I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!)
By PJ Parrish
Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.
That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.
What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?
We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing. Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:
- Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
- Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
- Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
- Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
- And never, ever, kill an animal.
I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.
That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine — boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith. Faith in what? Or in whom?
Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year. In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn. Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.
I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.
Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement. Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.
Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence, and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.
With our book A Thousand Bones, we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.” I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”
Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?
In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.