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.