For our weeklong series on crime fiction, we asked two writers to reflect on the ethics of depicting violent crimes in their novels. Below, New York contributing editor Adam Sternbergh, most recently the author of The Blinds, considers the topic with the help of other crime novelists. Read Cartel trilogy author Don Winslow’s essay here.
If anyone asks how I came to be obsessed with wrongdoing in all its most perverse manifestations, I always blame Sunday school. I think back to those weekly lessons in murder, jealousy, lust, betrayal, and revenge that made up an integral part of my childhood. My all-time favorite pulp classic is the biblical tale of King David, who sent a romantic rival to certain death on the battlefield because he’d slept with and impregnated the guy’s wife after spotting her bathing on a rooftop. I like to imagine what the lurid paperback cover for that story might look like: God made him a king. Lust made him a killer.
I recall this upbringing when I consider how exactly I ended up writing crime novels. I am a pacifist by nature — hell, I’m Canadian, which is halfway to being a Quaker — and I favor strong gun control, criminal-justice reform, and turning the other cheek over an eye for an eye. I also spend part of my days willingly and even enthusiastically imagining the most creatively gruesome methods for killing people. I’ve written three crime novels, and they aren’t parlor-room mysteries: Two of them star a gleefully murderous hit man as the hero and one centers on a community of criminals so vile that they’ve had their most brutal memories erased.
I’m definitely interested, maybe unhealthily so, in humanity’s darkest proclivities. Yet I’m also reliably shaken by tragedies like Parkland or the horrific recent story of Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old girl abducted from her home after watching her parents get murdered. I struggle to reconcile my aversion to real-world violence with my willingness to conjure it on the page. My mother, a very supportive and loving person who taught Sunday school, had this reaction when she finished my first novel: “I just kept wondering what kind of person could think of such things.” Me, Mom — I’m that kind of person. And I wonder about that, too.
As I’ve met other crime writers, I’ve discovered I’m not alone in this. Authors who tweet stridently about, for example, the lunacy of American gun policy (as I do) are often the same ones who concoct gloriously thrilling gunplay and depict psychopaths with chilling accuracy (as I hope to do). I asked a few of these writers how they make sense of this apparent contradiction. “I’m still not sure how I defend writing about crime and violence,” says Laura Lippman, the best-selling author and former journalist. “I just try to make the crime-y parts of my books the most boring, banal parts. And I try to make sure the victims matter, that the readers care about them.”
Alex Segura is the author of a private-detective series that features its share of mayhem, and he describes himself as “a pretty far-left liberal who abhors guns and eats vegan — all the things, I guess, that would suggest I am against violence and the tools of that trade.” So how does he reconcile this? “The big thing for me is showing that violence has consequences. It isn’t about trying to avoid violence and guns altogether, but to treat these moments realistically, and showcase the consequences beyond the act.”
Chris Holm has written a successful series of novels about a hit man who kills other hit men, and he told me this representative story: One morning in 2015, he was polishing up a chapter culminating in a particularly kinetic shoot-out, and feeling pleased with his progress, he took a break, opened Twitter, and ran smack-dab into the story of the news reporter Alison Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, who’d been shot to death during a live interview. He was shaken. He closed his laptop. He cried. “I’m not sure why that shooting in particular affected me the way it did,” he says. “A fluke of timing, I suppose. But I walked out my front door and wandered my neighborhood for hours. And I didn’t write another word of fiction for weeks.”
He eventually finished that novel, which wound up nominated for several awards. He also contributed a short story to Unloaded, an anthology of crime stories that avoid firearms, the proceeds of which benefit a gun-control advocacy group. “I write violent books about violent people committing violent acts, and for that, I don’t apologize,” he says. “But I’ve also committed myself to treating the violence in my novels with due heft, and the victims with the dignity they deserve.”
Some crime writers I know have faced tough questions from readers on how they feel about contributing to a culture of violence, but I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. I don’t believe that violence in fiction — or onscreen for that matter — contributes to real-world violence any more than I believe that playing Dungeons & Dragons turns you into a Satanist. (There are people who believe this; trust me, I know.) In fact, one of crime fiction’s great strengths, to my mind, is the outsize metaphorical possibilities of, well, crime. Very few of us have ever murdered a neighbor in a fit of anger, or accidentally hit a drifter with our car, or accepted a murder contract and then buried the body deep in the woods in the dead of night. But most of us can relate to the notion of a shameful secret we hope the world will never uncover, or the feeling of having a fleeting impulse we don’t recognize and would rather not acknowledge.
It’s true that there are insidious tropes of the crime genre — the elegantly brilliant serial killer, or the beautiful dead girl who spurs the male protagonist into action — that demand to be called out and interrogated. (For a primer on the latter trope, see Alice Bolin’s recent essay collection, Dead Girls.) One of the reasons I’m drawn to genre writing is precisely because it employs reliable conventions — the pieces on the chess board, in the writer Lev Grossman’s memorable formulation — and I think it’s artistically interesting to consider why those conventions have proved so persistently appealing and then, when possible, to upend them.
The smartest crime writers I know, authors like Megan Abbott and Attica Locke, do just that. Abbott utilizes classic noir-fiction conventions to dissect the fraught dynamics of female rivalry, while Locke infuses her law-enforcement procedurals with complicating insights about race. Their novels involve bloodshed, but all in the service of helping us better understand the messy business of being human, the essential goal of all serious fiction. “I’ve always believed that every novel is a crime novel — because every novel is dealing with a crime of the heart, a crime of passion, or a moral crime,” Locke said when she accepted the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. But crime novels, she continued, offer a particularly incisive way to “look at our darkest impulses, and think of ways we could all be better.”
I’ve come to believe that the distinction between writing about violence and considering its effects in the actual world boils down to the difference between “why” and “how.” On the question of gun violence, for example, our national debate too often gets mired in the why, which is abstract and endlessly debatable (why would someone do this?), rather than the how, which is concrete and addressable (guns). Why is the provenance of philosophers, spiritual leaders, engaged citizens, and, yes, fiction writers — the very biblical question of what drives one human to lift a hand against another. How, on the other hand, should be the central concern of lawmakers, who are in a position to address the fact that we blithely make the tools available for people to inflict violence as efficiently as possible. In public policy, the why can be distracting at best and a deliberate diversionary tactic at worst. In fiction, it’s the only question worth asking.
During my early days in Sunday school, I encountered two more memorable lessons: That an acceptable reaction to wrongdoing is a willful communal obliviousness (witness the Catholic Church and its sex scandals); and that the world is neatly divided into good and evil and the temptation to stray into the latter is the product not of human nature but of a malevolent supernatural being. (The Devil did make me do it, literally.) Eventually I came to believe that those ideas are exactly wrong. What appeals to me about crime writing is that, at its best, it refutes them both.
“I find myself struggling more and more in recent years, with the world crashing in on us so insistently,” Megan Abbott says, on the question of the fictive uses of violence. “The Parkland case is one that returns again and again for me — in large part because of the voice and advocacy of its students after the tragedy. I keep thinking of Emma González, this staggeringly powerful young woman who defies all the stereotypes of both her gender and her generation. It reinvigorates me to tell stories of survivors and resistors. I’m never going to write stories of uplift, of course. It’s just not my nature. But I think there’s something astonishingly powerful in using crime novels to get into the murk and muck of our moment, its horrors and its wonders.” I realize my own early instruction in murder, lust, and mayhem has left me with a similar instinct, or at least a similar goal: to recognize the muck and murk of our moment and, rather than turning away, to respond to it by persisting in asking why.
More From This Series
- A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines
- True Detecting True Detective: Let’s Lay Odds on Who the Killer Is
- Extremely Wicked Director on How Ted Bundy ‘Seduced’ His Victims
- The Ocean’s Effect: How the 2001 Film Changed the Heist Movie For a Generation
- Why Is TV So Addicted to Crime?