Frankie Y. Bailey is a criminal justice professor at UAlbany (SUNY). She is the author, co-author, or co-editor of a number of non-fiction books. She is the 2010 recipient of the George N. Dove Award for her research on mystery and crime fiction. She has been nominated for several other awards, including the Edgar, Agatha, and Anthony, and is the winner of a Macavity Award for African American Mystery Writers (2008). She has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. One of the short stories (“In Her Fashion”) was published in the July 2014 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The Red Queen Dies (Minotaur Books, September 2013) was the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe. The second book in the series is What the Fly Saw (March 2015). Frankie is a former Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America and a past national president of Sisters in Crime.
The Death of Poor Robin
When I was writing What the Fly Saw, I was reminded of something that no longer surprises me. But I still find it interesting. I’m a mystery writer, but I have a hard time killing off my victims. I know that the death of a victim is necessary to set my plot in motion. But I am reluctant to strike the blow or fire the shot – or offer the peanut-laden snack. In What the Fly Saw, my funeral director/victim is alive for several chapters. The reader has a chance to learn first-hand about his state of mind. He has done something that he regrets and expects there will be consequences. Not death. But consequences.
I draw on children’s literature and folk ballads as the inspiration for my Hannah McCabe series. In the first book, The Red Queen Dies, the inspiration was Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. I had three victims in that book. Two murders had already occurred. The body of a third victim, a Broadway actress, was found as the book opened. This was a high body count for me, and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t created “disposable victims,” the term used to describe characters in fiction or film who have no existence beyond their fate as crime victims. I wanted to be sure that all three of the victims had lives that readers could imagine.
I have to confess here that I am particularly conscious of the characters that I kill off because of my other life as a criminal justice professor. I lecture in my classes about how victims and offenders are depicted in popular culture. I illustrate with film clips and reading assignments. And then, I put on my writer’s hat, sit down at my keyboard, and add to the literary body count. I would feel guilty about this except for the fact that I had a double major in Psychology and English when I was an undergrad. I became a criminal justice professor, but I still believe in the power of literature to explore ideas and emotions. Murder – not the most common crime in real life – predominates in crime fiction because the taking of life is an act that cries out for justice. Murder also provides the writer and the reader an opportunity to explore human psyches. In crime fiction, characters confronted by murder, reveal themselves. The writer has an opportunity for commentary about the world in which this event has occurred.
What the Fly Saw was inspired by an old English ballad, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” In the ballad, the fly saw him die, with his little eye. The fly has witnessed the robin’s death with an arrow in his chest. Poor Robin’s joyful wedding to Jenny Wren has been followed by his funeral. In my mystery novel, my victim dies under different circumstances and for different reasons. But I, too, have a chorus of mourners who remember the victim and grieve at his sudden, violent death. Since this is a mystery, one or more of them is not as grief-stricken as he or she seems. But in the telling of my victim’s life, in the scenes that he has before he is killed, I have an opportunity to create a three-dimensional character. I, too, mourn his passing.
And, that as I said in the beginning, is what was most surprising to me about writing mysteries. I care about my victims. If I have done my job, I also care about the killers – or, at least understand the “why” of their crime. Because my protagonist is human, she feels compassion and anger, and all of the other emotions that one should feel when confronted by violent death. That is what I want my readers to feel, too.