by Leigh Lundin
When I first heard this radio news report, I wondered two things:
- Are we still over-reacting to 9/11 threats?
- How might this affect mystery writers?
Regarding my first concern, it appears not. According to court documents, a number of charges including "unlawful possession of a firearm" and "distribution of information about the use of explosives" were dropped, leaving the charge of "providing material support to terrorism". If the investigation conclusions are accurate, the defendant hoped the information would be used in a harmful way.
That still leaves a question about how this affects crime writers. Most of us like realism in our writing and reading. Many authors take great lengths to research and get the facts right. We admire writers who go the extra kilometer and we lose interest when we recognize a hack didn’t do their homework.
Ten days ago, the History Channel discussed bomb-making as part of a larger discussion regarding assassination. They diagrammed in a video how a certain type of detonator worked and added the caveat it couldn’t operate in cold temperatures. Only their intent distinguished the information they provided, and our government has shown interesti in trying to guess intent.
In the case of the student bomb maker, he intended harm, but is it impossible that a prosecutor, looking to make a name for himsself, might bring charges against a mystery author? Could crime writers be brought up on charges for writing too realistically? Should authors restrict themselves to nothing more hi-tech than pokers and kitchen knives? Like Soviet map-makers, could we be charged with a crime against the state for being too accurate?
Many crime authors have a following among police, and we like to get it right. We hate it when professionals laugh rather than applaud, which can happen. Computer jockeys criticized a well-known author’s novel for fantastical inaccuracies. A few years ago, a writer lost me when her heroine suddenly knew how to hot-wire her boyfriend’s car by touching the red wire to the blue. Hey, if you don’t know how to hot-wire, don’t write about it and don’t have your hero(ine) fake it. The audience will know.
* * *
"That’s what boys do, take things apart," seemed like a good line at the time, but it dawns on me now that it told the reader the author knew what he was talking about. Stories are much more believable when you have confidence in the author.
In the story, 8 Across, two lawmen discover the shell of a household thermostat in the trash of a terrorist suspect:
“Let’s get back,” said José. “This is more dangerous than we thought.”
On the trip back with the siren whooping, he explained. “It’s a Honeywell thermostat. Been millions of them made since at least the 1950s. I took them apart when I was a kid.”
“That’s what boys do, take things apart.”
“No, I mean why is it important?”
“They have a mercury liquid tilt switch inside. My guess is that Samir not only set the missing bomb to go off on his signal from the garage remote, but he also wired it to go off if it is canted or jarred.”
I haven’t made a bomb (not one a kid of twelve would publicly admit to), but as a boy with the inclinations of a mad scientist, I took apart mercury switches, circuits, motors, and any damn thing I could get my hands on to learn how they worked.
Do I worry this knowledge might give a criminal an idea? In a free society, a criminal can always find ways of getting information. That’s part of the risk and responsibility of being a free citizen. Hundreds of bomb-making documents are available on the web, including the infamous (and lame) Anarchist Cookbook(s). Last year, the GAO showed it was possible to make a dirty bomb using moisture guages… and then published the information.
Another way of answering this question is that the information could help solve a crime or even prevent a crime. The more people are informed and aware, the more they might notice something suspicious or attach significance to a seemingly meaningless clue. Following 9/11, our government called upon Hollywood to brainstorm terrorist ideas and how to defeat them. Stories can give investigators alternative ways of looking at crimes, particularly those of us who engage in lateral thinking.
Yes, criminals might also learn something, assuming they bother to read. But if a perpetrator is intent upon doing somebody in, they’ll find a way with or without us. If they read our stories, it’s even possible that fact may help police solve the crime.
But as a suspense writer, I’m subject to legitimate paranoia. I wonder if the day may come when we’re accused of fomenting a crime.