Author photo: Lesley Unruh
Laura Lippman is the bestselling author of novels such as “What the Dead Know,” “Every Secret Thing” and, most recently, “The Lady in the Lake.” She wrote this essay for the Library of Congress Magazine’s issue on crime.
Crime novels are often called whodunits but in 20-plus years of writing them, I’ve always been more concerned with who has died, and why, not who killed them. I heartily dislike books that rely on a high body count to keep readers’ interest. One body, one murder, is tragic enough.
Because I was a reporter for 20 years, I understand the human impulse to distance ourselves from tragic events. Say, for example, that a crime has occurred in your own neighborhood, a carjacking or a robbery. Whether you encounter the information through the news or social media, you immediately want to know more. Time of day? Exact location? Did the victim resist?
We ask these questions — and we all ask these questions — in hopes that we can distance ourselves from the crime. We are looking for the information that convinces us we don’t have to worry that such a fate will befall us. That’s not only human, it’s probably key to survival, to functioning, at least in cities such as mine where the crime problem is chronic. Just this week, my neighbors circulated video of three teenagers accused of a vicious assault. The woman they attacked walked the streets I walked, at the same time of day. How can I possibly rationalize that I am safe? And yet I do.
A work of fiction, on the other hand, can allow the reader to risk identifying with victims and their families. Because the story is not true, there’s no need for a risk-assessment. And because the reader isn’t worrying about how he or she could be affected by a crime, the crime novel creates space for readers to have empathy for victims.
Doesn’t everyone have empathy for victims? I don’t think so. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is easy. But empathy, true empathy, requires imagining how another person feels. It’s the essential lesson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”; Atticus Finch is constantly exhorting his children to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
That novel’s penultimate scene takes place on the porch of the neighborhood weirdo, the reclusive Boo Radley. For years, Atticus’ children have made fun of him, trafficked in gossip about him. But in the end, Boo saves them, quite literally. Scout, who tells the story, stands on Boo’s porch and sees the world as he saw it. “He was real nice,” she tells her father. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them,” Atticus says.
Atticus has a higher opinion of human nature than I do, but I agree with him on empathy. I find it in short supply in the world at large, so I think it’s especially important that it be emphasized in our darkest stories. The best crime fiction gives everyone a chance to stand on Boo Radley’s porch and see the world from his perspective.
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