Of Murder in Non-Fiction

There are two types of readers of murder: one who read fiction and non-fiction and know what they’re reading. The other is those who read non-fiction and complain it’s not as good as fiction.

I don’t care about the latter, but I don’t see how they don’t see the difference between the two genres. For instance, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is non-fiction, and it doesn’t read like fiction. For the adrenaline junkie, it’s no page-turner. For readers who expect an Agatha-Christie like unravelling, non-fiction murders are a bore.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Just a few weeks ago, a close friend recommended In Cold Blood to me. She enjoyed it said I too would. Well, since she knows me and my preferences, I decided to heed her suggestion. However, when I asked around to borrow the book, one voracious reader told me not to waste my time over In Cold Blood. It’s a slow and dull read, she offered.

I was surprised to hear such conflicting views from two well-read people. I read the book nevertheless. That’s when I realised the true difference between murder-fiction and murder-non-fiction.

For one, the intended audience in non-fiction is not the same as in fiction. While almost any reader can appreciate the thrill of chasing an evasive fictitious serial killer, not everyone can understand the subtleties of outlining an actual murderer’s mind. Truman Capote, in the book, isn’t addressing the impatient ones who want to finish the book and lable it “Read” on Goodreads. He, instead, addresses those curious to know the way the mind works. The author speaks of Dick and Perry’s childhood, of Perry’s troubled family and abusive upbringing, of his dreaming of a giant bird, and of his attitude towards his partner in crime. None of these details matter in fiction because no one would care. In non-fiction, however, knowing Perry’s reluctance to swimming because he’s embarrassed by the way his legs appear, makes him relatable—it makes him human. And that’s the kind of depth that no fiction goes into. For someone looking for short bursts of exciting crime, a non-fiction like In Cold Blood is just plain boring.

This is my first non-fiction murder novel. And so it struck me how different the author’s tone is than in fiction. Capote doesn’t try to lure the reader with mysterious adjectives and goosebumps-inducing alleyways. Instead, he sticks to the facts—the cold facts that chill the bone one page at a time. For instance, there’s no element of surprise in In Cold Blood. I had gone less than fifty pages into the book, and I knew the killers, their appearance, and their uncanny ability to smile as they killed—so to speak. That’s how non-fiction works; the author has little to nothing to fold in a heart-stopping moment into the plot. The whole world knew the victims, the killers, and the history of the investigation—even before Capote began writing the book. It’s no surprise that there’s no surprise in the story. Nevertheless, the book reads like a true work of art. The crime was slick, chilling, and brutal. And Capote does nothing to make it sound any less.

Come to think of it, when reading a non-fiction murder story like In Cold Blood, a reader shouldn’t expect anything. The purpose of non-fiction is in itself different from fiction. While fiction has a perfect beginning, a crescendo, a plot twist, and the climax, non-fiction serves a larger purpose: understanding. Non-fiction readers don’t look for the climax, because the book opens with it. Instead, they look to look into the lives of the murderers, the routines of the victims, what they ate the day they were killed, who Nancy helped bake a cake, which part she played in the school play, how much she loved riding the horse with her friend. The non-fiction reader looks for life in murder. They find reality in hostility, and they seek to read the killers’ intentions. Because non-fiction murder isn’t just revenge, it’s the result of an entire lifetime of bottled emotions—boiling down to a moment of unsteadiness. And that’s what a reader hopes to discover.

It’s not just the reader, though. Even the author of non-fiction murder has a purpose that varies from fiction. Writing about murders takes more than time and patience. It’s takes more than writing itself. Capote would’ve spent a lot of time researching the facts, but he also would’ve spent years trying to uncover the mystery of human psychology. I can imagine how it must be for a writer to flip through gruesome photos and statistics. The purpose, again, isn’t to write the most spine-tingling novel. It’s more than that—it’s to bring to life, and show the world, the soul of a human who happened to take a wrong path.

I enjoyed every bit of In Cold Blood. If you haven’t read it already, you should. Be warned, though: if you’re the fiction lover who is reluctant to spend time (even as long as a month) on a single book, then don’t bother. But this is one wonderful book. Capote’s sharp writing would drive through your chest, and you’ll yearn to know more about the men—who could well be your neighbours—who also murdered a family in cold blood.

A Letter to Mom

Mom,

Don’t be alarmed if this letter isn’t as intact as it should be. They warned me that it would go through a standard screening process.

I hope you’re feeling better. Take your medication every day. Set an alarm if you have to, like I used to do for you. It may be a ringing pain in your ears but it’s worth it.

Dad wrote to me saying he’d come see me later this week, so don’t worry about visiting. I know you’re busy with work.

How’s Lisa? She hasn’t replied to my notes, so would you please tell her how sorry I am? I never meant to do what I did. I think about Taylor all the time and every time, guilt gropes at the inside of my heartstrings, and I can’t get rid of it. I’m sorry, mom, that you had to bear such an evil daughter.

I’m thankful that you don’t detest me altogether. That you read my letters at least. I wish I could take it all back — that night on the street. I wish I hadn’t taken Taylor for a midnight jog. He hated jogging, and I knew it.

I tried, mom. I tried understanding. I tried to accept that my little brother was better than I. You loved him more than you loved me, and that’s only natural. I know I should’ve understood. You were only watching out for him, and I had no reason to feel threatened.

But, mom, I did.

I loved him as a brother. I hated him because he came after me. You and dad cared about me before he was born. I remember the tap classes you took me to. I remember the cold coffee we’d get afterwards. Is that place still open?

But then Taylor came, and you stopped my tap classes. Dad told me I shoul focus on grades. But mom, I loved going to tap classes with you. I didn’t like math as much.

Yes, mom, I know grades matter, and that Taylor needed your attention more than I. And I don’t blame you. My brain knew it, but my heart remained ignorant. I just couldn’t understand why the attention went away from me.

I tried, mom.

I tried to clear my head of the madness that raked it. I loved Taylor. He was my brother, and I enjoyed helping you bathe him and dry him, and later, I liked helping him with his homework. Honest, I did.

But I hated that he came after me. And that night when the cars whizzed by us, I wasn’t thinking about anything. We stood there, laughing at a joke he had said — the one where the Ellipses sisters leave conversations hanging, remember that, mom? — and I punched him on the shoulder for making me laugh so hard.

I’m sorry, mom. I only meant to punch him, not to shove him onto the street. I didn’t notice the cars.

I’m sorry, mom. I know you can’t forgive me. I won’t forgive myself. But please, mom, don’t hate me too much.

Bess,
State Juvenile Prison.

Subject: Your Offer Letter

Message: 

Welcome to the largest conglomerate in the city. You’ll be a part of an exciting team of talented individuals who come together every morning with one major goal: creating world-class products and selling to the world over.

We’re excited that you’ve decided to join these individuals in bringing your skills and unique personality to serve the greater good. We appreciate you and your talent, and as a rewarding gesture, we offer the following work perquisites.

Flexible work hours: We believe that every person has their own schedule and preferences. We respect that. That’s why you can come in and leave at any time you want. What’s more, our office is so comfortable (with couches and bean bags and footrests and sliding drawers) you’d want to come in early, and wouldn’t want to leave.

Recreation: Work while you work, play while you play. That’s our motto — at least it’s one. When a launch drags your workday, you don’t have to risk leaving late. Instead, you can finish it off and spend the night in the office. There’s a sleeping area — separate for men and women.
When you need a break, during the day, you don’t have to get out. Instead, just walk in to the playing area—from tennis and ping pong, to carrom and chess, pick your sport and let the muscles relax. No more healthy gaming in the sun and heading out for unhealthy pizza afterward. Whether you win or lose, we have fresh juice and ice. All inside the campus.

No micro-managing: Our company’s culture is seeded with self-driven teams that organize their own work. No big bosses, no small bosses. No task allocation, no work pressure, no time constraints.

Don’t worry, though. When it’s time for a pay rise, your supervisors will offer what you deserve. We have a successful history of understanding what every employee enjoys doing and letting them do what they want.

We don’t define job roles and responsibilities; everyone’s a marketer and anyone’s a developer, if they’re interested enough.

You may not know where to begin, or how, but it’s our belief that you will learn as you go. And there’s no better way of learning than by doing.

Apart from said perks, you will also enjoy the following:

  • We provide unlimited, wholesome meals three times a day, and snacks throughout the day. It’s free of charge so you don’t have to leave the building and eat unhealthy.
  • You don’t have to stay at your desk to finish up your tasks. When you have a long commute, just avail the free transport to and from the office, equipped with super-fast wifi connection.
  • We love our pets, too. If your cat is ill, you can even work from your couch. We’ll offer free smartphones and sim cards, and reimburse your internet bills. You’ll absorb the latest technology for work and play alike.

We’ve built a workplace and a tradition within our company in such a way that our employees are among the happiest in the world. In fact, [insert the name of a big research company] has named our company as the fifth most desirable place to work in [insert current year].

Glad to have you on board.

Discovery

I hate mobs. They make me nervous. Even as I think about it, my heart bangs in its cage and my legs start to tremble threatening to give way at any moment. And speaking in front of a gathering is awful. Give me a mike and put me under the spotlight, and I’ll be reduced to a slump.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought it would be like.

In school and at work, I’ve had to explain something to a bunch of people. But every time that happens, I freak out so much that my speech loses all sense. And that’s why I was beyond “just nerves” when I heard I’d have to conduct a session in a workshop at my job.
To complicate things, I already knew a bit about my audience: they were all stay-at-home married women. Some had kids, some had more time. Most of them were single- or double-degree holders on a break after marriage. And all of them were at least 10 years older than I. Talk about intimidation.

I needed several deep breaths. And a few gulps — of air.

How would I explain something to them without coming off as a young and insufferable know-it-all? I had so many doubts; people hated contradictions, and a school kid telling older women what to do, isn’t most people’s idea of an ideal workshop. They would’ve expected somone much older-looking, taller, and experienced to conduct an educational workshop.

And yet, when I stood in front of the audience, the glare from the projector almost blinding me, the uncertainty disappeared from my mind. All of a sudden, I was looking at a bunch of people eager to learn; they didn’t care that my head, while I stood, was at their eye while they sat.

Clutching the mike, I, for the first time, felt confident facing a crowd. I was calm. My legs were steady, my heartbeat didn’t sound like a siren, and my pulse wasn’t racing. I began, and I felt myself smiling. I realised how easy it felt. It felt natural talking to these women who wanted to learn and to listen. And then, out of nowhere, I discovered I had matured so much from the shy and cowering schoolgirl I was until a few years ago.

I had grown up at last. And for once, all was well.

Women’s Day?

Where I live, it’s the day after Women’s Day. It’s the last day to redeem discount coupons for beauty products and the final chance to feel “special” before we can feel it again next year.

What a scam women’s day has become. Last year this time around, my Facebook feed flooded with hashtags. He for she, she for all, woman of steel, wonder woman, girl power, and all those goosebumps-inducing supposed-motivational videos, plus “25 quotes from Malala that makes every girl love herself.”

Fast forward a year, and this time, my feed says hashtag whatever. My feed is full of women holding cards that echo the same emotion: we’re tired of glorifying women for a day and trashing them through the rest of the year.

Well, I can sympathise with that.

Except, all these against-Women’s Day hoopla come from corporates, and people just retweet or repost them, making it a marketing success for the brands involved.

Whereas until a year ago, the same brands flashed stereotypical “women are the best” campaigns, and we retweeted and reposted them then too. Last year that worked. This year, brands wanted a new kind of campaign and they chose a more “be bold everyday” message.

If celebrating women on Women’s Day was the marketing ploy of yesteryear, shunning Women’s Day celebrations is the marketing ploy of this year.

And lost in all these ploys is the true essence of Women’s Day: where we dedicate a day in our calendars to thank women for being a part of our lives, wishing each other all success in years to come. It’s no different from Labour Day, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, or Teachers’ Day. Or even Children’s Day.

Women’s Day is yet another of those social days where we take a moment to appreciate women. Nothing’s wrong with that. What’s wrong, though, is what the biggest brands of our capitalist world have transformed this day into. Gender disparity at work and home is a common issue. Just like teachers being respected less over scientists. Just like child abuse, or less-than-minimum wages.

We seldom make a marketing blast connecting low wages with Labour Day. Or child labour with Children’s Day (thought that’s becoming a trend now). Or abortions with Mothers’ Day.

But Women’s Day has been beaten to death, and somewhere along the way, the sincere thought of appreciation is lost forever.