Can you really be desensitized to violence?

by Michelle Gagnon

During the Left Coast Crime Conference a few weeks ago, I attended, “Forensic Science Day.” We were images-5.jpgpromised that the “California Forensic Science Institute (CFSI) and the Crime Lab Project (CLP) would provide expert speakers and programming.”

And let me tell you, they weren’t kidding.

The eight hour event included a tour of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center on the CSU Los Angeles campus, a lab which serves the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s Department.

It kicked off with Don Johnson (not the one of Miami Vice fame-although he was wearing a pastel shirt) from the school of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics walking us through a quadruple homicide as it was initially encountered by the CSI team. Which meant dozens of photos of the victims as they were found, in addition to the trail of carnage through their house which gave you an extremely clear picture of the attack and how it proceeded. It wasn’t pleasant.

Now, I watch a lot of procedural shows on television-not CSI, because frankly I think it’s just silly. But the Law and Order franchise, The Closer, Southland, and in the past The Wire and The Shield. I’m no stranger to graphic depictions of violence. And what we were seeing was still photos, not video. images-4.jpg

Yet what really struck me was how when it comes down to it, there is a difference between a fictionalized vs. a real crime scene. I had expected to be somewhat desensitized, but somehow knowing that what we were seeing had really happened, that these were real victims who weren’t going to get up and walk away, made it almost too much to stomach. It didn’t help that two of the victims were an elderly disabled woman and a four year-old girl. During their close-ups, I almost had to leave the room.

images-3.jpgIn the course of researching serial killers a few years ago, I experienced something similar. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve sat through “Silence of the Lambs,” or movies of that ilk. When I read about some of the things that serial killers had actually done to their victims, it was a gut punch. Some of the stories were so horrible it took weeks to get them out of my head. There were things I encountered that honestly I wish I’d never seen- and those of you who have read my books know that I don’t shy away from violent crime. So it surprised me to have such a strong reaction.

Since Columbine there’s been a lot of discussion regarding whether the violence on TV, in movies, and in video games has desensitized kids to a point where they’re more liable to commit violence in real life. I himages-2.jpgave to wonder, based on my reaction to that quadruple homicide scene. Is it true that for some people, the line between truth and fiction has become blurred? Or would a kid hooked on Grand Theft Auto have the same reaction I did to images from a real crime scene? I suspect that for the most part, they would. What do you think?

On a side note, the rest of the day was very cool. A trace evidence specialist led us through the Phil images-1.jpg Spector case (which, oddly enough, wasn’t nearly as disturbing. But then, what happened to Lana Clarkson wasn’t as terrible as what was done to that little girl). We also had a fantastic presentation from a “Questioned Documents” examiner who explained exactly how easy it is to forge a signature, and what to do to combat that (sign your name over itself 2-3 times) and we toured the labs, including the rooms that hold stainless steel water tanks where guns are fired to match ballistics from crime scenes. Very cool. More information on the lab and the Crime Lab project is available here.

Bookstore Shtick

By John Gilstrap

I consider myself to be an extrovert, yet I confess that bookstore appearances are a source of stress for me. Don’t get me wrong—I love meeting booksellers and fans (and future fans), and the signings themselves are great fun; but the rest of the show concerns me. I worry that I’m going to bore people.

Let’s be honest: not all author appearances are created equal. Nonfiction authors have the advantage of being able to lecture about their topic, but those of us who write about made-up stuff don’t really have that luxury. Somehow, we need to make ourselves interesting to people who know us more for the figments of our imagination than for ourselves. Along those lines, I had occasion to share an afternoon with Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon), a famous recluse. When I asked him why he never gives interviews and why he never does bookstore appearances, he told me that as a thriller writer, his reclusiveness made him more mysterious and helped to sell books.

Could this be true? I hope the answer is no, but who am I to judge? Maybe it’s not even relevant, because one way or another, I want to meet people. But what’s the best way to do that when you’re also trying to sell books?

The most obvious option would be to read from my book, but I rarely do. Why would people want to hear me read what they’re later going to read for themselves? I’d rather tell them the stories behind the stories. If pressed, of course, I’ll be happy to read, but rather than reading directly from the book, I’ll probably read a section of a special edited-down version of my novel, created specifically to be performed to an audience. Any and all Big-7 cuss words will be eliminated from the read-aloud version, and the scene will be one that really rocks. There won’t be a lot of dialogue because I’m not a very good actor, and I suck at characterizing the voices. Out of respect for everyone’s time, I keep the readings to a maximum of five minutes.

In addition to content, I worry about the length of the show. Since bookstores rarely put out comfortable chairs at these things, I’m concerned that the audience’s butts will go numb even more quickly than their minds. I shoot for twenty minutes total shtick, followed by maybe ten minutes of questions and then the signing. Left to my own devices, I’d go on and on and on; but out of respect for the audience, I think they should be able to hear me say my piece, say a few one-on-one words with me at the signing table and be on their way home within an hour.

What about you? What do you expect of authors at book signings? Are readings important? Is there a perfect format that I and my colleagues should be shooting for? For you writers out there, what has worked for you and what has bombed?

“Hello, Clarisse…”

As part of my “Bouchercon week,” experience, a friend had arranged for me to tour the FBI Academy at Quantico. Maybe I’m alone in this, but ever since watching Jodie Foster run “The Yellow Brick Road” in Silence of the Lambs, I’ve been curious to see this training facility.

So I flew into DC a few days early. Spent the night in a hotel just outside the base that was apparently entirely populated by Marines in between tours of Iraq (and let me tell you how unnerving it is to step off an elevator into the lobby and have every eye in the room–and I do mean every one– swivel toward you, as if they’re waiting for someone to show up with an IED). I kept my hands in sight the entire time since they seemed extremely twitchy.)

Apparently deer can get used to pretty much anything…there was a shooting exercise going on less than 100 feet away and it was LOUD

Unfortunately according to my GPS the Academy didn’t exist, so thanks to directions scrawled on a napkin by th
e concierge I stumbled in the back gate of the complex. Two checkpoints, each with armed guards. I had one of those moments where I act like I’m doing something wrong even though I’m not (a terrible habit I developed somewhere) and got waved over both times for more intensive scrutiny. Forty-five minutes later I finally made it inside and was waiting in the lobby for the group I was latching on to, a contingent from the latest Sacramento “Citizen’s Academy.”

Habitrail City

The buildings themselves are fairly standard, that brown block style that was such a hit in the late sixties. There’s a strange, Habitrail feel to them since they’re all connected by windowed corridors. We wove through a few times, until I completely lost my sense of direction and couldn’t find my way back if I tried (this might have been intentional).

Driver Training, or “Look Ma- no hands!”

Like so many tours, it featured sparks of excitement and fascinating tidbits, separated by long periods of powerpoint presentations and minutaie during which even I, devoted FBI fanatic, had to fight to stay awake. There’s really only so much a person needs to know about J. Edgar Hoover.

But the tour of the Hostage Rescue Units training facility was amazing. Set inside a huge quonset hut, the entire interior (save for a narrow corridor running along the inside) is a giant maze composed of black padded walls. Sadly, no photos were allowed to be taken there, which struck me as overly cautious since the maze is changed on a regular basis (every room is composed of slats hung from metal beams). Bullet marks pock the walls: live fire drills are conducted here, with instructors walking along the top of the maze monitoring the progress. Suspended above the maze is a nearly full-size mock-up of an airplane, complete with dummies (some of whom appear to have taken a few hits; I’m guessing those trainees failed the course).

Hogan’s Alley

Another highlight (for me, at least) was Hogan’s Alley, the faux town constructed in the center of the compound. We marched into the fake pool hall, checked out the real/fake deli, and explored a seedy motel. Good times. Plus we got to watch some of the students go through their driver training, performing high speed weaves through the cones on the driving course. And let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve shopped in the FBI gift store. Quantico onesies: who knew?

All in all, it was a thrill ride (with some boring bits). I considered a CIA Headquarters tour as well, but according to those who went it was mainly a tour of the CIA cafeteria (Eggplant espionage!)

Anyway, I made some new friends (see below) and got some excellent source material for the next book. Can‘t beat that.