Carolyn Hart on good vs. evil
Carolyn Hart, author of Death Walked In and Ghost at Work (released this month), is on a Bouchercon panel about crime fiction's role in revealing the darkness of human emotions. That topic, she says. goes straight to the bedrock of mysteries and mystery writing (for all author posts, click here):
Mystery novels, from the most hard-boiled to the most genteel, all spring from the same truth: Humans succumb to evil and evil destroys.
It isn’t fashionable in our secular world to speak in terms of evil, but evil - or the dark side of the moon - is at the heart of all mysteries. Yet, where there is darkness, there must be light or the depth of the darkness cannot be seen. The detective in a mystery novel represents goodness or the hope for redemption.
When the detective sets out to solve the crime, the detective seeks to understand what fractured the relationships among those involved. The focus is not murder. The focus is what went wrong in these peoples’ lives. What dark emotions caused this turmoil?
Human failings - anger, deceit, jealousy, greed, denial, deception, selfishness - destroy relationships. In a traditional mystery, murder is the exaggerated symbol for the outcome of ordinary, everyday quarrels. In real life among ordinary people, greed does not usually result in murder, but an overpowering hunger for money or sex or excitement twists and corrodes character. A quarrel in real life does not usually end with a stabbing, but the results of that quarrel can affect a life or lives for generations.
I write about the effects of jealousy, anger, greed, fear, lust, and treachery among ordinary, everyday human beings, neighbors, friends, family. I am not interested in aberrant personalities. My province is the world of everyday life and my characters are a selfish sister, a mean neighbor, a false friend, an overbearing boss, a cruel family member, an adulterous husband or wife.
The world I know and write about is a world made up of all human emotions, including humor and lightheartedness and happiness. In Ghost at Work, a new series which will debut later this month, my protagonist is Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous, redheaded ghost, who comes back to earth to help someone in trouble. My editor describes the book as whimsy with a mystery.
I had enormous fun writing about my ghost. I loved the Topper books. Prim and proud banker Cosmo Topper’s life is upended by dashing ghosts George and Marian Kirby.
Ghost at Work is very different from Topper because the ghost is the protagonist, yet I hope I achieved the same themes of lighthearted fun and laughter springing from incongruity.
However, Ghost at Work, despite its humor, springs from those emotions on the dark side of the moon. The victim is a selfish, exploitive, overbearing bully. The suspects include a young wife who feels neglected, a member of the Altar Guild with a guilty secret, a wronged wife, an estranged son, a spurned lover, a priest unfairly treated, a desperate businessman, and a vindictive policewoman. The emotions that drive them are resentment, jealousy, pride, despair, anger, and revenge.
The book is unsparing in its appraisal of darkness within the characters. At the same time, I hope Ghost at Work succeeds in reflecting both the light and the dark.
When free-spirited Bailey Ruth receives her earthly assignment, she is warned about the dangers of reverting to human failings while on earth and urged always to remember that she is on the earth, not of the earth. Almost as soon as she arrives on a dark October night near the rectory of St. Mildred’s Episcopal Church in Adelaide, OK, Bailey Ruth runs afoul of the precepts for earthly visitation, shocking the rector’s wife when she appears. Bailey Ruth suggests moving the murder victim from the back porch of the rectory to the nearby cemetery. The subsequent journey using a wheelbarrow is fraught with difficulty, all of which I hope will amuse readers.
Dark motives, light moments, but that is the tapestry of our lives. Within mysteries and within ourselves, the desire to be good and the struggle to avoid evil is forever waged.
Agatha Christie compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. It is an apt comparison. In a mystery, the reader sees what happens when characters succumb to evil, that dark side of the moon. Yet the mystery in its resolution always celebrates goodness, and the light overcomes the dark.