Danger is a crucial element in a mystery novel. A killer is on the loose and no one is safe. But sometimes the killer can be the writer, and the victim, the reader.
I'm talking about when the author turns into a preacher and the story becomes a sermon. Now I am not against using a mystery novel for social commentary. Writing doesn't happen in a moral vacuum, and, after all, isn't a mystery a morality play? As fellow North Carolina author Margaret Maron said there is no topic that can't be dealt with in a mystery novel. The problem occurs when the author's opinions come across so heavy handedly that the issue is not the context for the story but the story becomes the platform for the issue, robbing the reader of the opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions.
One safer technique is to draw from the Past as a way to compare and contrast issues in the Present. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's last line in The Great Gatsby – "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Past." And William Faulkner's line from Requiem for a Nun – "The Past is never dead. It's not even Past." Pulling the Past into the Present is the way I've structured my Sam Blackman series, and the technique has allowed the reader to examine issues within the context of a story. For example, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling on Loving v. Virginia struck down the old Confederate states' ban on interracial marriage. My novel, A Murder in Passing, investigates a murder that occurred because of that ruling, but Sam and Nakayla, my interracial couple, happened to be investigating that death at the same time North Carolina was voting for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The parallels were clear for the readers to see on their own.
In my new Sam Blackman book, Hidden Scars, I wanted to address an issue that concerns me, namely the direction of education in North Carolina, where budgets are being slashed in public schools and universities for liberal and fine arts programs. I believe it is important to encourage the imagination and for students to learn how to think and express and not just what to think and express. The book uses famed Black Mountain College as the backdrop for a crime in the Present. For those not familiar with it, the small college near Asheville, NC, existed from 1933 to 1957, had the arts at its core, but taught science, math, and design, combining the imaginative with the pragmatic. Albert Einstein was on the Board of Advisers, world-renowned professors who fled Nazi Germany were on the faculty, and luminaries like Buckminster Fuller were involved in workshops which created his first successful geodesic dome. In the midst of a murder investigation, Sam and Nakayla learn the history of this revolutionary institution, and I hope the reader comes to appreciate its legacy as well.
The only preaching I hope I do in this book comes in what I consider a more appropriate venue - ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. "In the age of The Art of the Deal, the art of being – being loved, being compassionate, being welcoming – is an art I hope all the heroes of my stories personify, and an art we can practice and defend with the assurance that we, readers and writers alike, are on the right side of history."