Picture the face of a serial killer or a person who has perpetrated mass violence in American history. Visualize their mugshot or maybe the iconic photo of them cuffed and getting dragged out of a courthouse. What do their eyes let on about what they’ve done?
Now, can you close your eyes and picture the face of one of their victims? More, do you remember one of their victims’ names? Theoretical bonus points if you can name someone left behind by one of those victims, and more theoretical bonus points if your victim’s name isn’t Sharon Tate.
Societally, when we consider crime, we consider a singular act of violence, a specific instance that had a definitive start and stop. But what about those who are left to live in the wake of violent crime? What about the communities that surround them? Can violence even move past people, resulting in certain places and geographic locations becoming permanently marked?
Within crime fiction, authors have, historically, elected to ignore and write around these questions for the sake of including gratuitous violence in their work, violence that many writers make the mistake of believing will carry more weight. However, the tides are changing. Today’s crime fiction readers want more, and a recent crop of award-winning authors are stepping up to the plate, proving that gratuitous violence is not the only way.
Your House Will Pay
Your House Will Pay tells the aftermath of a fictional murder based on the 1991 real murder of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean store owner in the wake of the Rodney King Riots. While some of the novel takes place at the time of the riots, most of the story is set thirty years later, following Shawn Matthews, the older brother of Ava Matthews (the fictional version of Harlins), and Grace Park, the daughter of the woman who murdered Ava, as their paths are forced together when Grace’s mother is gunned down in the parking lot of their family pharmacy.
Through Grace and Shawn, this novel provides a deep investigation into the generational impact of race-based violence rather than dwelling on depictions of violence itself, and every page demonstrates just how much further the pull of trigger can go than how it might literally be described in a single bloody scene. It’s a fresh approach to crime fiction, and because of this, it comes as no surprise that Cha and Your House Will Pay snagged the 2019 LA Times Book Prize for Mystery or Thriller.
In Bluebird, Bluebird—Attica Locke’s 2018 Edgar Award Winner for Best Novel—the deep-seated history of racial violence in East Texas is explored through the lens of a Black Texas Ranger named Darren Mathews when the bodies of a Black man and a white woman wash up within days of each other on the bed of the same creek. While this novel certainly does include physical descriptions of violence within its pages, after all, it turns out the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is involved, Bluebird, Bluebird primarily serves to investigate the secondary and non-physical violence of racial erasure. Darren’s position as a Ranger gives us an inside view into how desperate white Law Enforcement in Texas is to distance itself from the brutal history of slavery, time and time again squashing the news and truth of race-based violence to maintain the façade of a new and unified Texas.
Throughout the novel, Darren internally negotiates his every move, knowing that, by being a Black man who pushes too far, he could lose his entire career. And thus, while Darren investigates the primary crime of the novel, a second, unpunishable crime—attempts to manipulate and erase him—rear their ugly heads. Locke’s ability to combine physical violence with conceptual violence undeniably takes the story to a whole other level. And because of this, Bluebird, Bluebird just got the green light to be adapted for television by Locke herself and her TV-writer big sis, Tembi Locke, as a part of a deal with Universal Television.
Please Come See Us
Please See Us tells the story of two young women, Clara and Lily, who are reluctant residents of Atlantic City during a summer when a serial killer is on the loose. The novel is based on the real-life discovery of the bodies of four sex workers strangled and decaying in the marshlands of Egg Harbor, New Jersey behind the Golden Key Motel on the Black Horse Pike. Clara, who comes from a family of mediums that run a fledgling shop on the boardwalk, uses her clairvoyance to determine the killer is targeting women who make money through sex work, something both Clara and Lily become familiar with as their lives fall apart throughout the summer. The girls must work together, fighting against a city that has been built upon their reduction and destruction, to ensure neither of them becomes the next victim.
What’s fascinating about Please See Us is the way Mullen makes Atlantic City just as much of a character as Clara or Lily, and how she gives us a front-row seat to study a community that has been ravaged by corruption and greed. While the murders are the most central crime in this novel, we also get to observe the more subtle crime of economic violence. We get to see what happens decades after wealthy men built a boardwalk full of promises they couldn’t keep. This undoubtedly bleeds into and influences the mind of the killer, who treats women just as investors have treated the city, picking them up because they’re cheap, playing with them, and discarding them without consequence when it ends badly.
Every violent action in Please See Us is reinforced with violence that’s non-physical, and the novel is so good for it. Makes perfect sense that Mullen took home the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Debut Novel.
Notes on an Execution
In Notes on An Execution, Danya Kukafka’s 2023 Edgar Award Winner for Best Novel, the experiences of women who have brushed up against Ansel Packer, an incarcerated serial killer, are told through their own points of view while he’s counting down his final hours on death row. The first woman we hear from is Ansel’s mother, Lavender, a young girl who is isolated by her partner in a farmhouse in upstate New York at the time of her son’s birth. Through Lavender, we learn that Ansel’s father, Johnny Packer, is an emotionally and physically violent man who withholds clothing and food from his family until it gets so bad that Lavender, for her safety, has no choice but to leave on her own without her son.
Even though Johnny was the one to drive her away, abandonment and rejection become triggers for Ansel’s violence, and because he associates these feelings with his mother, women, almost exclusively, are on the receiving end of it. The novel goes on to introduce us to Saffie, who Ansel grew up in foster care with, Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife, and even Blue, Ansel’s niece and the only girl who has a semblance of a positive relationship with him.
Notes on An Execution shows how easy it is for a decades-long and country-wide web of women to form in the wake of a small lineage of men who indulged their darkest urges. Among so many things Kukafka gets right, what she does best is illustrate the impact and sprawl of consequence in the most beautiful and heartbreaking of ways.
Violence will always have a place in crime fiction. It’s integral to the genre. However, the writers listed above make it clear that violence alone is no longer enough. For violence to work for new generations of crime readers, it must be strategic, and it must be balanced with the deeply thoughtful non-physical elements that all of these writers include.
Your House Will Pay, Bluebird, Bluebird, Please See Us, and Notes on An Execution show us that the true weight of a crime is not in the earthquake itself—but instead revealed in its subsequent aftershocks.