Sympathy For the Bedeviled

You’re a crime writer. You see dead people. But are you listening to them? And are you letting them talk?
I had a real light bulb moment during my critique group session  last week. The five of us exchange pages ahead of our meeting and then offer input to each other. It’s always lively, constructive and fun. My peeps have given me some great guidance on my WIP.  But last week, while I was critiquing someone else’s work, I had an epiphany about character.
The manuscript I was critiquing, by an experienced published author, is very good. Compelling voice, great protagonist, and itt was rich with humor and a pretzeled plot. But something was off and I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. Then it hit me what was missing:
The voices of the dead.
There were three murders in the first half of what is a serial killer plot. We were given only the sketchiest of details about them, that they are high school kids, and two didn’t even have names. Here’s the thing: I was so dazzled by the plot, the wit, and the well-rendered setting, and I so swept away by the charm of the heroine, that I didn’t realize I had no sense of the victims.
So I started to ask myself why did I care? They’re dead, they’re gone, and they’re really just catalysts to get the plot up and moving, right?
Oh, so wrong. Because if the reader is not forced to care about the dead, how can we believe that the heroine does?
When I got home from Starbucks that day, I went right to my bookshelf and pulled down Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead:  A Writer on Writing.
I was given this book years ago as a gift when I was first venturing into crime fiction, and to be honest, I sort of skim-read it, finding it a little flowery for my taste. It’s a compilation of a series of lectures Atwood gave at Cambridge. It’s not a book on how to write; it’s a book on what it is like to write. (I prefer Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life for this sort of thing). But one chapter in Atwood’s book that did stick with me was the final one titled “Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why?”
Atwood sets up her idea in this essay with this: “Perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down, by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”
She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk: 

“All writers learn from the dead…because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”

This, in a nutshell — well, a lovely quote — is what was off about my friend’s story. Because she had not given her victims a voice in the book, we were missing a vital part of the narration. She needed to bring these victims back to life so there would be a reason for the heroine to solve their murders. Yes, the protag can be self-motivated (a cop looking for glory, husband bent on vengeance, a Poirot who wants to unravel the puzzle). But that is usually intellectual and protag-centered. It is not reader-centric and visceral. And the best crime fiction pulls readers in emotionally, thrusting them deep into the interior lives of the characters. So the victims must be a tangible presence in the story even though they are never “on camera.”

How do you do this? Well, once I was able to articulate this to my friend, our critique group had plenty of suggestions. Maybe the other students hold a memorial service, as kids are wont to do. Perhaps the heroine needs to interview parents or friends who offer memories and mementos. Culling through a victim’s possessions can be incredibly evocative and emotional, as any of us who has ever had to sort through a relative’s things after a funeral knows. Yearbooks, photographs on a mantel, journals, letters, a Facebook page…it can all be fodder for making a victim come back to life on a page.

Now that I think back on my critique session, I am surprised that this should have been such a revelation to me. My own series hero, Louis Kincaid, is one of those investigators who is drawn to cold cases and is compelled, at his core, to “speak for the dead.”

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, he is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

The most moving scene, I think, is when Louis visits the girl’s ailing father, who allows Louis to examine Kitty’s bedroom, which has been untouched for 20 years. We give a full three pages of description to the room and its contents. The scene ends with:

He picked up one of the half dozen perfume bottles. It was called Heaven Scent. He brought it up to his nose and drew back. It was cloyingly sweet. It was the smell that still clung to the room after twenty years.

He set the perfume down, letting out a long breath.

Time had stopped. He could almost see her, jumping out of bed, late for school, coming back and dumping her books, changing into her uniform before hurrying off to work.

His eyes traveled slowly around the tiny room. They had just left everything. Why hadn’t anyone packed her things away? And that old man sitting out there in his lounge chair, like he was still waiting for her to walk in the door and make him grilled cheese. 

Of course Louis is looking for clues here in the bedroom. But more to the point, he is letting Kitty tell her own story. He is letting her come back to life. He is forcing us, the reader, to care. And I hope, by the time the reader closes the book, we mourn the one who is gone.

20 thoughts on “Sympathy For the Bedeviled

  1. Don’t you love light bulb moments? This is a great one because it seems so obvious now that you’ve articulated it. Not sure I’ve used ‘articulated’ in its proper form but you get the idea.

    I think I love this post most because, though I didn’t care about the dead in my first book, I do share more about the victims in my second. Without really thinking about it, or putting it into words as you have done in this post, I knew something was missing in the first.

    This simply thrills me. It gives me incentive. It makes me think I will get better with each book.

    • Sorry I am late in replying guys! I am preparing to leave for SleuthFest in Orlando tomorrow and had load of work to do prepping for my workshop…

      Amanda, thanks for the compliment. Isn’t it strange how you can go for years and now think about something then it hits you in exactly the way you need it? I was critiquing a manuscript tonight in prep for my worksshop and sure enough, the writer forgot his victim! I had something to offer him…

  2. This is absolutely perfect. PERFECT!

    I am writing a dark faerie tale retelling, where the main character “hunts the monsters under your bed”. I’ve been struggling so I assumed I wasn’t balancing the supernatural elements that surround the story at the serial killer murder-mystery core. I wanted her to rely on magic clues to find the serial killer rather than finding DNA and fingerprints.

    I see now the real issue is the victims are just plot points. I can see them as people in my head, but they do nothing but serve the plot.

    Criminal Minds, in my opinion, does this very well. The profiling does double duty of giving us the clues the team will be looking for AND characterizing the victim (s).

    Kudos for an excellent revelation!

    • Yes! Criminal Minds is a good example, Elizabeth. So glad this was useful to you. When we write our blog entries, I am not sure what we have to say about our own experiences will resonant. So it is good to know when it does.

  3. Interestingly, Mrs. B and I were looking for something to watch last night, and Netflix recommended a movie I’d never heard of, Evidence of Blood. But I saw it had David Strathairn in it, and I like his work. The blurb also intrigued us: it’s about a crime writer looking into an old murder.

    So we took a flyer and started watching. It drew us in for precisely the reasons you state, Kris. The past was heavy all around the Lead, including his own. So while the first half of the movie was a bit slow, we were both still interested enough to stick around to the chilling conclusion. (It’s based on the Thomas H. Cook novel).

  4. Violent crime is a ripple on still waters that radiates out to affect everyone in its wake, even amd maybe especially the cops working the case, because they see it all too often. I like to “give voice” to the victims & not let them become a 2-D foil for pace.

    Completely agree the dead should be a “character” revealed through the book with a full circle resolution at the end of the book that gives their lives weight in their passing. In my present WIP, my profiler is plagued by odd visions he must decipher, having to do with what the dead man saw that became imprinted on his retinas for my protag to “see.” But as my hero investigates the dead man’s life, be sees parallels in his own life & begins to understand & miss someone he would never know.

    Such insights serve double & triple duty, to reflect the victim and those people around the dead, especially the cop/profiler working a case (that works them too). Thanks for this great post. Very different.

    • So true, Jordan, what you say in that last paragraph…it’s not about how the cop works the case; it’s about how the case works on the cop, as Wambaugh said.

  5. Interesting post. I hadn’t thought about the dead as being “living” characters in a story, but when I think back I realize I’ve read many good books that make the dead “come alive.” Good to keep in mind.

    Great headline, by the way!

  6. Your light bulb moment has just become mine. I’ve been fighting with my manuscript and now I see what I was missing. Thanks.

  7. Mark Billingham probably does this as well of better than anyone. He was the victim of an armed robbery once, and feared for his life for a minutes or so. That made an impression on him (I guess it would) and he does a wonderful job of speaking for his victims and those close to them.

  8. PJ–
    The evidence for how your post grabbed me is the way I immediately began applying it to my WIP. It was a relief to find that my story does respect those who have died (as well as one who will soon be dead), by giving them life in the world of the living. As you point out, it’s harder to take a principal character seriously who can’t be bothered giving thought to those who mattered in the past. It’s an issue that really does relate to a character’s character.

  9. Excellent post. In the first book of the series, the victim really is irrelevant. It is almost painful how irrelevant she is. Her murder is bargained away in a high dollar plea deal.

    However, in the one that is on the drawing board with now, revolves around poor Sarah Jean. She’s not just a stripper, she is one of the keys to a much bigger crime.


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