It was a bizarre coincidence that I was reading Vince Zandri's Pathological crime fiction e-book the other night when I noticed this post by crime author/criminologist Jennifer Chase. Chase explains the differences, criminally speaking, between psychopaths and sociopaths.

 

These are two words that come up quite a bit in crime fiction, but as this recent post on Do Some Damage points out, there's little understanding of what those mental health conditions mean. I admit that I've faltered in this area myself, having portrayed both a psychopath and an addict in my crime thriller novel, Cleansing Eden: The Celebrity Murders, without doing a ton of research on either.

 

With how hard I am sometimes on inaccurate depictions of firearms and knives in crime fiction (I'm even writing a guide to crime fiction weapons for Writer's Digest) I run the risk of sounding hypocritical. Research is important, but I certainly cut some corners with Cleansing Eden. That's not really fair to the reader.

 

The crime fiction community is coming to the same conclusion. To quote the Do Some Damage post:

 

We read and write about mental health issues in very narrow terms in our field. It's a gimmick. An excuse. We want some death and some interesting mayhem, and a way to get there is with these impossible magical characters that we create, and then we throw in a suggestion of childhood trauma as if that is "paying the taxes" of examining cause and effect.

 

We like sociopaths as long as they serve plots, we like addicts as short-hand for failure, and people with extreme temper problems are good for sudden bursts of action. We like the moody protagonist with a fractured psyche. We like the killer who can live double lives. We like the self-loathing copper who is trying hard to self destruct.

 

Every writer is welcome to type outside the confines of reality - it is fiction, after all. But if the risk of inaccuracy isn't enough of a reason to re-examine these shortcuts, maybe the fact they've become cliche will be.

 

I'll do my part going forward. One of the characters in my next crime novel witnessed the gruesome death of a family member. This caused the character to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and a key piece of the novel's plot hinges on finding this person help to deal with that. That the character lives in a rural area complicates matters. Every trait is backed up by research.

 

Posts like the one from criminologist Jennifer Chase and on Do Some Damage are waking me up to mental health issues in crime fiction. Writers, are you experiencing the same thing? Readers, do these things even matter to you? Let me know in the comments.

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Well, I've only read one Maisie Dobbs so far, the first one,  and it isn't really a cozy, though I sort of expected it to be.  It is "period," that is, 1920s-30s, & the first novel has a large section about Maisie's past which takes place during WW I.  It isn't gory violent, but it does not shy from violence nor cover it up, and it certainly is never  tongue in cheek, not a "caper."   Maisie, who was from a working class family  (father a costermonger, mother dead) served as maid in a great house for a time, where she began her education under the tutelage of a mentor. She  suffered both personal injury and loss while working as a WW I nurse, events which formed her character.  I'm intrigued enough to try a couple more. I really do not like Val McDermid, and frankly I have had quite enough of that kind of ripper torture/murder.  So if Maisie Dobbs is Nancy Drew all grown up, that's fine with me!  I just need a little change from my Emily Dickinson studies. :)  (Though reading Helen Vendler is a revelation indeed, and one I am truly enjoying). 

I love Emily Dickinson.

I've been reading her poems for some time, but not always understanding them as well as I wanted to. On the recommendation of a poet friend, I finally bought Helen Vendler's Dickinson. There are 150 poems (as you know, a mere fraction of her output)  with a commentary on each one, and as I said, they are a "revelation" which has brought me to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the poems  and this amazing poet.  I've read one really fine  & extensive biography of Dickinson, but this book has revealed far more to me about her. I think it's OK to talk for a moment about Emily Dickinson on CrimeSpace, because she herself has always been a "mystery." :)  

From the reviews that I read, some readers are eager to psycho-analyze my protagonist, but I resist the idea that there's anything mentally wrong with her. As far as killing people goes, financial gain must be the purest motivation of all.

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