by Brian Thornton
I write about death.
Don't get me wrong, I write about a lot of things: love, greed, laughter, longing, joy, avarice, pretty much the entire landscape of the human heart.
But because I write crime fiction, I also write a fair bit about death.
And lately, I'm pretty conflicted about it.
Crime writers tend to run the gamut between the two extremes of those who treat their writing like they're transcribing a particularly violent videogame, with resultant high body counts and appropriately gruesome descriptions of the violence being done within, and those on the other end who need a conveniently dead body with a minimum of blood and no one to really mourn them. The axiom seems to be something like this: "No dead body, the stakes aren't high enough, and no compelling mystery."
I suppose that I, like most crime writers, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
I've been doing this for a while, and I've had hundreds of conversations about "the craft," and one of the things that tends to come up when a bunch of working writers is sitting around talking "shop" is that someone invariably says that in order to get the reader invested, you've got do something bold nearly out of the gate, to, you know, "raise the stakes."
This invariably leads to someone saying, "How do you do it? Kill more characters."
With all due respect, I think it ought to be harder than that. It should be difficult to kill off a character. Even (especially?) the villain(s) of the piece.
Let me put it this way:
Last summer, my uncle died after a long fight (and I do mean FIGHT) with cancer. He was 63. That's young. (And for those of you out there thinking it isn't, wait till you celebrate, oh, I don't know, your fortieth birthday, and then come talk to me). When my wife and I went to say "goodbye" as he lay in his deathbed, I thought of all the lives my uncle had touched during his time with us. A football coach for decades at one of the local high schools, he was a beloved figure in the community. When he leaned up in his deathbed to hug us both, I could see, and not for the first time, how his illness had hollowed him out piecemeal, and the terrible toll his fight had taken.
My uncle's passing was a brave, terrible moment, wrenching as hell for him, his family and all those who loved him.
A dear friend (also a writer) was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She'll be lucky if she lives out the week.
Nearly 80. Widowed. Always ready with a smile to light people's day. Possessed of some of the strongest and most evident and most shining and most beautiful faith I've ever seen. A formidable intellect and keen insight wedded to the kindest of hearts. Irreplaceable.
We would meet for lunch and laugh and talk, and interspersed with all that joy she would matter-of-factly drop stories from her life: tales of the sorts of tribulations that would cause me to gasp in wonder at how she weathered them. And when I would say something along those lines, she would laugh and shrug, and wave a hand, and say, "I'm a tough old gal, ain't I?" And that would be the end of it.
I got to say goodbye to her earlier this week. She was her typical cheerful self, asking about my wife and about our baby, and telling me how much my friendship had meant to her over the years. I unburdened my heart to her then, agreed about our friendship, assured her of how I treasured it, and did my best to put into words how much that friendship means to me.
And afterwards I hugged my wife and son.
My point is that death in real life is hard. It seems to me that it ought to be difficult to write about, as well.
After all, art imitates life. And in life, Death's wide swath tends to leave a welter of chaos in its wake.
So many writers don't give death its due. It, like love and hate and all the furies loosed on humankind when Pandora opened the box, ought to be arresting, affecting. It ought to hit the reader the way the happy resolution to a romantic subplot does.
Because that's real life.
And that's real death.