It all started with an interesting question, one I hadn’t thought about before, at an author panel I was on Saturday. One multi-hour ride later that featured an interior discussion that ranged from St. Ignatius to Stephen King, with a liberal dose of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I had a startling epiphany about my writing.
Now I’m going to share it with you.
Arlene Kay, Sharon Healy-Yang and I, all members of the Sisters in Crime New England Speakers Bureau, spoke Saturday at Marston Mills Public Library on Cape Cod about “Stealing from the Dead.” As always, these events gallop across all sorts of topics, and one of the questions we were asked was what we think of mysteries in which the villain isn’t brought to justice.
My immediate thought was legal justice, and my response was that books have to have it, or readers are dissatisfied. I know I’ve read books in which the killer gets away with it, and I can’t remember many that sold it so I was happy about it. I told the audience that the one I could think of where it worked perfectly wasn’t a mystery at all, To Kill a Mockingbird.
This would be a major spoiler alert, but the book has been out for more than 50 years, so deal: At the end of the book, Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell, who was attacking Jem and Scout with murderous intent. Atticus, the children’s father, thinks 13-year-old Jem is the one who killed Ewell, and immediately starts fussing over how it should be approached legally, and not covered up. The sheriff, Heck Tate, has a hell of a time, without coming right out and saying it, getting across to Atticus that it was Boo Radley, the town’s perceived boogeyman, who killed Ewell and there’s no way he’s going to charge him.
Atticus is just not getting it, so a frustrated Tate finally spells it out for him, telling him charging the reclusive Radley and bringing him out into the limelight would be a sin. “And I’m not about to have it on my head…Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”
Scout, of course, gets it, telling her father, “It’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockinbird, wouldn’t it?”
The ending pages of that book are some of my favorite in literature, with great moments that still give me chills, and much of that has to do with the pivot Scout’s understanding of Boo takes, and what it says about humans and what we mean to each other. [Yes, alert reader, I HAVE written about that before.]
At Saturday’s panel, fellow author Arlene Kay pointed out that while many in her own books don’t get legal justice, justice is served other ways and that’s the way she prefers it.
While driving home, I thought about that question and what it really meant for me as a writer, and realized that I’m more in Arlene’s camp that I thought I was. I thought about my To Kill a Mockingbird answer, and realized I was almost there, but missed my own point. Why did the killer not being brought to legal justice work in To Kill a Mockingbird? Duh, Maureen. Because a bigger justice trumped it.
One point of writing is to speak to bigger truths. Even mysteries. Books that just have a plot that everyone lumbers through until the clever sleuth says “Aha!” at the end and marches the bad guys off to jail are just not that interesting.
The truths in my books often have to do with how people relate and the damage they can do to each other — way more than just the damage of the actual murder at the heart of the mystery. While the bad guys get caught at the end (sorry, spoiler) and I presume almost always will, I’m not very interested in the trial or aftermath. Readers can assume legal justice gets served, I always figure. I rarely watch court procedurals, and when I watch true crime shows like 48 Hours Mystery and Dateline, once the guy is caught and the case goes to trial, all I care about is the verdict, not the legal wrangling.
Writers, at least this one, like to think about — shred, agonize over — the thematic elements of their books. Aside from the plot and the murders, what are we trying to SAY? Those truths I mentioned before. Mystery writers seek to make some order in their fictional worlds out of the reality we can find so frustrating and often painful. Thinking about the justice question from Saturday’s forum made me realize that the only role legal justice really plays in my books is as a vehicle for the bigger truths. That I don’t mean to create an ideal world — it’s a murder mystery, after all — but do seek to to make a world where there’s some understanding and a small amount of justice for those who don’t normally get it.
I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic elementary school and a Jesuit college. While the whole religion thing didn’t take with me, some of the lessons did and became part of my moral fabric. Not because of their relation to god, but because of their relation to humans living together on earth.
I don’t remember a big emphasis at my Catholic schools on “an eye for an eye.” I’ve never been interested in reading or writing books with revenge justice or vigilante justice. I don’t ever remember being taught in school or at home that that kind of justice is, well, justified. In fact, a New Hampshire case of vigilante justice angered me so much, it formed the core of Cold Hard News.
St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, always interested me on an intellectual and emotional level. He supported a faith of compassion and believed god and faith were best served by helping those in need. Even the least and most “undeserving” should be helped, and often they were the ones who needed it most, he believed, with friendship and love, without judgment, but with understanding.
Not to go all religious here — my writing, like me, is about as secular as it it can be. But on that long ride home, thinking about justice and how I deal with it in my writing, I realized that it’s always been important to me to give a voice to the misunderstood, to knock down social convention about who is good and who isn’t. Come to think of it, I may owe some of that to Stephen King, too. One of the things that first drew me to King’s writing and keeps me coming back is his empathy for the misfit and misunderstood. Hasn’t everyone at some point been Carrie? Not that extreme, of course, but that character comes out of a deep feeling that people who don’t deserve it can be seriously damaged by the wrongs done by the smug “cool kids” of the world.
I know that when I wrote my first mystery novel, Cold Hard News, as well as the second, No News is Bad News, I wanted to approach it from the point of view of the people who get kicked around a lot, rather than the ones who get to do the kicking. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision, as an approach I felt compelled to take.
I considered the end of To Kill a Mockingbird as I drove home Saturday, that it’s ultimately a book about two justices: real, human justice versus legal justice. An innocent black man dies after being horribly wronged by the legal system. Human justice also fails him — the few who stick up for him are vilified. But in the end, an innocent white man, judged poorly by his community, gets the justice he needs by compassionate people who recognize it and protect him.
That human justice doesn’t triumph so much, but becomes part of the world view of the young girl through whose eyes the story is told. It’s a bittersweet truth, because the reader knows even if she doesn’t, that the small moment of compassion and triumph of human justice is just that, a small moment.
Thinking about all that, I realized that’s been my attitude toward justice in both Cold Hard News and its sequel, No News is Bad News. Too late for the forum, but not for my writing. All because of one little question by a mystery reader; a fellow author who saw the nuances of the question; a boost from St. Ignatius, Stephen King and Boo Radley: and a long ride home. I love when that happens.
EVENT: Maureen joins a dozen other crime and mystery writers at Murder by the Book Friday night and Saturday, Sept. 30 & Oct. 1, at Jesup Library in Bar Harbor, Maine. Come join the fun!
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, on Twitter at @mmilliken47, and check out her website, maureenmilliken.com for information, events and to sign up for email updates. Cold Hard News and No News is Bad News are available through S&H Publishing and all online outlets. Ask for them at your local bookstore!