Thursday, January 13, 2011


More than just the facts

Earlier this week, David Cole, a dear friend and author who lives half the year in Tuscon, questioned whether, in the light of the real-life horror of the Tuscon mass murder, he should abandon the book he was writing. Somehow it felt cheap and exploitive to be writing about murder as entertainment.

I remember having a similar thought after Sept. 11. How could I continue to invent suffering and death, how could I write about the anguish of survivors and families, when so many people were living a tragedy far worse than I could imagine? In fifteen catastrophic minutes, not only did thousands of people lose their lives and the two tallest buildings in New York collapse into dust, but the psyche of the American people was slashed to its core.

Six weeks later, I attended a conference of mystery writers and readers in Washington D.C., just across the river from the still-scarred Pentagon. Normally this conference is a raucous, boozy, fun-filled three days of talking with fellow mystery lovers about such things as the elements of a perfect crime. In November 2001, the mood was sombre, the talk cathartic and personal. People talked about their experiences, reactions and memories. Everyone was struggling to make sense of what had happened and to give voice to their feelings. Some found they couldn’t write at all, that their hearts weren’t in it or their concentration was shot. Some wrote poetry, others wrote almost free-style as emotions bled out. Many of us wondered whether we ever could, or should, write about death again. Not just death, but murder. Do we need to hold a mirror up to the blackest part of our soul, shine a light into the darkest, most primal cave?

Yes, we do.

We need to understand and face the worst that humanity can offer; we need to experience the rage, the fear, the pain and loss and to emerge at the end of it with some sense of victory. All from the safety of our armchairs. That sounds hokey, but crime fiction is often called the modern day morality play. It’s the mythical battle of good vs. evil and the quest for justice. Murder mysteries are not about murder and mayhem, they are about people struggling with death, facing fear, rage, hatred, loss, and pain. Whether they make us laugh at it, challenge our deductive powers, make us weep with shared sorrow, or scare the living daylights out of us, they all have that in common.

Few authors tackle such horrific tragedies as Sept. 11 or the Holocaust directly. Sometimes the pain is simply too raw, and sometimes the authors sense a fine line between dealing with a topic and exploiting the real suffering of victims and their families. Yet the power of fiction is that it doesn’t really matter. A mystery novel that explores trauma in wartime or disaster can touch people the world over, no matter what their trauma. The sense of shared experience, of being understood, is a powerful comfort. Fiction gets at emotional truth in a way that history texts and even biographies don’t. It is about people, not facts.

For the author as well, fiction can be a great catharsis. I usually write about issues and people that trouble me, and although I disguise the subject and the characters, I can plumb the depths of my frustrations and my concern. That’s the beauty of fiction. It’s a shared emotional experience, and along the way, I hope we all learn a little more about compassion and human need. A very good reason to keep on plotting murders on the page, I think.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have
won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, which explores love in all its complications, is hot off the press.


  1. Absolutely, Barbara. And writing the story gives us a chance to change the ending - to create the heroes who can make something positive of the events. Having said that it would be difficult to create characters more heroic than the people who brought down the Tucson shooter. I'm in awe of Patricia Maisch in particular, although she quietly and firmly maintains that grabbing his amunition cartridge was nothing out of the ordinary. Yikes.

  2. I agree. I'm not sure anyone knows how they will react, unless they're trained. Heroes are those people who do what needs to be done. Often they say they didn't even think.