I’ve invited Nev March, an award winning author of crime fiction, to share her thoughts on an author’s responsibility to readers.
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.
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?
Nev March is the first Indian-born author to receive the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Award for Best First Crime Fiction. Her debut novel, Murder in Old Bombay won an Audiofile award and was an Edgar and Anthony finalist. Her sequel Peril at the Expositiondescribes the gilded age which planted the seeds of today’s red-blue divide. Nev’s books deal with issues of identity, race and moral boundaries.