On another discussion board, in respons to Tom Piccirili's question abour morally ambiguous protagonists, Ray Banks said:

I bloody love morally ambiguous protags, and wish they were the norm for "crime fiction", seeing as questions of morality (on whatever scale) should well be the genre's chief remit.

Last week I was on a couple of panels and a few (quote a few) of the other writers said that the greatest strength of mystery novels was that murderers were caught, justice was served and order was restored. the reader could feel a little better about the world in the end.

Ray's point about the genre's, "chief remit" being questions of morality, got me to thinking, does the genre spend too much time on the answers and not enough on the questions?

Most really good books, from whatever genre, more often than not leave the reader unsettled and not feeling much better about the world.

Or do they?

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You do have some great questions, John.
I feel very ambivalent about this issue. I think we have a responsibility not to corrupt by glorifying vicious behavior. On the other hand, in real life, the guilty aren't always punished and the victims aren't helped. Crime novels should be realistic, or at least believable.
As to characters: I prefer important characters to be round in the sense that they are neither perfect nor utterly vicious. I've noticed that thrillers frequently deal in villains who are so depraved that we wish them killed, but I suspect that such people exist in society. Still, I don't like amoral heroes. They offend my sense of ethical values. Saintly ones are merely uninteresting.
I have a problem with crime fiction that mostly makes us feel good about ourselves. Justice is triumphant, the bad guys are monsters who deserve no quarter, and the heroes are all above average. Oh, and The System work really well because good guys win. I prefer crime fiction that makes us feel as if we have a slightly better grasp of the complexities in life and that make us think about our own moral choices and the challenges we face as a society. And that involves having both villains and heroes who are human. I don't especially want to feel worse about the world we live in - but I don't want to patronized. And I happen to think the world we live in is actually quite interesting and can be the stuff of entertaining stories without turning it into a fairy tale.

The amoral heroes that I.J. mentions are sometimes the flip side of the feel-good book. Doing violence is a game, and it's all just an ironic gamble, winner take all. I find that as uninteresting as the black and white justice-prevails-in-the-end scenario.

Good question.
You make a good point about really good books (and movies, I find) leaving people feeling unsettled. I usually think of it as unfinished - not so obviously as to scream "sequel" but enough so that you feel that there are real lives involved, lives that started before we "intruded" and that will go on long after we "exit" the book. And, those lives shouldn't feel too perfect.

I think that while it has been somewhat of a requirement that the villains are caught in mysteries, there certainly have been some who have managed to hang on for more than one book. It would really be unsatisfying if that were the norm - as much as it is reality, some of the reason we read and write these books is for some kind of escape from reality (no matter all the research we do to make sure our books are believable). But I absolutely agree that the books that I like best leave me feeling something beyond just yay, this was a nice story with all the loose ends tied up. There has to be a sense that the story goes on beyond the last page of the book. I don't need to get this from every book, by the way - many cozies don't do this at all and while they're not my favorite I do enjoy them - but I get more personally & emotionally involved with books that do give me that feeling.
I believe the best main characters are those like the great Travis McGee, who are flawed but still live by a moral code. Stories that deal with important issues and morally ambiguous questions are far more interesting. I think most readers want to see "justice" in the end but that doesn't mean everything has to be completely settled. I agree with I.J. that amoral and saintly heroes are uninteresting. I've quit reading "thrillers" and books with serial killers where the villains are so off-the-wall that they're almost laughable. It seems that many crime authors today are apparently competing to see who can create the most depraved and disgusting villain.
I think a writer's main job is to write a good book. If that good book brings a criminal to justice, so be it. If it reflects what often happens in real life, a criminal gets away with something, okay too. The main thing is that good novels make us believe in the inevitability of either scenario.
I think the protagonist can be any number of things, from Chandler's hero to Connolly's troubled Parker to whatever depth the author imagines, so long as the reader can have empathy for him or her. One thing Chandler said has remained true through today: in such a story, the hero is everything. It doesn't work without him, or someone the audience can associate with as a protagonist.

Endings work best when the crime is solved, but the ending acknowledges not everything can be put right. The dead are still dead; other lives will not be the same. The hero may be further damaged, or tainted. There should still be some kind of closure.
As much as I love the older stories where the heroes wore white hats and the villains wore black (or curled their mustaches while tying the heroine to the tracks), they never did portray people as human beings, a mix of vice and virtue, selflessness and selfishness. The best stories, I think, are about ordinary people, with their flaws and imperfections, cast into extraordinary circumstances, struggling against obstacles, external and internal, and reaching a conclusion that is, in some sense, satisfying. This doesn't have to be a happily-ever-after ending, but it should offer some hint of a struggle well-met.

Or so it seems to me.
Like Ray, I love morally ambiguous protagonists. But what I look for mostly is a really good book. I like some sort of resolution at the end of the book, but it doesn't need to be of the 'hero solves crime, villain gets arrested, hero rides off into the sunset, all's right with the world' variety. It needs to be whatever suits the story. A book that leaves me feeling unsettled (Steve Mosby's CRY FOR HELP being a recent example - a brilliant book, really well written, very chilling) is great because it means I have been made to think about things I perhaps normally take for granted. Equally, a book which ties everything up in a nice bow can be just as satisfying. As long as it feels right, it's OK by me.
Put me on the side of the morally ambiguous and increasingly disinterested in the "justice restored" for the sake of making everyone feel better about the world. I like my fiction to take me places, and make me think. I like being somewhat unsettled by what I read - it stays with me for much much longer.
Hey John...Funny you ask this question because that was one of the main issues I dealt with in writing my novel Justice is Coming. The whole point of the story was to say that sometimes, the system can't get the job done and one has to go outside of the system to find justice (especially when dealing with a rich antagonist). Part of the problem is that the protagonist discovers who the murderer is for the crime he is charged in. In an unsual twist, he marries her (long story trust me) and he has to wrestle whith himself to get right with that. I struggled with how readers would take to that, but they appear to have had no problem with it as laid out. I made sure that this underlying psychological plot was secondary to the action and main plot of the story. It was part of the growth the protagonist experienced as he went through the story. Hope that helps.
Why is it that it's always the rich who are public enemy # 1 in crime novels? It's extremely rare to encounter a villain who is poor, unemployed, uneducated, or already involved in some sort of criminal activity. True, white-collar crime is more common among the upper classes, but violence is far more frequent among the lower classes. I suppose showing this in a novel is not P.C. I used to get extremely frustrated with Rankin because he would always predictably pin the crimes on the local big wig. We love to hate those who are better off than we are.
I also wonder why we accept so easily in mystery fiction the idea that "anyone" could be a murderer - everyone's a suspect, and often all have motives. What kind of villages do these people live in?

Rankin has his Big Ger Cafferty, his villian from the lower classes. Have to decide for yourself if Cafferty is evil or not.

It's true, a lot of crime novels excuse a lot of criminal behaviour based on class.

I guess Robin Hood and the Sherrif of Nottingham are still working as archetypes.


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