Mysteries About Social Issues: Passion, Not Preachiness

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York psychotherapist, a three-time Agatha Award nominee, and author of the mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, starting with Death Will Get You Sober. The third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is just out, and “Death Will Tank Your Fish” was a 2011 Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. Liz has also just released a CD of original songs, “Outrageous Older Woman”. Her author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com and her music website, www.lizzelvin.com. Liz blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters and SleuthSayers.

Mystery writers, in fact, fiction writers in general, are often exhorted both to “write what you know” and “write what you’re passionate about.” A case could probably be made for Charles Dickens as the progenitor or at least forerunner of today’s writers who have something to say about social issues and weave it into their work. These can be divided into those who write passionately about social issues of the past, like Anne Perry in her two Victorian series, and those who take on current social issues, like Betty Webb, whose Desert Wives exposed present-day polygamy as child abuse and welfare fraud and became a factor in the enactment of new legislation in Arizona.

What I feel passionate about is not getting preachy, but saying what I have to say in a way that engages readers and arouses their sympathies. This can be a challenge. The temptation to explain and exhort (known to writers as “an information dump” and “telling instead of showing”) can be strong. But (as I say to my clients from dysfunctional families in my other hat as a shrink) that doesn’t work. Dys-functional. Doesn’t work.

What works is creating characters real enough to make the reader care and let them, not me as the author, explain only enough to serve the story and express their personalities.

As a therapist and former alcohol treatment program director, I’ve worked for many years with clients who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, codependency, and other compulsive disorders and dysfunctional relationship patterns. In my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, which started with Death Will Get You Sober, I wanted to write “what I know” not about professional treatment or drunks simply not drinking, but the transformational process of recovery that takes place when people turn their lives around in Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs. In two books and four short stories, I think I succeeded in doing that.

In my new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, I tackle an issue that may challenge readers even more than what I’ve said so far about alcoholism and addictive relationships, and not because it’s irrelevant to most of us, but because it’s an area in which our whole society suffers from denial. Sobriety and even alcoholism are cool and sexy, destructive relationships fascinating. But eating disorders? Obesity? Yeah, yeah, we know it’s a national health problem. But a 2010 article on cnbc.com said the diet industry costs almost $60 billion in a slow year (dysfunctional: doesn’t work), while jokes about and widespread contempt of fat people are still going strong, as far as I can tell.

In Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Bruce and his friends, world-class codependent Barbara and computer genius Jimmy, take shares in a clean and sober group house in the Hamptons, where they start the summer by finding the body of a housemate on the beach.

There’s a lot of cooking and eating in a group house, especially one where drinking is not an option, and I’ve kind of let the problem creep up on the reader. We’re used to food being lovingly portrayed in mysteries. We love to hear about Nero Wolfe’s gourmet meals, Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti’s wife’s Venetian home cooking, and Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman’s bakery. But by the time one of my readers’ favorite characters ends up on the floor in tears with chocolate in her hair, I hope I’ll have you hooked enough to feel her pain even as you laugh.