I wanted to write about death and dying this week. Death is central to crime fiction; making sense of death is its heart. There were two deaths that touched me this past week, one directly, one less so.
The first death was a good death.
My beloved old father-in-law died last Thursday in his own bed, in his sleep. At peace. A fine end, all things considered, to a fine life.
He joined up at eighteen and fought in the desert campaign in North Africa during the World War II. He was an active and lifelong member of the Gunners Association. A way, I imagine, of making sense of the deaths of so many young men killed in the Sahara in the early 1940s. The commemorations, the wreaths, the marches, the care for widows and indigent old veterans, were a way of honouring the dead and celebrating the brazen good luck of the living.
There is no material for a crime novel in that passing, unless one can find a way of writing about the cruel evolutionary joke that robs fine minds of their cohesion in old age. He had Alzheimer’s disease and I would happily pitch a bounty hunter of the Lee Child variety to go after that renegade gene that unravelled his personality and memory in the end.
But in the end, it was a release, a death that one could stitch into the fabric of a family.
The second death unravelled a family.
Two weeks ago a grandmother was reported missing from her home in Johannesburg. She was sixty-five years old. She was plump and jolly and loved, part of a wide network of friends and family.
After a frantic searches by her distraught family and the police her bludgeoned body was found near a railway track. Her car, a clapped out old vehicle, was spotted in various places and then the cops stopped it and the men (the woman’s killers) were arrested and charged. Her family have buried her and, if the slow and rickety wheels of the South African justice system turn, the men who murdered her will get life.
There is a bereaved family with an anguished loss of ordinariness, of the everydayness of life. There is no overarching evil, no plan, and no intrigue in her killers. It is numbing, the kind banal and everyday violence that leads to the death of old ladies.
There is the start of a crime novel in that. A hard one to write, I grant you. But a novelist could find a place in this story. There are places for heroism and honour. The reader, like the writer, always needs a place in which to locate herself. In this story the private investigator and the cops, after revenge or justice would be the place to start.
It might also be possible, hard but possible, to write this in a way that sketched out the adrenalined machismo that cuts men loose for morality, enabling them to kill old ladies without a twitch of a conscience.
These were the thoughts I had about writing about death, the differences between a natural death and a criminal one.
And then troops in Bahrain opened fire on unarmed civilians going to a funeral. This lead to more funerals, which led to more shootings, which led to more funerals.
A spiral of rage and violence, part of the same whirlwind that ousted Hosni Mubarak and which is threatening autocratic and corrupt governments across North Africa and the Middle East.
In Libya hundreds are dead. How many no one is sure. The country is closed, the Internet links cut. Nevertheless spiky, blurred clips appear on YouTube as troops open fire on their own citizens.
Blood pools on cracked, dusty pavements.
And I think how would one write this crime?
Muammar Gaddafi, clown and madman, a despot who has clung to power for forty-two years. Mubarak for thirty. These, like the other autocrats that have pillaged, repressed and impoverished their citizens for decades, do not fit easily into a crime novel.
These are crimes that are of such a huge scale that they can only be committed in plain view. But that is often the best place to hide a particularly outrageous wrong. The collusion with these men, to give an example, by countries that claim democracy at home but for whom repression serves other purposes abroad.
How would one write a novel about the crime that is the massacre of two hundred people or more heaped amongst broken olive trees?
How does one write a novel of a crime perpetrated for so long with such impunity? A crime that counts its victims in the millions?
Two hundred people mowed down by automatic weapons in a city in eastern Libya. The scale of it is just too large to render.
A massacre is hard to conjure in the confines of a crime novel. It feels too grand, too large, too operatic.
Does this mean that murder – an old lady here, a little boy there is for the little people? That a massacre is for a tyrant?
But I want to find a way to write these tyrants. There has to be a way to do it, even as the terms of our world shift before us.
Because they are all as the common murderers in the end.