Monday, March 8, 2010
Guest Blogger - Alan Bradley
“Why did your victim have to die?”
What a great question!
If we’d asked Plato, I suppose he’d have answered that it is the function of the victim to die: that he or she must pay the ultimate price by being the scapegoat upon the altar of verisimilitude. But without a worthwhile crime, it’s hardly worth spending the money to buy a novel, or taking the time to read it.
A victim may be innocent or guilty. While the innocent victim will most likely receive the reader’s sympathy, the death of a despicable victim might gain his applause. Jeff Lindsay has recently – and with deft ingenuity - flipped the classic pattern by having his psychopathic Dexter kill only victims who deserve so richly to die that, when they do, we break out the flags and send up skyrockets.
Nowadays, with many of our fictional detectives being flawed in one imaginative way or another, it seems that there’s more tension in putting them to work catching the killer of an innocent victim.
In my recent book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – and I hope I’m not giving anything away here - the victim dies because he’s a scoundrel, and that’s often enough.
It’s not so much what the reader thinks of the victim as what the characters in the book think of him. I suppose one sure way of staying alive in a work of detective fiction is to be beloved by all.
But maybe not. To a killer, even a dearly beloved might well seem insufferable.
An interesting question is this (in the Platonian sense): do we create a character for the sole purpose of bumping him off? Is the poor creature doomed from the instant we place him upon the page?
I’d like to think not. As a writer, it’s more comfortable to believe that the characters you’ve loosed in the pages of a book are free to die or to stay alive according to their actions. Freedom of will – just like in real life.
But if your victim suddenly professes the cloth, for instance, what then? Kill him anyway, and let the chips fall where they may? Or should you let the book grow a new victim in the way a salamander grows a new tail?
Most readers would suppose that a writer takes great delight in doing away with a victim of the nasty sort, but they would be wrong. Perhaps because all of the characters in a book are aspects of the author’s own personality, I’ve found that it’s incredibly difficult to kill anyone – no matter how deserving.
I once received an unforgettable lesson in a primary school classroom. I was reading aloud from a children’s story I had written in which a bold boy calls upon God to save him from footpads. A bolt of lightning blazes down from the sky, glances from a tree, and kills a cow.
I was stopped in mid-reading by a little girl who jumped to her feet and said, ‘You just put that in to be funny.’
I admitted that I had. It was, in fact, the part of the story I had invented first.
‘God would never do a thing like that,’ she said, shaking a finger at me. ‘You can’t just put a creature into a story so that you can kill it. You have to be responsible for the animals you create.’
Although I’ve tried to heed her advice, I have to admit that it’s pretty tough to avoid murder in a work of mystery fiction.
So I suppose the bottom line is this: if we must kill, then let us do it swiftly and mercifully. Let us give our murderers such skill that our victims are not even aware that they have slipped the bonds of earth.
Murder should be gentle – it’s the detection that should be fiercely executed.
Alan Bradley is the author of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, the second book featuring 11 year old Flavia de Luce, who made her first appearance in the Debut Dagger Award winning novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
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