An Author’s Responsibility

I’ve invited Nev March, an award winning author of crime fiction, to share her thoughts on an author’s responsibility to readers.

Nev March

Over the years, I’ve changed how I think about an author’s responsibilities to their audience. 

Initially my objective was simply to entertain. After all, the publishing industry is considered part of the entertainment industry. Books are the genesis of TV Shows, movies, plays, audiobooks and other narrative forms. Why does the public watch or read fiction? Generally, it’s for entertainment. Therefore, I paid particular attention to writing mysteries that engaged the reader’s attention with hooks, explanations, surprises and twists. Yeah, the nuts and bolts of our craft.

Crafting a satisfying ending

Crafting a satisfying ending, however, is tricky. It must surprise, yet feel inevitable, or at least logical. To achieve this balance, I realized, an inventive resolution can only work if it is based on some form of truth. Does it need to be a universal truth, something generally accepted? Boy wins girl, girl persuades boy, the crook is caught, the villain dies…experimenting with such endings, I found them somewhat trite. So the ‘truth’ elicited at the end must be a subtler form. In Murder in Old Bombay, Captain Jim cannot elope with his lady love, because the scandal would destroy her family. So traditional story tropes would not work, they would not be consistent with my character’s make up, credible or satisfying to the reader. We are asked to write ourselves into a corner, and that’s what I’d done. But how to resolve it? Mining my Indian, Parsi community’s history offered me a solution based on the times. 

In my second novel Peril at the Exposition, I introduced a trans female character, Abigail. Since my novel is set in 1893 when the word “trans” did not exist, this posed some difficulties. Abigail was intrinsic to the plot. After I’d written my draft to represent conservative late-Victorian attitudes, my editors insisted I consider the modern reader: how would it affect them? What attitudes did I want to perpetrate? Of course, I wanted to authentically depict past atrocities—historical accuracy can be achieved by the plot, descriptions, narratives and dialog. However, a first-person narrator, in some sense represents the reader, so how this character reacts will influence readers’ attitudes. 

My epiphany

This was my epiphany—crime writers are the moralists of our age. Such an author carries the responsibility for authenticity combined with progressive attitudes—moving the reader toward a kinder, more accepting point of view. 

Some books haunt me

Among books I’ve read that haunt me are some that depict a dark world view. Did they improve my life in any way, lead me to become a better person, or add to my understanding of the world? While Jhumpa Lehri’s Unaccustomed Earth is an exquisite tale, reading it left me depleted. A writer may truthfully describe the despairing ache of loss, the quandaries of immigrants, the truth about having to leave something behind to build something new. Yet none of this gives me hope; an arid world view does not uplift. 

Boman Desai, veteran author of A Googly in the Compound, The Elephant Graveyard, TRIO and more, says, “It’s easy to show things going wrong, difficult to show the way back home, but such are the novels I admire most and attempt to emulate. I’m not fond of 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, not even Madame Bovary for the same reason. They show the world crumbled or crumbling, but not how it might be uncrumbled again. They work as cautionary tales, but I want credible, well-earned, hopeful endings.” 

This, then was my objective as I wrote The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret: to portray historically accurate attitudes and events while surprising and entertaining readers; to tell truths about our pervasive misogyny, while sharing my optimistic, hopeful, uplifting world view. A good tale is not enough—the stories that change our lives are those with heart. And that’s a goal worth striving for.

What do you think? Are crime writers the moralists for out age? Do we owe it to our readers to write hopeful endings?


    1. Thanks Connie, yes, positive endings are good, but should not be predictable. That’s where subplots come in. The character can win some, lose some. Somehow that balance seems more realistic!

  1. I think part of why I like memoirs is that you always know the author has survived somehow, and they are inherently inspirational. I tend to write books where you are smiling and crying at the end. I like to feel something, and I do like to leave the reader hoping for better things to come.

  2. Hmm… yes to hopeful endings. I wish the answer to ‘moralists’ was ‘no’, but to my chagrin, publishers seem to want current moralities packaged into novels. I have several problems with this, not least that a story with a moral embedded in it might not age well, for obvious reasons. Morality changes, as is illustrated by your own examples. On the other hand, some truths are fairly universal and have been since the dawn of civilization. Murder is bad. Incest is bad. Being a nasty, mean person who hurts others for pleasure is bad. Showing endings where the bad get their comeuppance, or at least where they change, can be satisfying. I’ve been thinking about Crime and Punishment lately, and how although it’s a novel told from the POV of a murderer, it is more than anything a novel about intrinsic morality and humanity. In other words, there is a morality that is imposed on us by our society and culture, and there is a more visceral morality that is embedded into all humans. The divide between the two is the interesting thing to write about.

    So… I’m in half agreement with you, Nev. :-). And I think the question you pose is a great one.

    1. Emilya, I’m such a fan of your books!
      Yes, that ambiguous area between what’s legal and what’s right is a great area to explore. In my latest book I went with an old crime that would never be punished…and used that as the “villain’s” motivation. Justice is a slippery thing, sometimes.

      Your note makes me think I should re-read Crime and Punishment. I read it when I was a teen and it felt overly long. Might be a very different experience now, decades later.

  3. Nev, as a fan of your series, I wondered when I read Peril how much you had to rewrite/work those scenes, which by the way was a great plot twist I thought you handled really well.

    I supposed providing resolution at the end of my mysteries, that good triumphs over evil in its many guises, was my moral thread. But then recently I read several books with stories of female genital mutilation that got me so fired up I’ve made FGM a plot point in the historical mystery I’ll write next year.

    1. Hi Marni, Thanks! Yes, that twist in Peril came as a surprise to me too!

      I recently reviewed Sousan Abadian’s book Generative Cultural Renewal: An Effective Resource in Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting & Other Harmful Practices. It shocked me how prevalent this harmful practice still is! She did an excellent job of describing what would induce a mother to allow her child to go through this–and the reasons why such practices continue.

      There’s no dearth of material for fiction authors in the real world! I’ve found that “good triumphs over evil” seems to have many layers. Sometimes the folks responsible may be victims themselves.

  4. Nev, your books sound amazing, and I love thinking of authors as moralists. We always have been, and the great ones transcend time. My Fin Fleming Scuba Diving Mysteries include some dastardly crimes, but I never dwell on the details. Fin and her team solve them, face danger, and live to scuba dive, and through it all, their overriding focus is caring for friends and family. Their unshakable connections to each other is what I enjoy writing about and what my readers like. It’s the overriding theme of the whole series.

    That being said, I really enjoy reading deeper stories where the characters have to face and solve thorny moral issues.

  5. Thanks so much for the shout-out on your blog, Nev. I would like to make a minor clarification. I did say it was “easy to show things going wrong.” I should have said it’s “easier.” Even showing things going wrong requires imagination and an understanding of craft, and that’s not necessarily “easy.” Also, Emma Bovary was responsible for her downfall, but the case is a bit different with other tragic heroines (Anna Karenina, Lily Bart/The Age of Mirth, Edna Pontellier/The Awakening). The latter novels are no less an indictment of the societies in which the women found themselves, a more compelling theme in my book.
    I would also like to second Keenan Powell (see above): “Crime writers can be moralists of our age, but do not need to be.” I could elaborate, but the sentiment is clear enough. The best example of a crime story that transcends its genre is perhaps We, The Accused by Ernest Raymond, published in 1935. I would say more, but I just cannot extol the novel enough, and I might never stop.

    1. Thanks Boman! I admire your novels –TRIO and The Elephant Graveyard kept me riveted.
      Yes, agree that even showing the world awry requires considerable skill. We, The Accused sounds fascinating–will have to add it to my every growing TBR list!
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. All authors have an instinct to express moral points of view, but we also have an unspoken mandate to keep away from certain politically risky topics–that’s nothing new, but has always been operative. And, by the way, your covers are lovely.

    1. Hi Miki, When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables it would have been politically incorrect–after all, Jervais, the lawful detective is the anti-hero hunting down Jean Valjean! However by integrating the theme of redemption and spiritual awakening, Hugo went beyond the conventional idea of justice to create something magnificent.

      I don’t shy away from politically risky topics–but instead try to “show” the human story inside them. In The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret, I’ve introduced Dora, a character that leads readers to think about the issue of abortion, and how controlling a woman’s right to her body can force her into a terrible quandary with awful outcomes. Readers who’ve already made up their minds on the subject may object. However, it is a story. If it jogs their empathy and sense of justice even a tad, I will have done my job. Yes, we risk alienating closed-minded readers, but that’s a risk I think we should take in order to make society more just.

    1. Hi Marilyn, I’m so glad!
      Now cozies can and do take on some weighty subjects–we just don’t linger on the sex and violence often inherent in crime (!)

      Mind now, Murder in Old Bombay does have some tragic bits, which is why initially I was surprised to find it called “cozy.” I try to be authentic to the time, and since I’m writing about colonial India, loss and tragedy were widespread. So don’t be too shocked when you come to those bits!
      Enjoy each journey – there are lots of them.

      1. Nev,
        I don’t think Murder in Old Bombay is a cozy. More of a mystery with adventures, as I told my former college boyfriend. (Many years later we “reconnected” as friends and book lovers) and he’s now reading it, too.”

  7. Nev, thanks for sharing your epiphany with us! What an awesome perspective to consider. We do have a responsibility to be authentic (when writing about characters like ourselves AND unlike ourselves), and sometimes this authenticity comes along with harsh truths or realities that are tough to consider. But so often with crime or mystery fiction, we’re able to take a wrong and make it “right” somehow…not necessarily in a trite or saccharine way, but in a way that moves our character or their communities or our readers to a new way of thinking. Your books sound awesome!

  8. I’m really interested in this. I’m writing a historical, set in 1890 NYC, and I’m absolutely thinking about social issues. So many parallels to today in the Gilded Age, but then yes, also needing to be sensitive to differences and how modern readers will be affected.

    The need for hope is the reason I can only read noirs every now and again. After reading a James Ellroy, I definitely have to remind myself that’s a specific worldview.

    Loved your first two and have The Spanish Diplomat’s Secret on my TBR stack — looking forward to it!

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