At various mystery events over the course of the year, I’ve been invited to participate in panels on what has been variously called social issues, social commentary, and social satire in mysteries or crime fiction. My experience so far is that as far as author panel questions are concerned, no significant distinction is made among these terms. I, however, consider social satire an approach to fiction that is very different from telling a story with social themes or issues.
Every writer I’ve met who tackles a serious subject in his or her mysteries is determined to tell a good story about likeable characters into which the social theme can be inserted without preachiness or dogma. Many use humor to gain the reader’s empathy with the cause and characters. In satire, the humor may range from witty to savage, and the characters, including the protagonist, have what my father would have called “feet of clay.” Empathy is not the goal.
I’ve always liked the spectrum of moral attitudes in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Characters—and real-life people as well—can be categorized as lawful good (Abraham Lincoln), chaotic good (Robin Hood), chaotic neutral (Dirty Harry? Dortmunder? Bernie Rhodenbarr? Baby Shark?), chaotic evil (Hannibal Lecter), and lawful evil (Hitler). The characters in satire are chaotic neutral at best, even the protagonist.
Satirists make a point by skewering the offending group or ideology. A classic example of satire (in essay form, not fiction) is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he proposed tackling “the Irish problem,” solving overpopulation, poverty, and hunger all at once, by having the Irish eat their children. Satiric movies include those of Robert Altman, who never offers an endearing character, and the Coen Brothers, most of whose characters are chaotic neutrals, although they’re willing to soften the satire with an occasional lovable rascal like the George Clooney character in “Brother, Where Art Thou?” or an amiable character like the pregnant cop in “Fargo.”
True satirists in crime fiction are rarer than social commentators. Carl Hiaasen comes to mind. So does Robert Barnard, especially in his academic novels. Many writers inject a satiric element into their writing through their secondary characters or their villains, who may be vicious, pretentious, obnoxious, or sanctimonious. Reginald Hill, for example, may be satiric about feminism, but Pascoe’s humanity keeps his wife Ellie from going quite over the top. And Dalziel’s charm and intelligence save him from flattening out into a mere sketch of a fat sexist slob.
The late Donald Westlake’s satire had a gentleness that made some of his chaotic neutral characters, like Dortmunder, very endearing. But he could be ruthless too. I once met him at an Edgars-night party and took him to task about making what had struck me as rather cruel fun of fat people in Baby, Would I Lie?, set in the American heartland in Branson, MO. He smiled very sweetly at me and said, “Why should they be exempt?”
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was from SJ Rozan, who in a blurb for my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, said my characters were “both over the top and completely believable.” The over-the-top part is the satiric element. The completely-believable part is my determination never to subordinate character to satire and my personal preference (not only as a writer, but as a reader and movie-goer too) for endearing characters.
My favorite satiric moment in my own work is in an unpublished mystery set in a New Age community that’s known locally as Woo-Woo Farm. It may not be so funny out of context, but I relish it. The bullying, obnoxious character who will become the victim barges into a “wellness center” and bellows threats at one of the practitioners, interrupting sessions of massage, healing touch, and shamanic journeys. The chiropractor he’s attacking says, “Please lower your voice. This is a Temple of Healing.” And the angry customer roars, “I don’t care if it’s the goddamn end of the rainbow!”