Edna Buchanan on Writing Mysteries
"Laying Ghosts to Rest" by Edna Buchanan
She looked like a broken doll, pale and naked, crumpled in a mangrove tangle at the water's edge. The little girl had been stolen from her bedroom during a dark and steamy Miami night.
Her murder, a quarter of a century ago, still haunts those who remember. The lead homicide detective never forgot. I sat at his bedside as he lay dying. During his final breaths, he spoke again of the case, still unsolved, still a mystery.
Too many disturbing mysteries weigh upon real life, the last pages forever elusive, frustratingly out of reach. In the case of that little girl I finally fashioned my own solution. I wrote about a similar child, a similar case. A central character in that novels was a dying detective, still obsessed by her fate. But this time there was closure, her murder was solved. Justice at last. Good therapy for me, for all of us. What joys there are in writing and reading mysteries. More truth can be told in fiction than in real life. The writer can address society's problems, mirror the community, inform as well as entertain, expose wrongs and injustices and create characters who vent his or her own outrage. Fictional officials can be endowed with dedication, intelligence and common sense, so unlike most in real government.
Everybody is interested in mysteries, in crime. We are all touched by it. We are all fascinated by evil. We all yearn for resolution. Our legal system rarely provides it. Even if a crime is solved, even if there is an arrest and if, after hearing after hearing and deposition after deposition, there should be a conviction, it still never really ends. There are appeals and more appeals, basic gain time, incentive gain time, good time, pre-trial release, work release, conditional release and early release, to say nothing of furloughs, parole and probation, and escape. There is no last page.
Like most people, writers love to be tidy, to wrap up loose ends and solve all the perplexing mysteries. That's not possible in real life. Murders go unsolved, missing people stay lost forever, and some corpses remain unidentified no matter how many clues are unearthed. They are haunting. Somebody owes the restless souls of those whose killers still walk free. They deserved better. Real life can be grim, unlike mystery fiction, where writers can wrap up those loose ends, solve the mysteries and best of all, write the last chapter, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve, so unlike real life.
The genre is an escape, a sanctuary, in an increasingly chaotic world overtaken by unresponsive government agencies, rush hour traffic, voice mail and other unspeakable torments. Mystery novels offer intellectual challenge, structure and triumphs of logic and order in a world where such comforts are increasingly rare.
Readers assume the role of detective, sharpening deductive skills and honing their talents for problem and puzzle solving. Mystery aficionados love logic and seeing all the strands spun from an original premise weave together satisfyingly at the end.
They experience wonderful literature, memorable characters, roller coaster adventure, breath taking suspense, and pumped up heart rates, all without exposing themselves to bullets, tear gas, rocks, bottles, or actual exercise.
The writer has even more fun.
We provide the only world in which our readers are certain to find swift and sure--or any real--justice. We all need endings and it is a joy, as a novelist, for me to be able to give them to readers, and to myself.
Two fewer ghosts, one a little girl and the other an aging detective, haunt my dreams these dark and steamy nights. Who says there's no justice?
An Annotated Britt Montero Reading List
Contents Under Pressure, 1992
Miami, It's Murder, 1994
Suitable for Framing, 1995
Act of Betrayal, 1996
Margin of Error, 1997
Garden of Evil, August, 1999
Nobody Lives Forever, 1990
The Corpse Had a Familiar Face: Covering Miami, America's Hottest Beat, 1987
Never Let Them See You Cry: More From Miami, America's Hottest Beat, 1992
Edna Buchanan won a Pulitzer Prize for her police-beat reporting for the Miami Herald and has written several highly-praised collections of nonfiction including Never Let Them See You Cry and The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. Her Edgar-nominated mystery series features Miami crime reporter Britt Montero. Buchanan's most recent non-series novel is Pulse, the story of a transplant patient whose gratitude to the donor ends up imperiling his new life.