At the Edgar Awards the other night, I was talking to a friend about a debut book that had garnered quite a bit of acclaim a few years ago, but which neither of us had finished. The reason I couldn’t finish the book turned out to be the same as the reason she couldn’t: the author’s political agenda screamed from every page.
Now, this was an agenda I don’t happen to disagree with, but when I want analysis of political or ideological issues, I’ll grab some non-fiction. A bit of bleed-through is unavoidable—I’ve always said I don’t particularly worry about speaking freely online because if you don’t like my thoughts, you probably won’t like my books—but I don’t want to feel as if I am being hit over the head with a blunt instrument.
At lunch today I was seated next to a very nice couple. The service in the restaurant was … somewhat lacking … so we had a long time to chat. I had my notebook out and was writing and I was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” So they asked if I was a writer, and we talked about that, and then—because sports were on the TV in the restaurant and bigotry in sports is in the news—we got to discussing some political topics. And, it turned out, both the wife and I had grown up in NY, but left to go to college in the midwest. We had both been shocked at what we found in terms of sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia. She is younger than I, and I found her experiences depressing—it was ridiculous that I should be the first Jewish person someone met at Washington University in St. Louis thirty years ago, but it’s worse that Northwestern was still segregated twenty years ago.
And, she said, the problem she really faced was that she was not Indian enough for the other Indian students. She fit nowhere.
After we talked, I went on my way and, as it does, my mind began replaying our conversation. I realized that my politics are actually not so far from my fiction as I might have at first thought.
Over the six-month period since Twisted was released, it’s been very gratifying to me to see people, particularly people whose opinions I value, examine it with some approval. Naturally, there was also some disapproval–that’s to be expected! But overall, people seemed to like it. What interested me most, however, was the analysis itself. Not “yay” or “boo” but the fact that people (both those I knew and those I didn’t) seemed willing to discuss it critically.
Twisted is, at its heart, a book about liminality and the powerlessness of those who live on the fringes of society. The murder that begins the book is the murder of a woman who lives on the edge both literally and figuratively—her house is near the woods, she makes her living as a prostitute, she drinks too much. And there are other murders (mostly of women) that are discussed (though not seen, as torture porn is a huge no-no in my eyes) throughout the book, some investigated some not, and the amount of investigation that goes into the crimes is in direct proportion to the victims’ position in society. In her analysis of Twisted, Olivia Waite says:
Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims — rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile’s murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class.
Well, yes. And although I knew that as I was writing the book, I didn’t realize it showed as much as it does. There is a certain mundane quality to evil that is hard to look at long enough to analyze. Hard to consider. Hard to face without sinking into a deep pit of despair. The idea that more people would commit more crimes if they weren’t worried about getting caught is a horrifying one. And yet, the wonderful thing about crime fiction, as Carolyn Hart said in her Grand Master address at the Edgars, is that it reaffirms for us that good does exist. That, in fact, good can triumph. And when we open a novel of a certain genre, indeed, we know that we will be transported to a place where good will triumph.
This means that every crime fiction novel presents to us, if we look, the exact ideal, the utopia of the author’s mind. In my utopia, there would be no distinction between fringe and center. No one would be victimized. People would be valued for everything they are and not devalued for what they are not.
But if I wrote that world, no one would believe it. So I write the world I see, which is decidedly less pleasant. But I write romance, which means that even though there may be a great deal of darkness, you know that the world of the novel will be better at the end than it is at the beginning.