I’m a very big fan of detective and mystery stories. I always have been. From Encyclopedia Brown when I was seven, to Nancy Drew when I was twelve, from Sherlock Holmes in my teens, to Agatha Christie as an adult–I love a good whodunnit. I also enjoy mystery TV shows–Monk, Psych, Murder, She Wrote… if it’s clever and mysterious and more or less clean, I like it.
It wasn’t surprising that for my first “serious” works when I was a young teen I chose to write a mystery series–about twins, Annie and Bobby Tucker. They took on cases and solved them for four “novels,” though the quality of the writing and the plots makes me shudder in horror now. Maybe it was these early failures that steered me away from writing mysteries for a long while after that. Mystery didn’t want to leave me though, and hints of it wound their way into the Firmament series, then entered Never so blatantly that it had to be classified as a “Western mystery” rather than the plain “Western” I had originally intended.
Since I now have an idea for a mystery series of my own (all rather classified and back-burning at the moment, I’m afraid), I’ve been watching and reading even more mysteries. But after several weeks of consuming nearly a mystery a day in one form or another, I got tired of it.
Tired of the mysteries? No, not really.
Tired of the murders.
As a child, I wasn’t allowed to read mysteries that had murders in them, for fear I would be traumatized. Given my peculiar combination of fearfulness and morbidity as a child, this was no doubt wise. But no such restriction was laid upon me as I grew older, and since most mystery stories revolve around murders, I began to see a great many.
It didn’t traumatize or bother me, nor did it desensitize me. As an adult, I could handle the reality of it. But after reading and watching mystery upon mystery centered around a murder, I started to grow weary of it. I stopped reading and watching for a week, and went to pondering.
What was it that bothered me so about the murders? They weren’t gory, and more often than not, the detective character was profoundly sorry for the deceased and sympathetic towards their friends and relations. The murderer was always swiftly and cleverly brought to justice. So what was the matter?
A clue came to me when I remembered Katie Lynn Daniels‘ ebook on the sanctity of life. In the book, Katie talks about the sanctity of life, what it means, and the responsibility of writers to uphold the principle by how they treat human life in their stories.
I realized it wasn’t so much that murders happened that bothered me. It was the frequency and the attitude. Not the attitude of the characters, in most cases; the attitude of the writers.
If you need a mystery for your character to solve, the immediate idea is to throw in a murder. It makes sense. It’s dramatic, it’s terrible, it leaves lots of suspects, and requires lots of intrigue. Sounds good, right?
Maybe not. Human life–and death–is not something to trifle with. Certainly, writing murder mysteries is fine. But think about it–why are you including this element? Because the plot really requires the serious, horrific act? Because you are trying to make a point about justice that will be strengthened by the heinous crime? Or because it’s just a handy plot element to stick in?
I believe that how much thought and prayer we put into this issue really shows in the finished product. In some murder mysteries, the murder is perceived as a tragedy by all, and they don’t lose sight of that. They are focused on justice and protection for those left behind. It’s a serious thing. But in some murder mysteries, it’s treated more like a fun romp, with loads of quirky suspects, an enjoyable puzzle to solve, and a villain with some flimsy motive such as being impatient to inherit a few hundred dollars.
And we’re just so used to it, I think we sometimes take murder for granted.
What if, instead, when we do use murder as a plot element, we treat it for what it is? One of the most terrible crimes that exists against God and man, a severe and horrible ravaging of God’s image, and the cold-blooded snuffing out of His greatest gift–the gift of life.
For my part, I’m considering having my detective be more interested in preventing murders than solving them. Perhaps he will work, within the law, to protect and defend the threatened, discover who is putting them in danger, and find a way to stop the criminals before it’s forever too late.
I’ve gone back to watching and reading murder mysteries now. But I don’t see the murders the same any more. I don’t think I ever will.
And I’m glad.