by Janis Patterson
We write mysteries. It is our duty to provide our readers with a good story that has an interesting plot, accurate research, believable characters, and a satisfying ending.
It is also our responsibility to be sure that in our quest for interesting and different content we don’t turn our fictional books into training manuals. Yes, we want ways of death that rise above the common and usually sordid killings that regularly adorn our daily news, but we must walk a fine line between creating an interesting fictional killing and providing an instructional blueprint for a real one.
I think this duty of responsibility is why in so many early mysteries and in a few current ones the murder weapon is a common blunt instrument or some exotic, untraceable poison, though exotic, unknown and untraceable poisons are currently somewhat out of vogue. Current mysteries seem to be grounded much more in reality than the ones from the so-called Golden Age.
To illustrate my point, years ago I attended my first NRA convention. (By the way, if your mysteries involve firearms, I cannot recommend highly enough that you attend one – the knowledge and help there are phenomenal! It will be in Dallas next month and I definitely intend on going! I’ll probably be blogging about it.) I talked to a lot of people, getting all kinds of information and contacts for my reference file (you do have a reference file, don’t you?) when I talked to this one man who was simply entranced that I was a mystery writer. Normally I’ve found that people just love to help writers, but this guy was totally over the top. He had worked both as a firearms salesman and in a ballistics lab, and among a lot of other things gleefully told me the way to have a ballistically clean bullet. No striations. No rifling. No marks on the projectile to tell which or even what kind of gun it came from. No information except the caliber. Nothing that law enforcement could trace.
I listened intently, partially fascinated and partially revolted. It was a simple process and could be done by anyone with the IQ of a goldfish. Then he asked if I’d use it in one of my books – obviously hoping that I’d put him in there too. Horrified, I said most certainly not, begged him not to tell this process to anyone else and then explained why. He was suddenly as horrified as I – apparently he had never thought that what he regarded as an interesting curiosity could actually be used to commit a real-life untraceable killing.
And no, don’t ask me what the secret is. I destroyed that part of my notes and have deliberately forgotten how. There is some knowledge that should never be shared.
So while killing people made of pixels can be both fun and profitable, we as writers owe our readers and the world in general a sense of restraint and responsibility. I truly believe that none of us would actually use some of the stuff we know to do harm to others, but we must never forget that our stories are read by all kinds of people, some of whom might wish to do harm or even read us in search of ways to do harm. Never forget that we want to entertain, not instruct. I don’t think any of us want to be an accomplice.
4 thoughts on “A Mystery Writer’s Responsibility”
I agree about not giving someone with murderous intentions ideas on how to kill. I’m not going to give names or details or even when, but I read a disturbing book a while back and then noticed the same type of killing machine all over the place. Sometimes the killer doesn’t even read the book, but the ideas seem to get out there – the domino effect or something similar.
This makes sense, and it also made me ponder; I think sometimes writers believe they have to reveal everything, when in reality, with holding is a real skill of suspense.
I agree that we don’t need to give away all the details, but an unstriated bullet could cause the death or an exotic poison. However, after mentioning these things, as an author I can find a way to keep the exact details out of the story. Good post, Janis!
I agree. We need to be realistic in our writing, but not offer too much explicit detail. We don’t want to encourage unhinged people to commit crimes.
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