Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Toxic People and Murder Plots

Sandra Parshall

When anyone asks where I get ideas for mysteries – and people do ask, with surprising frequency – I reply, “All I have to do is look around, and I’ll see a million situations that could lead to murder.”

I’ve just finished and turned in a novel (Broken Places, scheduled for publication in March 2010) and haven’t yet started the next. As I consider plot ideas, I’ve been thinking a lot about groups that turn toxic, and how their inner machinations might give rise to murder plots. I'm not talking about hate groups formed with a negative purpose. I'm referring to benign organizations made up of ordinary, nice people who change character once they're swept up groups. If you’ve ever belonged to a group of any kind for any length of time, you probably know what I mean.

I’ve seen it happen again and again.

People come together with a common interest or goal. At first they’re all best buddies. We’re in this together, right? We want the same things, right? Whether the group is working toward change of some sort or simply pursuing a favorite hobby, everyone gets along beautifully.


Until somebody gets tired of doing things a certain way. Until somebody begins to believe the group has the wrong goal or is using the wrong tactics. Until somebody decides that she is queen bee and everyone else is a drone. Then, as the poet wrote, the center will not hold. Things start falling apart.

In a formal organization with elected officers and board members who are volunteers, one person may become much more emotionally invested than anyone else – perhaps because she cares deeply about the cause, perhaps because she has nothing else to fill her time, perhaps because she simply loves feeling important. She will take on many tasks, usually things no one else wants to do, or she devotes herself to one important job, and everyone becomes convinced that she is indispensable. At that stage, a diva is born. The situation can become toxic, with one person’s wishes and needs always taking precedence and no one daring to offend her. I’ve seen this up close. It wasn’t pretty. I quit the organization before I was driven to murder.

In environmental and political groups at the local level, differences over policy will eventually lead to splits, but until a group divides and the factions go their different ways, life can be hell for everybody. After the division occurs, the two sides are likely to be bitter antagonists. We hate no enemies so fiercely as those who were once our friends.

Some of the most maddening behavior I’ve witnessed has taken place in online groups of giant panda fans. (I’m serious!) These groups – and they are legion, some with a handful of members, some with hundreds, at least one with thousands – seem to attract two distinct types of people: those who want only to revel in the unsurpassed cuteness of pandas and imagine them possessing all sorts of human attributes, including the ability to speak (in baby talk); and those who care about individual bears and recognize their unique personalities but never forget that they are animals, not big furry children. Add in differences of opinion about the ways zoos house and care for the bears, and you have a guaranteed recipe for open warfare. (Yes, these are grown men and women, not kids.)

I won’t even get started about citizens’ organizations at odds over development, except to say it's a miracle that so few people have committed mayhem during zoning hearings.

Writers don’t have to look to the highest levels of government for conspiracies and enemies lists and mutterings about traitors and who can and cannot be trusted. We don’t have to put the fate of the world in peril to justify passion in our characters. All we have to do is get together a group of characters with a common interest and let human nature take its toxic course.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, this is so true. I've explored this concept about group mentality before, too. I've seen such awful behavior at PTA meetings...just goes to show it can happen anywhere!

Interesting post.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

Murder in the PTA! That's a story many parents could relate to. :-)

Sheila Connolly said...

It has always amazed me that the infighting, the jockeying for power, is the same whether you're dealing with a mega-corporation, a midsize non-profit, or a local volunteer organization. Must be human nature. But plenty of fodder for murder, at all levels!

Sisterfilms said...

Wow, you've hit the nail on the head with this one. I've been thinking a lot about toxic people and relationships recently - two words: church. secretary.

Your comment about zoning hearings brought to mind an old episode of This Old House. The owner of the house was very pregnant. She and her husband were trying to get permission to radically change their Salem Mass. house, while keeping the exterior looking historically accurate. At one of the zoning hearings a local man stood up and said something very rude about the woman "waddling in" expecting to get what she was so hurtful and horrible, and just plain old out of line. The woman got up and walked out and the husband definitely looked ready to commit murder!

Susan D said...

I love this idea... it's got many legs.

And then there's the new member who decides the people currently running things are fairly clueless, and that only the new member really knows how to do things right. And proceeds to take over.

Paul Lamb said...

To me, though, just as everyday people can be just as evil as strong and powerful people, everyday crimes can be just as interesting (and evil) as murder.

I think a good case can be made for a mystery novel to be just as gripping and page-turn inducing if the crime is something other than a murder and maybe even other than a crime.

Sandra Parshall said...

Paul,in my first book the crime is not a murder. The book won an Agatha, so I guess the people who voted thought that was okay. I would like to see mystery writers become more inventive about the crimes they build stories around, but I'm afraid a lot of editors would insist that without a murder the book wouldn't have enough suspense. I certainly heard that often enough when The Heat of the Moon was being rejected by NY editors.

*Any* crime can be compelling if the writer can make the reader feel the urgency and emotion that drive the characters.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, the two panda factions remind me of the Jane Austen fans who see her as a social satirist and the Janeites who read the books as sweet portrayals of village life. At least that's what I was taught in college English. :)