Nothing uplifts this book lover’s spirits like starting my favorite festival of the year examining social justice in fictional murder mysteries! The 2016 Tucson Festival of Books panel, “The Rich Die Differently”, was stacked with intriguing authors and perhaps my favorite moderator this year, Julie Kramer. The journalist-turned-novelist asked smart questions without getting in the way of the panelists’ answers. That didn’t stop the panelists from disagreeing with the premise of the session right from the get-go.
Joseph Finder, whose most recent novel is the stand-alone thriller, The Fixer, immediately says people die the same. “We all do it alone, tragically or by natural causes. Money can’t insulate you.” He does allow that money brings out emotions like greed and envy.
Kramer points out that poor people are more likely to be murdered than rich people in real life while book authors seem to kill off rich people with greater frequency. The panelists, who neglected to study their kill stats prior to the festival, make a quick inventory of murders in their novels. Yes, some are well to do but some have relative financial struggles.
The conversation turns to body count. Finder says he tries to keep down the number of deaths in his novel based on his belief that the story has more impact when writers zoom in, quality deaths over quantity deaths. Even so, he killed sixty people in his first novel and had to be told by his mother to back off.
Malliet, whose most recent novel is Death at the Alma Mater (A St. Just Mystery), says that deaths don’t come easy. Her novels run about 80,000 words. “At 60,000 words you are approaching the end and you don’t know what to do, so you kill someone.” She recalls an editor telling her, “Kill somebody; get on with it!”
“At some point you have to kill someone,” says Finder. “The readers want it.” The vocal crowd agrees, especially as loud passers by interrupt the discussion taking place in the outdoor venue where the session is held.
Even if the rich don’t die differently, they are treated differently. Based on the way news agencies decide the value of a story, the rich are more likely to get longer coverage. We are fascinated by the wealthy, but don’t necessarily like them. Kramer asks, is it harder to make the rich sympathetic? Rich characters must be somewhat likable as Finder asserts that readers want to feel sympathy for the victim and for justice to come to the murderer.
On the other hand, Malliet says unsympathetic characters are easier to kill off. According to Finder, readers also like to imagine what they would do if they could be the baddie.
Kramer asks, assuming the rich and the poor do die differently, do they also kill differently? Do they hire a hit man, for example? “Hiring a hit man is cheating,” says Malliet. “This needs to be person-to-person.”
Terry Mort, whose most recent book is The Monet Murders, admits to using a hit man in one of his books. At this point, the authors, moderator and audience drop the pretense of conducting a spoiler-free session.
With (presumably) no first-hand experience killing someone, the writers must engage in some form of research. How they go about that research differs a great deal. Malliet says, “I don’t want to bother anybody. If it’s not on google….” Based on her limited knowledge of guns, she tends to use poison. Kramer worries at this point about her scheduled dinner date with Malliet.
Finder says he relies on high-profile resources and those with top-secret clearance. Malliet inquires about the wealthy sources. “Billionaires.” “Trump?” asks Malliet. “He’s not a billionaire,” says Finder. After a few descriptions about Finder’s security sources and an absolute refusal to name names, Mort says he’s worried about Joe’s Rolodex.
Mort continues the discussion of the importance of research by quoting, “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything).” He says the same goes for writing. To write nonfiction, authors can read a book to get a paragraph and that paragraph must be absolutely right. To some extent, fiction can be made up. “Fiction doesn’t require footnotes. You can stretch it, even in historical fiction,” he says. Nevertheless your audience will let you know when you get something wrong.
Sometimes the movies get it “wrong”. Finder, whose book, Paranoia, was made into a movie starring Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford, has first-hand experience with this. He says when an author sells a book to Hollywood, the author loses control. Even writer/producers don’t have control. He’s okay with that. “You don’t want the movie to be faithful to the book; you want it to be faithful to the movies. To be a good movie. The movie is going to be different; the book is going to be better.”
An audience member asks about writing sex scenes. Finder explains that when he first started writing, he wanted to write books that his mother might want to read. Later, he wanted to write books that his daughter might want to read. “If you want to read porn, that’s what a kindle is for.”
Malliet prefers that the sex scenes in her books take place off stage. Imagining Max Tudor, a vicar, she says, “I don’t want to know. That’s his private business and it would be weird for me to be there.” In line with both Finder and Malliet, Mort describes sex scenes as “tacky”, also preferring the action to take place off stage.
And with that, Kramer concludes the session and all the characters exit stage right.
Joseph Finder: Hailed as “the CEO of suspense”, Finder’s plan was to become a spy. Instead he became a bestselling thriller writer. Born in Chicago, Joe spent his early childhood living around the world before his family settled outside of Albany, NY. After taking a high school seminar on the literature and history of Russia, Joe was hooked. He majored in Russian studies at Yale. Joe completed a master’s degree at the Harvard Russian Research Center and later taught on the Harvard faculty. He was recruited to the Central Intelligence Agency but he preferred writing fiction. TBR: Vanished (2009).
G.M. Malliet: Malliet did post-graduate work at Oxford University after earning a graduate degree from the University of Cambridge. Raised in a military family, she spent her childhood in Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico and Hawaii. She also has lived in Japan and Europe but she left her heart in the U.K. She and her husband live in Alexandria, Virginia and travel often. She planns a research visit to Bora Bora. She writes full time nearly every day. Malliet is an Agatha Award-winning author. Additionally, her books have been shortlisted for the Anthony, Macavity, Left Coast Crime, IPPY (Silver winner), David and Dilys awards. TBR: Wicked Autumn (2011).
Terry Mort: Mort has degrees in literature from Princeton University and the University of Michigan. After graduate school he served as an officer in the Navy. He is the author of seven novels and six works of non-fiction, with more projects still to come, with luck. TBR: The Wrath of Cochise (2014).
* Book title links in this post are Amazon Associate Links.