By the time you read this (I hope), someone will have won the U.S. Presidential election and someone will have lost it.
To most Americans, the election was a battle between two men with fundamentally different ideas about the role government should play in our everyday lives. For others, it was something much greater, a virtual war between the Powers of Darkness and the Agents of Light over the very soul of this nation. If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t been reading some of the Facebook “discussions” I have been over the last several months.
Because it’s easier to get people to the polls by convincing them their vote could make the difference between putting the Son of Satan in the White House and a decent, God-fearing human being, the political arena is an ideal setting for this kind of silly, provocative oversimplification. But politicians are not the only ones who like to describe every human conflict as one pitting Good against Evil.
We crime writers have a tendency to reduce things to those very same extremes.
Of course, we do it for the sake of high drama, not election results. In the interests of maximizing the stakes in a thriller, for instance, we often go in for villains who are simply heartless monsters, rather than complex people with conflicting motives. Conversely, our protagonists are soldiers of righteousness, angels with dirty faces who have no doubts, whatsoever, about the virtue of their cause. God is on one side and the Devil is on the other, and there’s no way to mistake which is which.
Gray areas are okay for literary fiction, the reasoning goes, but readers of mysteries and thrillers only have eyes for black and white, the better to root for the latter as they hungrily turn pages.
I can’t view the world that way, no matter how popular such fiction is. Just as I know Barack Obama is not a freedom-hating Muslim and Mitt Romney is not a Scrooge-like robot with contempt for all poor people, I also know that real “good guys” and “bad guys” come in all stripes and colors, and that their needs and motivations cannot always be described in a single line. I keep this thought in mind whenever I enter my polling booth and whenever I sit down to write. Nobody in this world wears horns and a barbed tail, nor walks with a halo consistently overhead.
The shorthand of Good versus Evil might win (and lose) elections, and it might sell a boatload of crime novels, but it’s just not for me.