Setting Chaos Right

by Janis Patterson

Admittedly, there is something strange about those who spend a great deal of their time in thinking up ways to do away with another of their fellow beings. Someone once wrote that a person who repeatedly tries to devise a way of killing another is either a psychopath or a mystery writer, and that sometimes the line between them blurs. I resent that. I spend a great deal of time finding ways to eradicate some poor soul, but I don’t feel like a psychopath. At least, not most of the time.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?

Aside from the fact I’m much too afraid of getting caught to even think of trying anything for real, I believe we do it because as writers and as readers we fans of murder have a very strict sense of honor and decency and justice.

Whether we’re plotting the demise of a nosy next door neighbor or creating a scheme to eradicate the populace of a distant planet, we are creating mayhem and chaos. Murder is against the natural order of things – it is unnatural, and the unnatural is disturbing to us. However – if we create it ourselves as writers, we control it. We know from the beginning that however bad things get, we can set it right and good will triumph again.

Now I can hear some of you muttering that there are many books where the killer is not punished, that he walks away unscathed. Yes, of course there are, but in the traditional mystery framework (even if it is set on a distant planet many eons in the future or the past) we know that the bad will be punished and order restored. Even if the law is not served, justice will be, and the two are not always the same thing. Sometimes a murder can be a good thing, and to punish the killer would be unfair. As was written in Texas law until not too many years ago, there are some folks who just need killing!

By contrast, real life is messy. People are murdered and the perpetrator is never caught, and sometimes even if he is he isn’t convicted. There is no guaranteed happy/good/righteous ending, and sometimes the uncertainty of that ambiguity is unbearable. I think people turn to mysteries both as readers and as writers because they need the framework of justice guaranteed to be triumphant. I know I do.

In the worlds we create horrible things happen, yes, but in the end right and justice prevail. The murderer is going to be stopped some way. Our senses of balance and security and rightness are restored. All is well.

Would it could be that way in real life.

 

Why We Kill

by Janis Patterson

It is not, as some of my friends have said, because I am an old grump who wants to do away with everyone who annoys me. Not all the time, at least.

That said, however, taking someone whom you dislike intensely, who has been egregiously rude/cruel/unmannerly/whatever, and offing them can be very relaxing and therapeutic. (Of course, I’m talking about killing only in pixels.) It’s cheaper than therapy, can be done multiple times if the first time is not satisfying enough and no one gets really hurt. And, if you’re lucky, you can make a little money.

But why do people want to read about people being killed? After all, killing is messy. It’s permanent. And it’s very very illegal. I think the reasons are as varied as the readers. And the writers. Sublimation. Wish fulfillment. Excitement. The thrill of the chase. All basic human emotions, but I think the main reason is that in a mystery novel we want the assurance that all will turn out right – the murderer will be caught and properly punished. Balance in the world is restored. Justice is served.

I believe every rational person has a deep sense of justice. A lot of times the murder is committed because in some possibly twisted way it fulfills the murderer’s sense of justice – as incomprehensible as it might be to anyone else.

When we write or read mysteries we are not only indulging in escapism, we are shoring up the foundations of justice. The crime is solved. Balance returns. Our inner world is stable once more, even if the real world is far less simple or predictable.

Which means that we as writers are fortunate. I mean, how many people can say that we not only entertain, but we contribute to the happiness and mental health of the world? And all by killing people…