Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

J. T. Ellison | Why Crime Fiction Matters To Me

September 3, 2008

I know that sounds a bit like “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” but bear with me.

I have always loved crime stories – real or imagined. I don’t think I’m alone, either. Some of the most successful series on television now are crime oriented. My favorites are the original CSI, Criminal Minds and the gloriously creepy Dexter. I watch Forensic Files, all the true crime shows, eat up the drama and fear and terrible truths that exist in our world. So what is the fascination? Why am I drawn to murder and mayhem?

In a word – heroes. But let me come back to that.

I’ve tried to pinpoint the reason I decided to write crime fiction, and honestly can’t put my finger on a single impetus. Was it because of my childhood friend who was being abused and committed suicide when we were f ourteen? Was it the disappearance of a friend from college – Dail Dinwidde – who went missing in 1992, quite literally without a trace? Was it an influence from the books I gobbled up – Patterson, at the beginning, Tami Hoag, Patricia Cornwell?

Or did I always have a mysterious bent? I’ve always been a writer – especially the terrible, should be burned pieces I did in college. I went back and looked at some of them, and was surprised to see a note from my thesis advisor. I’d written what I thought was a masterpiece of a story, and her comment was, “Reads too much like B-grade detective fiction.” Hmm. And what, exactly, is wrong with B-grade detective fiction?

But a budding writer who is writing for academia needs to be literary. You must plan your world around where you’ll be getting your MFA, and fifteen years ago, when I graduated, crime fiction was most certainly not on the menu for a writer hoping for a distinguished career in literature.

I’ve always found that amusing, because all of the best literary stories swirl around the commission of a crime. Crimes of the heart, crimes against nature, crimes against a woman or child, a brother or sister, a mother or fath er, a neighbor. Look at Alice Sebold‘s THE LOVELY BONES. It’s a perfect example of a literary novel that centers around a crime.

I think the big difference between literary and crime fiction lies in the treatment. In literary books, you don’t have the pulsing pace, a race against the clock to save humanity, a killer to get off the streets. Lit fic has a more sedate pace. It’s often an examination of how a crime affects the characters rather than how to stop the crime from happening, or happening again. And sometimes, there is no conclusion. And that’s just fine.

But in crime fiction, the battles of good and evil play themselves out on the page, ripe for the reader’s imagination to overflow. There is an innate understanding that the white hats will stop the black hats. You know what you’re getting – a breathless journey with a cast of characters who would lay down their life to save the innocent. The story drives the characters actions, and we see every foible, every flaw, and cheer when the character stands up for what’s right.

In other words, crime fiction gives you a hero. A man or a woman who won’t stop fighting until the bad guys are taken out. There’s an element of justice meted out – the criminals are caught, the hero triumphs, the innocents are protected. It’s heady stuff, I tell you.

Whatever my original influences, this is the real reason I choose to write crime fiction. I want to right the wrongs, give closure to a grieving family, make sure the victims are not forgotten. In my little make believe world, I can make sure justice is well and truly served. We don’t always have that luxury in real life. Too often, trials are lost on technicalities, juries are forced to follow arcane laws, plea bargains are made, and criminals go free. In crime fiction, the hero gets to save the day, and the criminals get punished.

Taylor Jackson is a hero to me. She is a strong woman who commands the respect of her peers through her actions. She’d lay down her life to protect those she loves, and those she doesn’t even know. She is the best of all of us, the one who runs into the burning building to save a child, who never asks for thanks, who protects and defends the city of Nashville even when it doesn’t protect or defend her.

That’s what a hero should be, and that’s why crime fiction is such a joy for me to write.

J. T. Ellison

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