Before I began writing mysteries, I made my living as a college professor. And, as is so often the tendency among academics, I devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy to studying and writing about ever finer points of knowledge. As I became informed about the elements of one area intellectual inquiry, I would tighten my focus and dissect one of those elements into its constituent parts, then tighten my focus even further and dissect one of those constituent parts into its even littler component pieces, and so on. With each iteration, I was learning more and more about less and less until eventually I would, as the old saying goes, know everything about nothing.
Even though it has been several years since my retirement from the academic life, old habits die hard. Consequently, my tendency to atomize and over-scrutinize things has never fully retired. While I have gotten pretty good at holding it in check, some days this tendency demands to be let off the leash to run free. Today is one of those days.
Oddly, it was the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the late half-brother of the North Korean ruler, which provoked this episode of intellectual indulgence. According to some of the reports I read, the women arrested in the case are alleged to have practiced the actions that led to the death of the half-brother––performing trial runs in a nearby shopping mall. Reports also state that the women claimed they thought they had been recruited to play a prank on an unsuspecting traveler for a reality TV show. The story is indeed a strange one. The very idea that individuals could be recruited to perform what they believed were essentially harmless acts, but which produced such a bizarre result, seemed to be a perfect example of the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
However, after a moment’s reflection, I realized that might not actually be so. From somewhere in the deep, murky well of my memory, a bit of excellent fiction in which exactly that occurred, rose to the surface. In The Red-Headed League, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories about his legendary creation Sherlock Holmes, a man is recruited into a fictitious organization and required, as part of his duties, to leave his place of employment and spend time, during the middle of each day, performing meaningless, but apparently harmless, clerical tasks at the league’s headquarters. The point of this (SPOILER ALERT!!!) was to keep him well away from the place his recruiters were using to commit a crime.
This recollection of a story with such an remarkable structural similarity to the reports of the Kim Jong Nam killing inspired me to reread it. So, I did. And, to my delight, I discovered that Holmes, himself, seemed to believe that the recruitment of an unsuspecting innocent to perform seemingly harmless acts in order that others might accomplish a nefarious goal was a truth stranger than fiction.
As Holmes observed, when relating aspects of the case to Watson, “for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” It was the reading of this statement that coaxed my ‘academic mind’ out of its cage and onto this page. While Holmes’ words, at first blush, seemed like just an ornate reformulation of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, a close reading revealed that, in typical Holmesean fashion, things might not be quite as they seemed.
In fact, Holmes’ words are a contradiction in terms because an action taken by someone in “life itself” must necessarily be preceded by the actor having imagined the action. Consequently, in Holmes’ view, life is not more daring than the imagination, but a manifestation of it. This is a somewhat darker point of view than the idea that truth is stranger than fiction––the key distinction being that fiction and imagination are not equivalent.
If I imagine something, and write about it, but don’t actually do it, then the thing imagined does not become part of the events of “life itself”––it remains a fiction, a thing imagined. It becomes a recorded product of my imagination but not an acted-out product of my imagination, and, therefore, not part of the truth of life itself.
On the other hand, if I imagine an action, and then take that action, the action becomes part of the true reality that exists between us all. So . . . it is only when someone thinks and then does something exceedingly strange, that truth becomes stranger than fiction. [Yes, people actually make a living thinking and writing like this. But, remember, I warned you.]
As I turned this thought over for closer examination, it reminded me of an ethical dilemma that confronts me from time to time: What if I imagine some heinous action, write it down, publish it, and then someone else reads it and performs the action? Where is the balance point between an author’s desire to entertain and the need to keep from inspiring the criminally inclined? As a writer of crime fiction, I often find myself dreaming up what seem to be interesting and entertaining scenarios but I end up discarding because they seem too close to a how-to guide. Should the author refrain from creating fiction that might inspire and/or facilitate the commission of true crime? I believe so. Perhaps the finer point is where should this line be drawn.