One of the aspects of the mystery genre I appreciate least is the trope of violence against women. It's most obvious in the standard formula opening: A woman found dead, usually in an alley, maybe even a Dumpster. Sometimes she's nude, or in some state of undress. Usually, there's evidence of sexual assault. Often, she's a prostitute.
When I sat down to write my first novel, I chose the mystery genre with the express intent not to perpetuate this scenario. I didn't want to read about yet another woman's body in an alley, and I certainly wouldn't write about one. Now, two years after I released my first novel, the question takes on even greater meaning, as a probable real-life rapist was caught with his female victim, in an alley even, and nonetheless let off easy.
This isn't just politics, though. This is overall a craft concern. Writing cliches is boring work for the writer, and I would expect it to be a boring experience for readers, too.
I'm not saying writers shouldn't write--and readers shouldn't read--books with graphic violence in them, or that depict female victims. My books tackle sensitive, potentially trigger-inducing subjects: sexual repression, gay self-hatred, child-rape pornography, incest. But I went to great lengths not to glorify or portray these scenes and subjects gratuitously. I didn't want or need to contribute to the world's repository of violence porn.
The line, admittedly, isn't always right there in black and white, a complexity I explore in Framed and Burning:
And there she was, in triplicate. His wan heroine, his redheaded lady-child. She wasn’t yet eighteen, as he’d tried to capture in the budding quality of her breasts under a white tank top. She had an unnatural thinness about her as well, as if slightly malnourished. The whole time he’d painted her, he felt as if he wanted to save her. That was the attempt in painting her, to save her and rid himself of her haunting eyes at the same time. But he felt strongly now that he had failed. And in his failure, he’d simply failed her.
Mick, like the female members of his family, is a dreamslipper: He possesses the psychic ability to pick up other people's dreams. But while his sister and niece use the ability to solve crimes, Mick uses dreams as inspiration for his art. He reflects on the morality of this:
In the quiet of his studio, Mick walked over to the unfinished painting that was inspired by that dream of Cat’s. He remembered the shock on her face when she saw it. So much trouble, he thought. He reprimanded himself for what suddenly amounted to cheating, taking others’ ideas and making them his own in his art. Was it ethical? He thought about Candace telling him basically to butt out of her dreams. And he thought of the haunting look in the girl’s eyes in the triptych. And of his own limitations, just now with Rose.
Mick picked up a large brush, dipped it into a can of black paint, and crossed out the painting. Then he began to fill in with black everywhere the cross lines weren’t. Soon, he’d covered the canvas in nothing but black. The painting was gone.
In Bound to the Truth, the third book in the trilogy, the female victim is found dead in a hotel room, bound and gagged. While beginning with, and lingering on, the image of her dead body would arguably have given me a reliable commercial hook, I resisted it. For me it was more important for readers to come to know and care about the woman who becomes the so-called "vic." So many hardboiled cop show characters shorten the word victim to further depersonalize. This is supposed to be part of their character development, something they do in order to desensitize themselves to the work that no one wants to do. But still. Every "vic" becomes an abstract, a sea of female parts in an alley. To be grabbed, laughed over, brutalized.
The other perhaps curious choice I made with the quirky, cozy/suspense mashup that is the Dreamslippers Series has to do with magic.
These stories tackle the supernatural in a very realistic, modern way. My grandmother-granddaughter PI duo don't carry guns; they solve crimes using their ability to slip into suspects' dreams, supplemented by a host of New Age practices, not to mention tried-and-true investigative work.
I'd read books in which amateur sleuths with psychic abilities snap their fingers to unlock doors but somehow don't sense when the killer is following them. As a reader, these contradictions seem silly and frustrating. They're magic mush. I like to think stranger things truly do exist, but if they are there, they're subtle, unreliable, and decidedly unfocused. So I imagined what it would be like to have a psychic ability that functioned according to real-world rules, acknowledged here in a scene from Bound to the Truth:
Grace flashed on the silly ninja clown, and it gave her an idea. “Is there a way you can get close enough to the Waters’s home to dreamslip with Sam?”
“I don’t know, Gran. I’ve thought about it. The security is pretty tight out there. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve had, I’m not sure Mercer Island is the kind of place where you can get away with sleeping in a car out on the street. There’s also the possibility that I might pick up his kids’ dreams instead, or his wife’s.”
“Remember what I taught you about popping out of dreams you don’t want to be in, and of connecting with your target.”
“Yes,” said Cat. “But this super hero power of ours sure has its limitations..."
Cat does find a way to slip into this suspects' dreams, putting herself in a precarious spot in the process. Throughout the series, dreams help the duo solve three murders and bust a child-rape pornography ring. The dreams are helpful both for what they tell us about the villains--and for what they don't tell us.
These books haven't made me the next J.K. Rowling, though I'm grateful for and proud of the accolades, the numerous 5-star reviews, and the award noms. I know from my years at the story helm of a game-publishing company that there's often a disconnect between what the audience complains about and asks for and what they actually purchase. All I can do is keep developing my craft for a blend of commercial technique and groundbreaking newnesses that pushes the envelop and attracts a larger audience. Because the biggest lesson from the game industry for me is this: If the games don't sell, we all go home.
Buy the books.
Review the books.
Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.