically write an exceptionally brilliant crime novel in which a fez-wearing maniac slaughters multiple blondes, some nutjob out there might feel moved to emulate my book and do that thing. Is that my fault? No, of course not! Because if that guy did something that extreme just because he read a work of fiction, he was so close to the edge that he would have done it anyway. Only if I hadn't written that book, he wouldn't have worn a fez while doing it.

Consider Charles Manson. He blamed everything he did on the Beatles. Why? Because their White Album was full of messages aimed specifically at him, notably the track "Helter Skelter", which was all about the necessity to start a race war by murdering random rich white people and blaming it on the blacks. (Note for American readers: dear old Charlie Manson, unlike the Beatles, did not speak UK English, therefore he had no idea that "helter skelter" is an actual word. It is in fact the fairground attraction that I believe you Americans call a tilt-a-whirl.)

Should the White Album be banned in case some other maniac kills whoever Roman Polanski's current paramour happens to be because the CD somehow told them to? Obviously not. Not one single line on the entire double album suggests that the Beatles want anyone to kill anyone else for any reason at all. Maniacs will always find an inspiration, and if you hadn't written that gritty crime novel that just happened to suit their taste in hats, they would have been staring at a Frosties packet while Tony the Tiger told them who needed to die.

I rest my case.

:)  A very learned and thoughtful comment.

 

I think perhaps the point is whether a writer is purely interested in the shock therapy or if he has something more worthwhile to deliver.  The best writers manage to engage readers from all levels of humanity.

Some very thoughtful responses in this thread, it's been a treat to read them.

My view: I don't think anyone has ever gone from Johnny Law-Abider to full-blown criminal only because they read a book. There's way more going on than his/her reading choices.

If you really want to find a book that has inspired heinous acts, look no further than our pal religion. Even then, I think you have to be messed up in the first place. Religious texts just help you sleep at night.

There is far more of a tangible link with television and anti-social activity - a lot of sociologists will talk about it feeding people with concepts they themselves can never realise. From TV appears a model of behaviour you can mimic from the way people dress through to the things they say - this only happens from books if they make it onto primetime TV - and prime time tends to mean pre-watershed except for Sunday.

If I may add a further level to this discussion, I think that what really matters here, and what should be the main concern for any authors worried about the effect their books may have on people, is not the level of violence per se, but whether it's portrayed as cool. One of the concerns that has been raised about video games is that they de-sensitize children to violence by including relentless increasingly realistic acts of violence perpetrated by the central character. But what we're talking about there is the same thing repeated over and over again against an extraordinary number of times, which will have an effect on just about anyone. Also, the dehumanization of the victims may give cause for concern. Nobody is the slightest bit bothered if a million poorly-rendered Space Invaders get blown up, but if endless parades of realistic human beings get graphically torn to bits, maybe the wrong message is being delivered.

Every repressive regime in history, notably the Nazis, made a big thing about portraying their enemies as less than human, and therefore OK to kill because it wasn't really murder. The word "barbarian" derives from the Roman belief that the Goths were so subhuman that they couldn't even talk, and just barked like dogs in a futile attempt to emulate human conversation. That being the case, a responsible crime-writer who is genuinely concerned about making the world a slightly worse place has to follow one simple rule. Don't de-humanize! Bad crime-writing sometimes makes the mistake of portraying the villain as a Neitzschean supermen beyond good and evil (by the way, those of you who recognize my avatar should be aware that my choice of Fantômas was whimsically ironic - I have not killed several thousand people, nor am I likely to).

The bizarre evolution of Hannibal Lecter is a case in point. Consider the first movie version of Red Dragon. Hannibal, played very well by Brian Cox, is an utterly repellent character who is neither infallible nor in any way cool. The hero is terrified that his ability to think like a serial killer makes him as bad as they are. And even the main villain is clearly portrayed as a horribly twisted man who is sick at heart at what he does, and at the very end shows a flicker of human kindness, ironically just in time to get killed at the moment when he probably would have surrendered.

Moving on a few years, Hannibal is an incredibly cool godlike genius who is basically allowed to kill anyone at all in hideously sadistic ways because he has good taste in food and art, and a very high IQ. As it happens, my own IQ is very high. But I don't consider that an adequate reason to pop round to your house and eat your brain while you're still alive because you have poor taste in sofas or something. In fact, I would tend to consider that a very low-IQ activity indeed. But you can see how the focus has shifted from: "psychopathic serial killers are deeply undesirable people who need to be shot or locked up forever" to "I can do anything I want to anybody and how cool is that?"

Check out the early episodes of Deadwood. Ian McShane gives an extraordinary performance as Al Swearingen, an utterly ruthless character who can do anything he wants to pretty much anyone. But would anybody in their right mind actually want to be that guy? That's responsible writing - that guy can get away with things that you almost certaibly couldn't, but it's never, ever portrayed as a reason to think he's cool. Of course, I've talked about movies and TV shows and this forum is supposed to be about prose. But how about The Maltese Falcon? Those are all fascinating characters, and many of them do terrible things, but would anyone halfway sane want to be any of them, except possibly Sam Spade?

So there you have it. A well-written criminal is automatically not somebody a reader will have the slightest desire to take lessons from unless they would have done it anyway (an exception might be made for a good man doing bad things for a very good reason - but that's a bit different from "girls with red hair need to get murdered because Bob Dylan records keep telling me to - especially 'Tangled Up In Blue'. which is totally about red-haired girls having their throats cut if you listen to it backwards"). I mean, the Son of Sam killed people because his neighbor's dog told him to! That's not only absurd, it's so utterly pathetic that you'd feel guilty for laughing at the guy if he hadn't actually killed people.

I am not a serial killer (honest!) but I have personally known three clinical psychopaths, two of whom were capable of random acts of extreme violence for no reason at all (I didn't spend much time with those two - there's a reason for that). One of them, at the age of about 12, somehow obtained a stick of dynamite. Just to see what it would do, he locked his little brother in a concrete World War II bunker and popped the dynamite in through the window. Fortunately his brother survived, though his entire back was hideously scarred for life.

Incidentally, he was so traumatized that he became a Hell's Angel in a desperate attempt to make himself almost as scary as his brother. He went around calling himself Chopper because he had allegedly cut off some guy's hands with a machete. Unfortunately, everybody else in the gang called him Chicken George, which throws the machete incident into considerable doubt. He once tried to sell me a machine-gun because he had been obliged to buy it or look like a wimp, but he was blatantly terrified to have the thing in the house. I politely but firmly explained that I did not in fact need an illegal machine-gun for any reason whatsoever, and I wasn't even going to touch it because the police know about things like fingerprints. At this point, somebody else in the same room tried to sell me - I kid you not! - a carrier bag full of napalm which he just happened to have. I made my excuses and left.

Of course, Chicken George's terrible brother then ruined everything by joining the gang too. Shortly afterwards, so did his mum, because the entire chapter of Hell's Angels were too scared of him to point out that this was intrinsically stupid.

As for the other chap, one day a friend of his who happened to be visiting him on a cold day casually put on a cheap wooly hat worth maybe a buck as he was leaving. Unfortunately it also happened to be our hero's favorite hat. Several weeks later, he met the fellow in a crowded pub. He instantly pulled out a hammer which he normally carried just in case he needed to seriously hurt somebody, and smashed every single one of his teeth. Of course, nobody did anything, because if you're in the same room as somebody that crazy, you turn your back and pretend it isn't happening. After all, you don't want to die. However, both of these madmen had oddly pitiful moments when they wanted people to like them and tried to be nice. And they could never pull it off because they were copying the niceness they'd seen in other people without understanding the concept at all.

Now, if you accurately portray somebody like that, you can be as horrendously explicit as you wish, without running the slightest risk that anyone who isn't them in the first place is going to emulate them. You can even make them into strangely sympathetic villains, because it's obvious that they can't help being as bad as they are, and that makes them pitiful. But unless you're an utterly talentless writer or genuinely in love with your bad guys, there won't be anything in your book that will make your readers worse people than they already were. And if you choose not to portray extreme psychopaths as really cool guys (which real ones tend not to be), maybe you've made the world a marginally better place.

Oh, by the way, the people I have described in this post are all real, and I have not made anything up, so it's all in the public domain. I assume they're still alive (though if they're not it would surprise me very little), so if anyone feels like using them for fictional purposes, go right ahead. I won't tell them where you live.

Another very good blog on the subject.  I agree on all points.  But not all writers are responsible.  And to them, portraying violence as a thrill overrules making the "hero" insane, pathetic, or unlikeable.  Many a serial killer has been portrayed as likeable, and the excuse is invariably that he is a "round" character.

 

As for dehumanized victims:  That started with Christie et al.  In every Christie novel you can predict the victim(s) because nobody likes that person and he/she contributes nothing.  Victims are always dispensable in traditional mysteries.

 

I just finished a novel about a swordfighter.  Both the profession and the culture assume extreme and repeated violence, yet the man is my protagonist.  It wasn't easy to handle the subject responsibly.

 

 As usual, first the cigarette smoked appeared magically in the air, then the sound of an ice cube tinkling in a glass. CC Diehl, or at least his ghost appeared. For you folks who don't know, Diehl was Seattle PD's best detective back when. Big, handsome lug and a lot smarter than he acted.

“How ya doin', Zippy,” he said and took a sip of his whiskey. Over the weeks that he'd been helping me with my writing, I'd noticed that no matter how much he drank, he never got drunk, and no matter how much he smoked, he never coughed. Maybe that's one of the perks of being a ghost.

“I'm thinking over some stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?” He took a deep draw on his Chesterfield cigarette. He checked the block of his fedora then placed it on the couch.

“One of the few blogs I really like is having a long discussion on whether or not we crime writers contribute to the violence in society by writing about it. It really made me think. You know, are we inspiring bad guys to commit ever more heinous crimes? By making bad guys, like serial killers attractive people, do we make the young and the impressionable change from normal people to a life of crime?”

“Christ, Zippy. You make life too hard. Back in my day, there were good guys and bad guys. The bootleggers and the mobsters were the bad guys and we cops were the good guys.”

“Yeah, but Diehl that was back in the 1920's and 1930's. Things are a lot more difficult these days with the internet and the 24 news cycle and video games and the economy.”

He didn't say anything for a while, just smoked and drank. I think he was mulling over what I'd said.

His whiskey glass filled itself again and I don't know how. “Zippy, you folks in this day and age want to take personal responsibility for all the ills of the world. I know your heart is in the right place, but taking responsibility for something you aren't responsible for, is hubris. Think about it for a minute. According to that profane box you call a television, there are maybe 300 to 350 serial killers loose in America. There are 315 million Americans. I don't know the math but that isn't a big percentage. So you write this book and maybe 10,000 people buy it and read it. How many are mushed-headed enough to turn into serial killers? See what I mean?”

“But Diehl. It isn't just my book. It's thousands like it all pounding the same point: solve your problems with violence and murder.”

“Isn't it also giving the opposite message, that someone, a cop, should put their life on the line to stop monsters like that?”

“I suppose.”

“I suppose,” he mocked. “Zippy, you and people like you are too self absorbed. Write the books you need to write. You can't control what other people do. Besides, there are other, more important reasons criminals are criminals.”

“Like what?”

“Back in my day, you killed someone, you got the chair. Nowadays, some slick lawyer gets a killer off everyday, because we need to understand them. What it does is take away to consequences for you actions. Remember that chick from Florida who killed her own kid? Because the jury didn't have the balls to do the right thing, that broad is walking free. Free to have another kid. You think her lawyer feels remorse? Hah. So they blamed the grandparents who had a swimming pool in the back yard. Suddenly, murdering her kid wasn't her fault. It was someone else, her father. I'm bettin' the worst thing that poor bastard ever did was wear lime green socks.

"You people have become bunch of weak sisters. When people are criminals or just assholes, they need to suffer the consequences. How else are they going to learn that being an asshole isn't a good thing. Why are you cheating them out of a valuable life lesson. Why, because you people can't give up your own sense that with your guidance, these dumb fools can live the peaceful life you think they should. Hubris, Zippy, nothing but hubris. You write your stories and let other people live their own lives.”

I thought about what he said. “Hey, Diehl. If I think up some gruesome plot, and a killer copies it, don't I bear some responsibility?”

He leaned forward and subbed out his cigarette in a ghost ash tray. “Did you give him permission? Did you talk it over with him before he copied you?”

“No.”

“Haven't you got enough to worry about already without making up problems that don't exist?”

“I suppose.”

“Zippy, think about this. What is the one thing you struggle with?”

“Grammar.”

“No. Creativity. The idea. The plot. Working a story in a way others have never done. And now you want to put some arbitrary cap on what you write and what you won't all because you might influence some mythical person to do bad? What is it you folks call it? Yeah, political correctness. I'll name it with the phrase you used in your last short story, bovine excrement. In my day, we worried about morals. At least we had the good graces to believed we'd go to hell for doing bad things. All you worry about offending someone. It's that the purpose of art of writing, to wake people up, shock them awake?

"You worry about influencing a person to become a killer.  I didn't know you were that powerful, Zippy."

As usual, CC Diehl confused me. I was caught between taking responsibility for the bigger impact of my work and knowing that Diehl was probably right.

CC Diehl and the writer he calls Zippy routinely appear on my blog, The Pain and The Joy, HERE

Nice!

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