Category Archives: John Grisham

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

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Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

Interview, Who’s Interviewing Who?*

eyewitness-interviewsBeing mixed up in a major crime, especially murder, can be harrowing enough. For many people, it’s only made worse when members of the press want interviews and access. Lots of people have no desire to make their lives public, so they avoid contact with the press if they can.

But there are people who actually do enjoy talking to the press. They like their time in the limelight, and seem to gravitate to wherever the cameras and microphone are. I’m sure you know the kind; you’ve seen them on news shows (e.g. ‘I still can’t believe this happened. He lived across the street for ___ years, and I never suspected a thing….’).

They’re in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigate the death of Poirot’s dentist, Henry Morley. There seems no reason for him to have committed suicide; at the same time, though, there seems no real motive for murder. Japp and Poirot talk to the people who visited on the day he was killed. One of those witnesses is Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, a rather eccentric woman who’s involved in amateur theatrics as well as missionary work. At first, she’s not overly enthusiastic about Japp interviewing her. But then she begins to enjoy it, even saying:
 

‘and if, by chance, my name should be in the papers – as a witness at the inquest, I mean – you will be sure that it is spelled right?…And of course, if they did care to mention that that I appeared in As You Like it at the Oxford Repertory Theatre…’
 

The mystery only deepens when Miss Sainsbury-Seale herself goes missing…

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill shows another reason people might be happy to talk to the press: it can be career-enhancing. In that novel, Carl Lee Hailey and his family are devastated when his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, is brutally raped and left for dead. The police quickly catch the two men responsible: Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. Hailey is concerned that these men will get away with their crime, and that’s not out of the question. The Haileys are black; Cobb and Willard are white. And this is small-town Clanton, Mississippi. Added to that is his rage over what happened to his daughter, and his sense of helplessness. So, he arranges to get a gun, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and shoots them. There is no choice but to arrest Hailey, although there is a great deal of sympathy for him. He asks local attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, a black man has shot two white men. For another, there’s the very real issue of taking the law into one’s own hands. As you can imagine, the media soon get hold of the story, and both Brigance and his counterpart for the prosecution get plenty of requests for interviews. Interestingly, each accuses the other of using the media (and the case) to get the kind of national attention that can catapult a lawyer to the top.

Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry novels offer a very interesting perspective on interviews. Henry is a sports reporter for the Toronto Planet. So, she spends quite a lot of time with baseball players, their coaches and managers, and other sports figures. In The Dead Pull Hitter, she’s drawn into a case of two murders of members of the Toronto Titans. Not only does she feel their loss personally, but she also senses an exclusive story. So, she starts asking questions. And in the end, she and Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro find out the truth behind the murders. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between the baseball players and the press. Here’s what Henry says about one of them:
 

‘The television guys love him, because he’s always glad to see them. It might have something to do with the money they slip him for interviews, but I think it’s also a matter of control. They only want thirty second clips and feed him soft questions.’
 

Professional athletes know that giving interviews is an important part of what they do; And the more willing they are to talk to the press, the better their public perception. But even these veterans of the interview have a harder time talking to the press when it’s about murder. And Henry has her work cut out for her, as the saying goes, to get the story.

Wendy James’ The Mistake introduces readers to Jodie Evans Garrow. She seems to have the perfect life: she’s well-off, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she has a successful husband. Everything changes when the past catches up with her. It comes out that, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this birth, not even her husband. Soon, people start to ask questions, first privately, and then very publicly. Where is the child? If she’s alive, what’s become of her? If she’s not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The media make much of the story, and plenty of people have their say and give interviews. One of them is Jodie’s mother, who’s only too happy to heap criticism on her daughter. She writes a public letter that’s harshly judgmental of Jodie, and then goes on television, too, to be interviewed. She’s doing it as much for the money as she is for anything else. But that doesn’t make her very public rejection of her daughter any easier to take.

Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers features Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. In one plot thread of the novel, it’s the 30th anniversary of the (South Africa) Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand (it’s often called The Tour). This happened in 1981, while apartheid was still very much in force in South Africa. Many people thought that the tour shouldn’t take place because of that policy, and there were plenty of protests. The police wanted to keep order. Rugby fans simply wanted to see some good rugby matches. It all ended up in some very ugly scenes, and those who were there still remember it clearly. Thorne knows it was important, but she also knows that it’s already been covered. Then she finds a story hidden in the larger story. Two dancers dressed as lambs came to some of the games, entertained the crowd, danced, and so on. Then they stopped coming. Later, it was discovered that one was killed. As Thorne looks into what happened that day, she uncovers a lot about the protests, the police and the onlookers. She conducts interviews with several people on both sides, and those interviews are woven into the narrative.

Not everyone’s reluctant to talk to the press. Sometimes people are looking for what Andy Warhol is said to have called their 15 minutes of fame. Others want money or something else. And it’s interesting to see how they behave when the cameras are on.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon and Don Was’ Interview.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, John Grisham, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

Takin’ Suzy to the Church Bazaar*

social-eventsFor many people, places of worship aren’t just for prayer and ritual. They also serve an important social function. People come together at church halls, synagogues, mosques and temples for films, talks, celebrations, meals, and sometimes secular events like book sales. Even those who aren’t observant sometimes enjoy the company and the social experience.

You might argue that churches and other houses of worship used to serve a more important social function than they do now. But even today, they’re important in many communities. So it’s only natural that they show up in crime fiction, too. Whether you have a set of religious beliefs or none at all, it’s hard to deny the social role of churches and other such places.

As fans know, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, where the church serves important social functions. Of course the vicar leads services on Sundays, but there are also teas, craft and artwork sales and other events. And Miss Marple makes use of them all to hear the local talk, ask questions and get to know people when they’re off their guard.

We also see that side of the local church in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover. Although she’s in her eighties, Myrtle has no intention of being ‘put out to pasture.’ But her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, has other ideas. He loves his mother, but he’d like to see her take her ease, watch soap operas, and fill in crossword puzzles like other retirees. He thinks he can help her along by ‘volunteering’ her to serve on the local church’s Altar Guild, as well as signing her up for the United Methodist Women’s social group. Needless to say, Myrtle isn’t happy at all about this, and comes up with a creative way to express her disapproval. Still, she goes to the church. When she gets there, she discovers the body of real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove that she’s not ready to be shunted aside yet, so she decides to find out who killed the victim. And she soon learns that there are plenty of possibilities. Parke was both arrogant and malicious, and had made plenty of local enemies.

Churches also serve as important social support groups. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey is arrested for the murders of Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. On the one hand, he’s clearly guilty. There are witnesses, including a sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in the incident. On the other, there’s a lot of sympathy for Hailey. The two victims had recently beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and left her for dead. Plenty of people privately think they’d have done the same thing Hailey did. Still, he’s committed murder. So Hailey asks his friend, attorney Jake Brigance to defend him. In one plot thread of the novel, the Hailey family gets a lot of social, financial, and other support from their church, even from those who have very little money themselves.

Places of worship also provide a sort of cultural as well as social connection that goes beyond the ritual. We see that, for instance, in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. His two main protagonists are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom are Navajo, and both of whom are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. For the Navajo Nation, gathering for ritual also involves a lot of social interaction. Traditional Navajo rituals can take several days, so there are shared meals, catching up with people one hasn’t seen, and more. Many rituals are undergone in people’s homes, but there are also events at local Navajo chapter houses. Whether the occasion is a rite of passage or a secular event, it’s an opportunity to connect with people who may be otherwise very far-flung. And for Chee and Leaphorn, these gatherings offer the chance to talk to people and find out all sorts of information.

Many synagogues have social halls where people meet for book discussions, lectures, holiday parties, or to break ritual fasts together. We see those social gatherings in Faye Kellerman’s series featuring Rina Lazarus and Detective Peter Decker. For instance, in The Ritual Bath, here’s how Rina’s son Jake describes Purim (the Feast of Esther):
  

‘You get to dress up in a costume and the shul [synagogue] has a big Purim party after they read the megillah [the story of Queen Esther].’
  

The synagogue isn’t just a place for worship, although that’s an important aspect of it. It’s also a place for social gatherings and the development of a sense of community.

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. They are called in to investigate when the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the bottom of the Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. The CPS is generally concerned with hate crimes and community relations; so, at first, there doesn’t seem a reason for the CPS to be involved. But Khattak has learned that Drayton may actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If he is, then there’s an important question of how and why Canada admitted a war criminal. There is evidence that Drayton was Krstić, so one lead for Khattak and Getty is the local Bosnian mosque. In this way, they get to know a little about the members of that community. The mosque serves not just as a place for worship for them. It also serves important social and cultural purposes.

And that’s the thing about places of worship. Apart from their importance as places for religious ritual, they also serve social and cultural functions as well. And that means they can be important for fictional sleuths.

  
  
  

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Faye Kellerman, John Grisham, Tony Hillerman

I Know the End is Comin’ Soon*

murder-warningsAn important part of the appeal of crime fiction is the suspense. Sometimes that comes from not knowing who the killer is, and the sleuth’s search for the truth. It might also come from a ‘cat and mouse’ sort of plot, where the killer and the sleuth face off against each other. There are other ways, too, in which the author can build suspense. Whichever way the author decides to go about it, building suspense is an important part a crime novel.

That’s why it takes skill to create a plot where we’re told at the beginning that there’s going to be a murder. It takes even more when readers are told who the victim will be. A few stories, such as Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone let the reader in on that information right away. We know from the first sentence of that novel who the killer is (a professional housekeeper named Eunice Parchman). We know who the victims are, too (members of the Coverdale family, Eunice’s employers). Even with this information having been provided, Rendell builds the tension by showing what the characters are like, how they met, and how the murders happened.

There are other ways in which authors handle that tension, too. For instance, in Georges Simenon’s The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the Paris police receive a note warning them that a crime will be committed,
 

‘…at the church of Saint-Fiacre during First Mass.’
 

For Commissaire Jules Maigret, the place has special meaning. It’s a church near Matignon, where he was born and raised. He takes an interest in the note, although his colleagues think it’s a prank, and travels to Matignon, where he attends the service mentioned in the note. Sure enough, after the Mass ends and everyone else leaves, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre is found dead. Maigret knew the victim, so it’s very difficult for him to be objective in this case. Still, he investigates, and finds out who the killer is, and why the note was sent. In this novel, part of the suspense comes from the search for answers. Part comes as Maigret faces his own past.

Nicholas Blake’s (AKA Cecil Day-Lewis) The Beast Must Die begins with the sentence,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

This comes from the journal of Frank Cairnes, a crime writer who uses the pen name Felix Lane. Cairnes/Lane plans to murder the man who killed his son Martin ‘Martie’ in a hit-and-run incident. He returns to the town he and Martie lived in at the time of the boy’s death, and starts looking for information. Soon enough, he learns that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. After getting an ‘in’ to the Rattery household, Cairnes puts in motion his plan for revenge. But on the day’s Cairnes has chosen for the crime, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes is the natural suspect, but he claims he didn’t actually commit the murder. Then, he contacts poet/PI Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. According to Cairnes, he planned to kill Rafferty – even tried. But his method was attempted drowning, and the plan fell through. Why, says Cairnes, would he have planned to poison the man he’d already planned to drown? It’s a complicated case, and the suspense in it comes from Strangeways’ efforts to make sense of it.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn meets a young woman named Jean Reid, who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to talk her into getting off the bridge and going with him, and soon hears her story. As it turns out, her distress has come from the fact that her father, Harlan Reid, has been told he is going to die on a certain day at midnight. The predication came from Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who considers himself cursed with being able to see the future. Shawn takes an interest in the Reid case, and joins Jean in the effort to prevent her father’s death, if that’s possible.

There’s also Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced (You were waiting for this, right, Christie fans?). The novel begins with a personal advertisement in a local newspaper that states,
 

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30pm. Friends, please accept this, the only invitation.’  
 

The residents of Chipping Cleghorn can’t resist the invitation, and several of them go to Little Paddocks to see what it’s all about. At the appointed time, a man bursts into the house, demanding that everyone ‘stick ‘em up.’ No-one takes it seriously – until shots are fired into the room, and the man is killed. Even though we know there’ll be a murder, Christie doesn’t make it exactly clear who the victim will be, and certainly not who the killer is. That’s part of what adds to the suspense.

The main focus of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is a plot to murder H.S. Nirdlinger. It all starts when Nirdlinger’s insurance representative, Walter Huff, stops by the house to see about a policy renewal. Instead of his client, Huff meets Nirdlinger’s wife, Phyllis. He’s immediately smitten, and it’s not long before he and Phyllis are involved. She convinces him that, with his help, her husband can be killed, and she and Huff can be together and enjoy his insurance payout. Huff goes along with the plan and the murder is duly committed. But as fans of this novella know, that’s only the beginning of the complications in Huff’s life…

And then there’s John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left to die, her father, Carl Lee, is understandably devastated and angry. There’s a lot of sympathy for him, too. Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard are promptly arrested. The case gets the attention of Jake Brigance, an attorney whose office is just across the street from the courthouse. Out of interest, he attends the preliminary hearing for the two men, where he sees Hailey (whom he knows). Lee makes some cryptic remarks that give Brigance the idea that he intends to exact revenge on Cobb and Willard. Brigance tries to warn him not to do anything drastic, but Hailey says,
 

‘What would you plan, Jake?’
 

Sure enough, Hailey gets some help from his brother Lester, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and murders them. Then he asks Brigance to defend him. Along with several other elements, the legal and ethical issues add to the suspense of this novel. So does the fact that the stakes turn out to be a lot higher than just one man killing his daughter’s rapists.

In deft hands, even a story where we (and the sleuth) are told there’s going to be a murder can still draw us in. When it’s done well, the fact that we know what probably (or definitely) will happen can add to the tension. Which stories like this have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, John Grisham, Nicholas Blake, Ruth Rendell

Use Your Freedom of Choice*

banned-books-week-2016In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.

So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.

There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.

So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.

All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.

These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.

But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking.  It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.

This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.

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Filed under David Guterson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, John Grisham, Truman Capote