Narratives are powerful. They’re the reason why Donald Trump, with his Make America Great Again slogan, will win a disturbingly large share of the popular vote in the presidential election. They’re the fuel that turbo-charged headlines about an exotic dancer who was supposedly raped by Duke University lacrosse team members in 2006 and Rolling Stone’s short-sighted rush to expose allegations of the same crime against University of Virginia fraternity brothers in 2014. They also have everything to do with the reasons politicians are so eager to line up alongside “victims of police brutality” every chance they get.
In these cases and so many more, the narratives don’t have to be true. They’re stories we want to read, and tell, because they confirm viewpoints we hold dear. In my day job I’ve been known to silently rage-on when I see media outlets perpetuating narratives that keep eyes on the screen and advertiser dollars rolling in even though the facts don’t bear them out. In my off hours as a writer and reader of fiction, I become a lot more centered when I’m immersed in stories with simple plot lines that ultimately reveal in truthful and believable terms how complicated real life usually is.
For these reasons and more I’ve been thinking a lot about THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, written by Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker in 2014, and THE FALL, by John Lescroart last year. I read THE WAYS OF THE DEAD shortly after it was published, and was instantly transported back to a period in my life about 20 years before. It was 1994. I was living in a picture-perfect Victorian surrounded by Section 8 housing in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. I often had to kindly negotiate my way past the drug dealers who would be sitting on my front stoop when I got home from 10-hour days on the job, and remind myself to feel sorry for the men and women who were losing their lives to crack addiction when they aired their grievances at the top of their lungs outside my windows in the middle of the night.
I was pretty much rooted to that world, stuck there by a mortgage way higher than the value of my home, and surrounded by the chaos emanating from people who were largely poor, uneducated and often pretty damn mean. It wasn’t all bad – in fact if I hadn’t lived there I never would have enjoyed the years I spent as a mentor to some amazing local kids, or gotten to know some sweet little old ladies who’d lived in the neighborhood since its heyday as D.C.s “Black Broadway.” But there were many times when I felt like I was living in a surreal world, particularly when I’d talk with friends who lived in pricey digs in the city’s leafy upper Northwest environs and who loved to preach about the need to legalize drugs, empty the prisons of people who had been convicted of selling them, and spend more money on welfare and “affordable housing” for the type of people who were making our lives miserable. Still, we managed well enough, right up until a certain November, when Marion Barry was re-elected as Mayor after serving six months in federal prison, an event that made me feel as if chaos was going to reign forever.
Looking back, I view the whole period in terms of how it forced me to try to understand the problems faced by people in poor neighborhoods while also recognizing the power of conflicting narratives. One narrative that was believed and perpetuated by many of my neighbors was that every problem stemmed from “the man” – a euphemism for white people with power and money. They also believed that “the power structure” didn’t care when poor black people were murdered. That narrative had a huge amount of influence because it absolved people of personal responsibility. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, or if I didn’t believe it was true, because every once in awhile reasonable people could see some truth in it. Then, as now, the newspapers reported on the deaths of men, women and teens virtually every day. Virtually every time, they were listed as residents of addresses in parts of the city that were known to be poor. There were so many murders that people became inured – they simply stopped paying attention. Yet then, as now, the murder of someone living in either a rich or poor neighborhood who wasn’t black automatically sparked headlines and a what felt like a far greater effort to bring the killer to justice.
It was an uncomfortable truth that I didn’t want to believe at the time. Yet I couldn’t help believing it years later when I read Tucker’s novel about Sarah Reese, a pretty white teenager and daughter of a judge who’s murdered in an alley behind an inner city corner store. Sully Carter, a journalist who knows all of the ins and outs of D.C.’s courts and law enforcement agencies, doesn’t believe the arrest of three black teenagers represents the whole truth of what happened. As a journalist whose livelihood depends compelling storytelling and on being first with the facts, he goes all-in on the investigative reporting that brings the real truth to light.
The story reflects themes from real-life murders on a D.C. street known as Princeton Place. As a reporter, Tucker covered the investigation of the murders and the trial of the serial killer who was responsible. He was inspired to write this novel by what happened in that case, and his knowledge of crime, investigations and the courts shines through every passage. As a result, the story is one of the most gripping murder mysteries I’ve ever read, with beautifully descriptive writing that brings pre-gentrified Washington, D.C. to life. Yet it also reinforces the narrative that white lives are more “important” than black lives in realistic ways. As I read it, I felt that everything that was happening was exactly as it would have been if Sarah Reese had been a real person.
The reality of that narrative makes me uncomfortable because of the sadness I feel over all of the children and teens who are murdered, but also because it gives credence to another narrative that I know isn’t true. Right now mainstream and left-leaning media outlets from coast to coast pulse with coverage of protests that perpetuate the lie that the biggest threat facing people of color is death by police. I would already be inclined to disbelieve this as someone who witnessed plenty of police interactions while living in that dangerous place all those years ago. As someone who’s spent a good bit of time with men and women who have one of the most dangerous and difficult jobs on the planet, I disagree with a sense of barely repressed rage every time I hear it now.
Unfortunately the truth doesn’t matter so much when it comes to this particular narrative because it has so much power, and because it’s a simple “solution” – blame law enforcement – for all of the complicated problems that lead to crime, violence, and interactions with police every day. As such, it plays well with people who feel – on a visceral, real-life level – that black victims of crime don’t get the same level of attention as those who are white.
That narrative is at the center of THE FALL. This is the latest in Lescroart’s line of mysteries about the lives of San Francisco lawyer Dismis Hardy and retired homicide detective Abe Glitsky. I discovered the series years ago with A Certain Justice, which I read while living in that same neighborhood. In that book, the murder of a white man by a black criminal spurs a horrific vengeful murder of an innocent black man, which triggers rioting that will be all too familiar for anyone who lived through the burning of East Los Angeles, Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. The driving force of that book is the desperate plight of an innocent man pegged as the killer by the media, who becomes hunted by the police. While he’s on the run, black and white politicians across the spectrum leverage the killings to solidify their power.
I read A Certain Justice with the same feeling I had reading Neely Tucker’s book – knowing this is exactly the way things would happen in real life. It’s a feeling I had once again when reading THE FALL. In this story the victim is an African-American teenager who’s at the edge of a promising life following a childhood in foster care. She’s murdered during a tough time for San Francisco’s law enforcement community, which is under fire by an ambitious politician fostering the narrative that police spend less efforts prosecuting killers of black people. While Dismis and Abe, who is of mixed race, and their colleagues disagree, they know they have to put everything they have into solving the murders for the sake of justice for the girl and politics as well.
Once again Lescroart presents a page-turning mystery with a mix of clues, misdirection and realistic lawyer drama. Abe and Dismis, who tends bar part-time at an historic San Francisco pub, are both interesting characters. They know they can’t trust the politicians who perpetuate those politics but they can always trust each other. Which is pretty much how the alliance forged years ago with A Certain Justice has endured to this day. Together and in partnership with many other good cops and attorneys, they’ve solved a wide variety of crimes while weathering the city’s racial politics along the way. In these novels they know politicians and the media will always exploit tragedies for their own gain. Yet they always strive to get to the truth even when it’s overshadowed by the narratives people really want to hear.
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