Yesterday Jay was talking about “social fiction,” and crime fiction. A little while ago in a column at The Daily Beast Justin Peacock claimed that, “We are living in a golden age of the social novel. However, it has largely gone unnoticed by the critical establishment, because it is taking place almost exclusively within the crime novel.”
But I have to wonder. Are we really writing social novels, or are we just exploiting social situations for cheap thrills?
What’s got me thinking about this is the recently released video of the interrogation of a serial killer in Ontario. In some ways it’s valuable for the crime writer as it shows a professional interrogation and how undramatic it is. Truly, the murderer, Russell Williams, typifies the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt identified in the Nazis. He’s calm, the interrogator is calm, information is exchanged, it ends with an arrest. No raised voices, no banging on desks, no crying or begging for mercy, just a couple of guys talking about a couple of young women being tortured and murdered.
It makes me sick.
Still, I watch it and I think about lessons I can learn for my fiction (and that creeps me out).
The story is tragic and sad. A guy named Russell Williams was a colonel in the Canadian air force, married with no children. His life of crime started as a peeping tom, moved up to break and enter into women’s houses, then he started stealing their underwear, then breaking in while the women were home and photographing them asleep, then breaking in and waking them up and assulating them and then twice he broke into women’s houses, assaulted them and then killed them.
For a while there it sounded like James Ellroy, peeping tom, then break and enter and then stealing underwear. I have no idea how often this happens and then, as in Ellroy’s case, goes no further and how often, as in this case, it escalates.
But people study it and write PhD dissertations and books and fiction writers use that information to create characters. If the fiction is done well it’s more than just cheap thrills, more than just, as George Lucas said, killing the puppy (I don’t have the exact quote, but he said something like, it’s easy to make people cry watching a movie, you show them a puppy and then you kill the puppy). I think what he was saying is that maybe as the creator you have a responsibility to do more than simply tap into an easily exploited emotion.
Here is part one of the interview. There are no dirty words, no swearing, no banging on the table, just a calm convesation between two men. In fact, the way the interrogator (Detective Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police) controls the interview really is something to see.
The lead homicide detective on the case described it as a, “smart man being outsmarted by a smarter man.”
A little backstory; the main piece of evidence the police had about the second murder (at the time a missing person as the body had not been recovered) was the description of an SUV parked beside the victim’s house. From that they found an “unusual” tire track and set up a roadblock to check cars going by for the same kind of tires. At the roadblock Williams was identified and put under surveillance. Three days later he was asked to come into the police station in Ottawa, told it was because he lived near the victim and the police were talking to everyone in the area, just being thorough. In fact, Williams even mentions to the cop how impressed he is at their thoroughness. When Williams came into the interrogation the police had very little physical evidence and he knew that.
But as the interview starts, the cop zeroes in and very early on, makes him a deal, “You want discretion, Russell, because this is getting out of control really fast... this is getting out of my control.” He knows a bit about Williams, the guy’s a Colonel in the air force, he’s always in control, he values control. “You and I both know... your wife now knows what’s going on... your vehicle has been siezed... you and I both know that they’re going to find evidence that links you to these situations... you and I both know that the unknown offender, male... (evidence) is going to be matched to you.”
Such gentle threats. And he says, “these situations,” not murders or killings or even crimes, just situations.
Later on, when Det. Smyth is pulling out all the details about the murders he never says, “What did you do next,” he always says things like, “What happened next,” so it’s not something the killer did, not something he was in control of, just something that “happened.”
So, as a lesson in writing an interrogation scene it’s terrific.
On a TV show in Canada the interview was shown to an FBI instructor who said it will now be played all over the world as a “how to” video in police training.
Sadly, he’s right, this scenerio will play out again and again around the world.
And we’ll continue to write scenes like this and walk that fine line between exploitation, entertainment and literature.
So, as the great Hill Street Blues said, "Let's be careful out there."