I just opened a book my sister (in-law, but they are all sisters to me) sent me. It’s a book of short stories by P.D. James called Sleep No More. ( Side note: Great title to send to an insomniac, Lori) A nice little preface promises not only murder but also colluders, unwitting witnesses, the bad dreams of murderers, and suppressors of homicidal memories.
I used to wonder why murder mysteries were so popular, even as I devoured them. But murder isn't only in mysteries. It's in other books, TV shows, movies. The vast majority of them center around an untimely, unnatural death. Why, I wondered, does someone always have to die? What is so intrinsically interesting about death?
In my first novel, The Year of the Crow, there is one offstage murder and a horrifying accidental death. In my second novel, Ghosts of the Heart, the ghost of her deceased mother pops into my protagonist’s dream vacation, but it is not her death around which they circle. It is the place her mother held in her life that is the issue. In my third novel, A Dream of Houses, the death of my protagonist’s parents do form an integral part of the story, but in hindsight. It seems I find it easier to deal with death at a distance.
But no murders. Maybe I should try one.
So many stories surround the act of murder. The victims. The relatives. The mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and best friends. The next door neighbors. People who celebrate the loss. People who think they know who did it. Anger, sorrow, suspicion, grief. Not to mention the basics: Love. Hate. Life. Death.
It took more years than it should have, given my purported intelligence, but I did finally figure out that stories centering on death, natural or not, are actually stories about the meaning of life. We do not, in real life, leave even unknown, unidentified bodies of other humans to decay where they lie. We bring them in, care for them, wrap them in a shroud, and put them in the ground. Why? Because, I concluded, each one of them is us. Each one is a precious soul, unique in its own right and now deprived of life. And that deprivation must be noted. It is always one of our own.
I still think there is too much death in books, on TV, in the movies. Death unmourned. Death unmoored from any community. Death unrequited. I've given to asking myself, whenever I see another masked hoodlum gunned down in a corridor by our hero/ine, who will bury him? Who will miss him now that he is gone? Who, who, who will know his name? Shooting up a roomful of bad guys on TV makes it easy to shoot up a basement full of fellow citizens in real life. Doesn't it? Who can tell us the dreams of Dylann Roof?
And yet we still cheer at the moment that Indiana Jones, having fought off an entire regiment of bad guys in hand to hand combat, says, "Oh, hell," pulls out his gun, and shoots the Swordsman. Sometimes we don't need to know the dreams of the Swordsman. Sometimes we just need to pull out our pens and write the damn murder. Period. The End. That can solve a lot of problems in fiction. In life, not so much.