Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Drama from the non-dramatic

John McFetridge

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."


Charlieopera said...

Fascinating, John. Is there somewhere we can see the rest (or all) of it?

I didn't think he was calm at all, though (the villain here). He looked about what a guilty guy (in my mind) looks like when he's bagged (ton of nervous adrenalin and probably fighting himself as to whether or not he should spill).

As to crime fiction, social fiction and cheap thrills ... I'm not sure what we do (intentionally or not) ... except there are certain formulas that will usually work (killing the puppy for one).

As to our beloved new york state/toronto bills ... sooooo close ... sooooo close ...

Jay Stringer said...

It's a great issue, with a lot of different questions that could spin off from it.

(I sense a podcast topic for the panel to discuss.)

Was it on DSD that someone mentioned the things that are done to women in the "girl who played with" series. and questioned whether these things are social comments on the treatment of women, or whether they're simply exploitation?

As with all things, i guess this is all going to come down to a question of personal taste. But maybe there are a few generalisations we could make.

Maybe the writer who asks him/her self these questions is the one who's going to write responsibly? You've got to earn the killing of the puppy.

We all like to praise THE WIRE for it's realism and social commentary, but it's fiction. And the "realism" of the wire is a heightened one, the real situation is generally worse and less organised, but would be too harsh for TV. Even comparing David Simon's boo, THE CORNER to the fiction of THE WIRE shows how much the show has been sanitised.

Maybe that's responsible writing. Having something to say about the world and finding a way to use just enough of the truth to say it, but without showing the full picture or hurting anyones feelings.

I recall another Simon story. I've heard him talking about writing for the show HOMICIDE, which was based on another of his non-fiction books. For the plot of an episode he used the facts of a real life murder investigation he'd followed whilst writing the book, simply changeing the names and a couple of details. Years later the daughter of the real-life victim came to him and spoke about how she'd recognised the details of her fathers murder on a fictional TV show.

Where do we draw the line?

Charlieopera said...

Ishmael Reed took issue with The Wire and David Simon (and the other writers on the show). While I didn't find the problems Reed did (and am probably guilty of giving the same type of "voice" to some of my own black (African-American) characters, I'm not in a position to ignore Reed's claims/feelings.

On the other hand, while I think the writing brilliant on all of Simon's work, I took issue with something in Treme that precluded me from watching it (but that had more to do with hearing Simon on a CNN interview than the show itself). So it goes ...

John McFetridge said...

Charlie, there are more parts of the interrogation here:

And here:

The entire interrogation was over six hours. And you're right, the guy does look full of nervous adrenalin and fighting himself. I think it really shows how much control and skill the interviewer had to get everything in this one interview. Williams pled guilty to all the charges last week.

Jay, I guess that's it, you've got to earn it.

Oh those Bills, so close. Finding new ways to lose. They'll be playing another game in Toronto soon but I'll be boycotting it, hoping they never leave Buffalo (and not because I can't afford the stupid ticket price).