Death in fiction

So I tend to write in a lot of genres, but a common, overall theme is adventure. One of the things about adventure writing is that everybody doesn’t have to be murder-hobos. I watch too many movies where they seem to measure the gravitas of things by the body count. And heroes aren’t really heroes in the classic because they calmly go about killing everybody they run into without mussing their hair or tearing a seam. Or even feeling especially bad for having a running firefight on a crowded street.

“Richard Stark” taught me a much different way to approach things with Parker. (I’ve read a number of those books, but not all, because nobody ever gets rid of them at a used bookstore and I’m WAY too cheap to pay the sorts of prices that TradPub thinks they can get for a series of books that are older than I am. First pub 1968, by the way.)

Parker lived by a different code in a different era, even though he could be a son of a bitch. From Wikipedia: “A ruthless career criminal, Parker has almost no traditional redeeming qualities, aside from efficiency and professionalism. Parker is callous, meticulous, and perfectly willing to commit murder if he deems it necessary. He does, however, live by one ethical principle: he will not double-cross another professional criminal with whom he is working, unless they try to double-cross him. Should that happen, Parker will unhesitatingly undertake to exact a thorough and brutal revenge.

In one book, he gets the drop on a man who might report him and undo everything that he’s just managed to do to get even with the people who set him up. Parker points the gun at the guy and directs him to drive. In modern books or movies, the driver of course lunges at the hero at some point, they have a fight, and the npc gets killed. Or forces the hero to shoot him in self-defense.

Parker pulls to the side of the road when he gets where he’s going and gets out, telling the guy to keep driving and forget all this. Minor character, completely irrelevant to the overall plot, but neither Parker nor Westlake see the need to kill him casually or callously. The driver just left and that was that.

I have written some bad characters. And some good characters doing bad things. I try to remember that it is not necessary to kill every peon NPC that you run across. They can run away. They can go home at night. They can live.

Similarly, in the movie The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010), there is a scene where Affleck’s gang are getting away, dressed as nuns with masks. They come around a corner and park the getaway car as they are about to escape and there’s a cop, sitting there in his patrol car, eating a sandwich. One man with a pistol, against four guys with assault rifles and the drop.

What does he do?

The cop very obviously turns his head the other way and watches the scenery, pointedly ignoring the criminals.

They don’t kill him. Everyone recognizes what would have happened had the cop gotten stupid, so he doesn’t. Honor among thieves, sort of, but the man got to go home to his family that night, instead of dying pointlessly.

I’m writing a novel now with a villain who’s not a scenery-chewing sadist. Just a dude, doing what he thinks it right within a fairly twisted cultural matrix. (Soviet Central Asia, 1938, Samarkand, Uzbekistan.) The hero and his sidekick would both kill the guy if they had to, but I’m struck by the realization that everyone might actually get out of this one alive, because nobody has gone to that step where everyone has to go murder hobo.

I wonder what we as a culture have lost over the last however long, that just defeating the villain and throwing him in jail is no longer enough, like it was in the comic books when I was a kid. You can no longer just stop the supervillain from poisoning the reservoir. You must execute him in gory detail to keep him from ever trying again.

We have lost the concept of human redemption, in reducing everything to simply black and white.

Parker was all about gray. I try to keep that in mind when writing Finn, Duff, or Rob. Yasmin. Brannon. Any of the others.

I used to say “they can’t beat me, they can only kill me, and that is an admission on their part that they cannot beat me.” We don’t do that.

Batman in the old days never killed, Michael Keaton notwithstanding. Why is it acceptable now?

What do we need to change so that we can return to the Golden Age where we could defeat someone, and then give them the chance to be redeemed?

A dead man is just dead. He cannot be redeemed. Ever.

What have we become?