Guest Post: The Perils Of Mixing Fiction With Social Issues

Hello Bookworms! 

Sorry I missed out on the review yesterday! Our internet was down for the past three days and I'd only scheduled two posts! But don't you worry, because today we have a special guest with us! Let me introduce him to you! 

I am a retired patent attorney living in Florida with my wife, Sonya, and our feline, Tsuki.  I spent most of my life in the Washington, D.C. area. I grew up in McLean, Virginia before the beltway was constructed.  Some of my classmates in grade school lived on nearby farms. McLean had a small town feel to it. Gossip spread without the Internet.  Party lines were common. Secrets were hard to keep.
When I was in my early thirties, my life pivoted when I was accused of a crime I didn't commit.  My defense counsel and I discussed plans for my likely indictment and possible imprisonment. I could expect to be handcuffed and paraded in front of the media.  This experience with the so-called justice system ended after a two year ordeal without an indictment and without going to trial. Even so, it could have ended differently.  
Sadly, I will never fully believe that prosecutors, investigators, or the government are as interested in the truth as they are in getting a conviction, an attitude that I share with the semi-fictional Shep Harrington.

Now that you know him a bit better, I'll let him take over! 

My second book, Chain Thinking, was a murder mystery, plain and simple.  Well, maybe not plain or simple.  The story swirls around the theft of a chimpanzee from a test lab and the murder of a lab scientist.  Shep (my main character, attorney and reluctant sleuth) is gifted the chimp by a mysterious woman who demands that he trust her.  When the authorities arrive to take the chimp back to the lab, he reacts instinctively and tries to assert that the chimp has legal rights.

When the idea for Chain Thinking came to me, I eagerly immersed myself in setting out the story line of the murder and its solution.  I was, and still am, an animal lover. I had no clue that I had ventured on to the thin ice of mixing fiction with a social issue until I received a review from Martha Grimes:

When a writer attempts to introduce a social issue into his fiction, he can almost be sure that he will be accused of some kind of proselytizing.  In Chain Thinking the issue is animal rights and the fiction is the story of Kikora, a chimpanzee, and Shep Harrington, a lawyer and detective manqué, and his battle not only to solve a murder, but to save the chimp from experimentation.  Elliott Light has managed to weave these two parts together, and do it seamlessly.

I was struck by the implications of the words “attempts” and “accused.”  I had unknowingly taken a risk and yet escaped unscathed.

I understand now that the danger in mixing social issues with fiction is that the issue overwhelms the story or the story is seen trivializing the issue.  The writer is faced with the need to expose the reader to the issue without losing the reader in talking head sequences in which characters simply recite facts.  The writer must also be aware of the strength of his or her feelings about the issue lest the book become a vehicle for delivering a message and loses its identify as a murder mystery.

With my new found understanding of the perils of this fusion of fiction and commentary, I decided to do it again.  In The Gene Police, the investigation of a murder takes Shep and his law partner Robbie into the dark pseudo-science of eugenics.  The history of eugenics and its connections with white supremacy, forced sterilization and the marginalizing of non-white people are not well known outside academic circles. Again, the challenge was to write a mystery that incorporated elements of an important social issue in a sensitive and respectful way.  Fortunately, the reviews again were positive.

A recent review in Booklist noted the following:

Lawyer Shep Harrington is back after a 15-year sabbatical (Chain Thinking, 2003.) Reggie Mason, an African American state trooper in Virginia, confesses to Shep that he’s been using the state’s DNA database for personal use. His aunt lost a baby in 1953, but she’s always secretly believed that the baby was taken away or murdered. Given that the creepy hospital where she delivered the child was known for the involuntary sterilization and psychiatric commitment of black patients, it’s not that far of a stretch. When Reggie finds a match in the database, he knows things are going to get a whole lot more complicated. Also complicated is Shep’s life since inheriting a large estate from the country-singer father he never knew. In fact, a photo from the estate's days as a “Poor Farm” may be the key to what happened to Reggie’s cousin. A strong mystery supported by its powerful treatment of racial injustice.  

Writing stories with a social theme can be very satisfying, even cathartic.  Teaching moments can be used as an opportunity to reveal the characters involved.  How a character reacts to the facts – surprise, disgust, shock or indifference—says something about the character.  If two characters react differently, there is the opportunity for conflict.

As a final observation, the message should have consequences for the characters and the plot. In Chain Thinking, the message—animal rights—determines how justice is ultimately rendered.  In The Gene Police, the message—eugenics—drives the story through its dramatic resolution.  If at the end of the book, the issue doesn’t inherently complicate the lives of the characters, the book has become subservient to the message.

Curious about his works? Here's a little something about his latest book, The Gene Police.

Before the words “white supremacy” filled the airways, before we learned of American Nazis and the alt-right, before there was a Muslim ban, before we considered building a wall or knew what DACA stands for, there was eugenics—a pseudo-science that promoted the belief that a race could be improved by controlling who was allowed to mate with whom.  
It was eugenics that compelled white doctors to inform Carl and Betty Langard that their new born baby had died.  And it is the cruelest of circumstances—the murder of Jennifer Rice—that fifty years later leads Shep Harrington to search for Baby Langard.  
As Shep soon learns, the quest brings him to the top of a slippery slope with an ill-defined edge. Question begets question, and the slide down the slope proves inevitable: What happened to the baby? Who took it? Why was he taken? And who killed Jennifer Rice?  
When Shep learns that Baby Langard was born at a hospital run by Alton Nichols, a famous Virginia eugenicist, he is drawn into the dark history of the American eugenics movement and its proponents—the so-called “gene police.”


Win one of three signed copies of Lonesome Song, Chain Thinking and The Gene Police.

Buy The Gene Police now:

Thanks to Sage's Blog Tours for organising this fun blog tour! 

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