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Social Conscience in Modern Mystery Fiction by Jacqueline Seewald
Gumshoe Review Essay  
Date: 30 June 2011

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Social Conscience in Modern Mystery Fiction

by Jacqueline Seewald

I often hear comments like society is going to hell in a handbasket. Many of today's mystery and crime fiction authors display significant elements of social conscience and/or awareness in their writing. The recent novels of John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Sara Paretsky and Jacqueline Winspear are a few examples.

I read Grisham's The Confession and will confess it was a painful, sometimes agonizing experience, although I have been a fan of Grisham's novels from the beginning of his career. The underlying theme of the novel, Grisham's belief that we must do away with the death penalty, that the death of just one innocent person underscores the inhumanity, overshadows all other aspects of the novel. The controversy regarding the death penalty has been raging ever since I can remember. Grisham with his knowledge of the legal system and gift for writing strong prose makes the message graphic. It's not surprising this novel stayed on the bestseller list for months.

Stieg Larsson was a social activist who in his Millennium trilogy brought up many of the ills and inequities of society. His novels show a strong concern for the rights of women and their inequality in society. These are not merely mystery novels or crime fiction. Larsson intended to provide a strong social message throughout these books.

Sara Paretsky has always displayed a significant social and political consciousness in her writing. She is a thinking personís mystery writer. Bill and Hillary Clinton are proclaimed fans of her work. In Paretsky's last novel, Body Work, V.I. Warshawski returns with a vengeance. The underlying theme of this mystery novel: the ills that soldiers suffer because of war, in this case, made graphic by the fate of a veteran of the Iraq War.

In Among the Mad, Maisy Dobbs feels great sympathy for those British veterans of World War I who came back shell-shocked, emotionally and physically damaged. The entire British mental health system falls under scrutiny and condemnation. Is it acceptable for mystery/crime fiction to have a social and or political agenda, to make a statement? I believe so--as long as the authors remember that these are novels are first and foremost meant to entertain and not merely be sermons on moral integrity.

Such novels are controversial and thought-provoking. However, I see them as fulfilling an important role in modern literature. In our contemporary society the mystery novel is often not a mere fluffy cozy but a literary work expressing serious social concerns while reflecting and examining the ills of society.

About the Author:

Multi-award winning author Jacqueline Seewald has taught creative, expository and technical writing at the university level as well as high school English. She also worked as an academic librarian and an educational media specialist. Eleven of her books of fiction have been published. Her short stories as well as poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of publications and anthologies. Her mystery novels in the Kim Reynolds series include The Inferno Collection, The Drowning Pool, and, new release, The Truth Sleuth.
Social Conscience in Modern Mystery Fiction © Jacqueline Seewald, July 2011

Our Readers Respond

From: Linda Lovely
    I think Jacqueline makes some excellent points. Fiction often can be more effective than nonfiction in shining a spotlight on social ills/inequities because it can reveal in a very personal way the emotional toll. I know one "literary snob" who believes that only nonfiction is worth reading because it's "true." I disagree. Truth is more than dry facts, and fiction that entertains and educates is a treasure.
From: Susan Oleksiw
    This is a good discussion of something we often take for granted--how effectively the mystery writer can examine important issues of our times without being preachy or dull.
From: Alice Duncan
    I think you're absolutely correct, Jacquie. There's more social conscience in fiction these days than in politics, for sure!

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