Some people believe that fiction writers, along with actors and musicians, should keep their opinions to themselves and do their work with no goal beyond entertaining an audience. No social or political messages should be allowed to make readers stop and think about real-world issues.
Fortunately, crime fiction authors have always ignored that advice, because they realize their characters don’t exist in a void and have to make their way in the same world readers inhabit. Some of the most popular mystery writers have proved it’s possible to present their own passionate viewpoints without losing readers. Carl Hiaasen is an anti-development crusader in south Florida and gets that across in his books, but readers are too busy laughing to object to having their consciousness raised about environmental issues. Long before Hiaasen, John D. MacDonald kept readers enthralled with mysteries that highlighted destructive development in the same fragile Florida ecosystem.
Many crime fiction writers explore a variety of today’s most sensitive social issues in their books. Julia Spencer-Fleming, for example, has woven mysteries around the plight of illegal migrant workers, teenage pregnancy and abandoned babies, violence against gays, and post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from Iraq.
More often, though, writers focus on particular issues that mean the most to them. The challenge they face is finding fresh ways to weave those topics into entertaining stories. I asked three authors who are currently including environmental issues in their novels why they feel fiction is a good medium for their message and whether any readers have objected to being “educated” as they’re entertained.
“Crime fiction is a good medium for exploring ANY issue that people feel passionate about, because that passion, when pushed to the extreme, can lead to murder,” Beth Groundwater says. Beth writes a series featuring river ranger Mandy Tanner, who works on the Arkansas River in Colorado.
C.J. Lyons agrees. “All my crime fiction has a message, whether environmental or simply about everyday people finding the courage to become their own heroes.” C.J., a physician who began her career writing medical thrillers and now co-authors environmentally themed novels (Rock Bottom, Hot Water) with activist Erin Brockovich, says Brockovich sought her out as a writing partner because of the strong message about self-reliance in C.J.’s first series. “I feel fiction is an appropriate medium to explore issues, whether environmental, political, or moral/ethical. Crime fiction is the best venue because at its base you have the timeless struggle of good versus evil, and our job as writers is to explore all that messy gray area between the two.”
“Environmental thrillers offer a unique opportunity to educate readers about real-world problems in the context of an exciting story,” says thriller writer Karen Dionne. The world’s dwindling supply of clean water and misuse of this precious resource has been a major concern in Karen’s personal life and she explored the issue in her first book, Freezing Point. Her second, Boiling Point, is about the disastrous consequences of a radical scheme to end global warming. Both of Karen’s eco-thrillers, she notes, have been used as course material at the University of Delaware.
Whatever a book’s underlying message, telling a compelling tale must come first.
“I always try to balance things so the reader can make up their own mind without being preached to,” C.J. says. “Above all, my job is to entertain...the education comes in a close second, but if a book isn't entertaining, who's gonna read it in the first place?” She says she hasn’t heard any complaints, and in the case of the books co-written with Brockovich, some readers have asked for more information about mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and the dangers of nuclear power.
Beth Groundwater always tries to see her writing through the eyes of a reader. “I complain when an author stops the action in the middle of a gripping story to stand on their soapbox and push (or have one of their characters push) their viewpoint on an issue,” she says. “I prefer to show how the issue affects my characters' lives, then let readers draw their own conclusions. For example, in Deadly Currents, I illustrate how water rights affects the lives of not only river rangers and rafters, but of everyone who lives and works in the water-starved American West. Because of my organic approach, I've never gotten a complaint from a reader about preaching my beliefs. I have, however, been told that I've opened readers' eyes about an issue and made them think more about it, even to the point of changing their opinion.”
Human impact on the natural world, and the constant push-and-pull between environmentalists and business, can be divisive and inflammatory, and Karen believes writers must keep this in mind. “I think more than most other kinds of fiction, environmental mysteries and thrillers walk a fine line. There's always going to be a certain amount of political and sociological baggage that goes with having written an eco-thriller. If a reader disagrees with the author's environmental position, that may well get in the way of their enjoying the story.”
Some people simply aren’t interested in mysteries that are “about something.” One of Karen’s readers complained in an online review, “I sympathize with the message, but at the same time, I read fiction to be entertained, not to be told how often we are destroying the earth even if it may be true." Other readers, though, have echoed the Romantic Times reviewer who said, “[Freezing Point's] ingenious plot, genuine characters, superlative writing and nail-biting suspense will change the way you look at a bottle of water.”
C.J. believes the six most powerful and irresistible words in the English language are "Let me tell you a story..." When it’s done right, a story can change lives, change opinions – or, at the very least, give the reader something to think about.
How do you feel about fiction with a message?
Learn more about C.J. Lyons, Beth Groundwater, and Karen Dionne on their websites: http://www.cjlyons.net, http://www.bethgroundwater.com and http://www.karen-dionne.com/.