Jennifer Soosar’s first fiction appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s Department of First Stories in 2016, representing Canada in our special “All Nations” anniversary celebration. Since then she’s had a book published—the psychological suspense novel Parent Teacher Association—and is currently at work on another. As a child, Jennifer watched a lot of America’s Most Wanted, which gave her insight into shady characters from a young age. In this post she talks about how fiction can make us all more aware of how the criminal mind works.—Janet Hutchings
A police detective enters a crime scene. The place has been ransacked—drawers dumped, lamp knocked over, knickknacks smashed—and a woman is dead on the floor. There’s been a violent home invasion, or so says the husband who called 911. A cursory look at the scene tells the detective the story is total nonsense. He’s seen hundreds of crime scenes over his career and knows what the aftermath of a real intrusion looks like. This scene stinks; an amateur’s version of how it’s “supposed” to look. Little doubt exists in the detective’s mind that the husband is involved.
Criminals often have a hard time fooling the police. From the textbook to the bizarre, cops have seen it all in terms of human behavior, motive, and physical evidence. Cops have a firm grasp on—let’s call it a “range of normal.” Authentic crime unfolds in a random, yet recognizable pattern. A staged crime scene, on the other hand, looks theatrical in its contrivance.
A cop’s instinct for crime and deception is a tool honed through training and field experience. It is a tool they are fortunate to carry whether on or off-duty. No con man collecting money door-to-door for a phoney charity will get a dime from a police officer’s house.
Are readers of mystery and crime fiction developing a similar tool as they read for pleasure? It’s a casual theory of mine, a happy side effect of the entertainment and mental stimulation offered by the genre. I can’t prove anything, but I would bet that we mystery /crime fans are harder targets of crime than the general population. Just like the cop who’s seen it all, we’ve read about it all.
And more than just read—we’ve loitered inside the heads of some seriously twisted people. Characters like Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca), and Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley).
Spending hours of time with these characters has given us intimate knowledge into the calculating way they think, their techniques of deception, and how they justify their actions to themselves. When we’re not inside their brains, we are flies on the wall, bearing witness to their wicked deeds. We’ve invaded their privacy and seen behind the masks worn to fool unsuspecting others. They have educated us on everything from the fine art of poisons to the finer points of stalking. The coldness of their blood has given us a chill, and their creepiness has shrivelled our skin.
Authors have done us a service in crafting villains that elicit empathy as well as revulsion (Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon). Through careful character development, the dangerous personality has been dissected and exposed down to the finest nuances, allowing for an understanding of the criminal mind that, I argue, is advantageous in real life.
I’m confident most of us believe the world is a decent place and that people are good. But, I don’t think we readers of mystery and crime are deluding ourselves about any of that either. Our doors are bolted at night (Faceless Killers) and we’re careful about the information we share online (The Broken Window). We appreciate proper shoes—flats, or ones with a low heel—in case we need to run for our lives (any Nancy Drew novel). If we keep valuables at home, or cash in a safe, we don’t advertise it to the landscapers, lest it become a prison rumor (In Cold Blood).
We’re careful about strangers. New suitors need to be checked out (A Kiss Before Dying) and small-talk conversations are ended the moment they go sideways, otherwise we might find ourselves roped into a murder scheme (Strangers on a Train). We know that simple plans are not always simple (A Simple Plan) and that it’s important to do our own due diligence (Fletch) instead of naively believing another person’s word for things.
In business dealings, we mystery/crime readers approach matters with, perhaps, an extra degree of caution (A is for Alibi). And we’re not necessarily fooled by a respectable-looking, professional appearance either. We know that a top CEO can be a crook, killer, or rapist just as easily as a lowly bureaucrat can (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
None of this means we’re paranoid, of course. Not really. While we do find the dark side of human nature entertaining, we mystery readers can never forget one fundamentally important point; truth is stranger than fiction. That means whatever can happen in a novel can happen in real life too—only the circumstances will be weirder (read true crime to confirm).
As a result, I believe a higher value is put on our personal safety and security. We like sensible things like insurance—but not if a loved one urges us to take out a policy (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice). That might make us think twice.
It’s not that we don’t trust normal, everyday people, like friends and family. We’re just aware that normal, everyday people can be driven to heinous acts through jealousy (Presumed Innocent), the desire for revenge (Murder on the Orient Express), greed (The Maltese Falcon), and the effort to keep a secret hidden (The Talented Mr. Ripley). We keep that tidbit tucked in the back of our minds.
Villains haven’t been our only teachers. The amateur sleuths and seasoned detectives we’ve followed over countless investigations have taught us how to be hyper-observant, how to deconstruct events logically rather than emotionally, how to recognize the body language of deception. And when the final confrontation occurs between hero and villain, we’ve learned that we need to fight to the death.
Yes indeed. Mystery, suspense and crime fiction has provided us readers with a bloody, well-rounded, and violent education in psychopaths, sociopaths, and garden variety criminals. We know what they want and their methods to get it.
All that aside, readers of the mystery genre are some of the nicest people out there. Go to any Bouchercon conference or ThrillerFest in New York City and I’m sure you’ll agree. While we are an unassuming bunch, I’ll remind those with bad intentions—don’t try and pull any fast ones. We’re nice, but not gullible. If we’re ever walking in a parking lot and a guy with a leg cast begs our help to move a mattress into his van (Silence of the Lambs), I guarantee you we’ll be running away screaming on our flat shoes.