I can't remember the last time I read a novel without a violent crime, usually a murder. Sometimes it's in the first chapter and we spend the rest of the book hunting the killer. Sometimes it's a subtler affair about loss or the effects of war, an event that happened years before the protagonist was born. But it's nearly always there.
Stories are about changes and ruptures. In novels, in films and in a fine new generation of television series we're solving a serious problem, and violent crime – or the threat of it – is the most haunting sort.
While I've written romantic comedies, I've devoted the last few years of my writing life to the sorts of novels I found myself reading most often: moody thrillers. The research was easy.
I grew up in a tough town at a tough time, and I was the sort of person larger and older boys liked to punch. So I devoted much of my teen and young adult years to studying self-defence. I gave my protagonist, Christopher Kruse, a job I had trained for: personal security. I put him in places I have lived and worked, in Canada and France.
Like me, he had to leave violence behind, to grow up and move from fighting into a calmer, happier life of romance and debt and fatherhood. Readers have certain expectations in thrillers. No. 1: That isn't allowed. My protagonist is a sensitive fellow, but he is a man of violence in Come Barbarians and in the sequel, out March 8, Son of France. There is plenty of blood.
It's been fun, as a novelist, to play at violence in a more sophisticated (though no less painful) way than I did as a teenager and young adult.
One morning, shortly after I delivered the manuscript of Son of France to my editor, my brother Kirk phoned me. He was crying. This was unusual, and given the quality of our relationship I thought he was doing an impression of someone. Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader cuts his hand off? Harvey Keitel?
"Paula's dead," Kirk said.
I pretended I didn't understand. When he used the word murder, I couldn't immediately process it. Murder is a story word, a fairy-tale word, a word from the news.
He had received a call from Paula's nanny, now he was at her house, and the police wouldn't let him in. On the weekend, a few days earlier, he and Paula had been house-hunting together, looking for a place with six bedrooms – one for each child in their soon-to-be-blended families. In the night someone had come into Paula's house and had killed her.
"My life is over."
I told him it wasn't over.
"How is it not over? Paula was the whole thing. Our whole future, every dream, everything. It's all gone."
That night and over the next months we had many versions of the same conversations, and I tried to draw wisdom from novels I had read and movies I had seen. Where else does wisdom come from? But nothing seemed to fit. Clichés and homilies had never seemed so ridiculous.
This wasn't a normal life event. My brother's divorce had been difficult, but it was recognizably difficult. Our father had died young, but there seemed a template of grief for that, too. This was not like cancer or a heart attack or a car accident. At the core of Paula's murder was hate: for her, for Kirk, for the safety and happiness of her children and, beyond that, hate for everyone who had loved her.
We met homicide investigators. We met psychics. My brother blamed himself. They spent nearly every night together, and he wasn't there the one time Paula needed him. He had told her not to worry. Almost a year later, he still can't sleep. He knows too much. There is no solace in sharing ugly and vengeful thoughts about what might happen to the murderer in prison. As I write this, there has not been an arrest, let alone a conviction.
There are killers and killings in Son of France. I imagined them as real, when I wrote them, but after Paula's murder, it was different. I found myself thinking about the daughters and sons and wives and husbands, the cousins, the friends, the co-workers, the long-lost high-school crushes of the people who die in my novel.
Son of France opens with a grenade attack in a Jewish restaurant in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris. It's based on a vicious thing that actually happened in 1982, at Chez Jo Goldenberg. Then, on Nov. 13, after the novel was finished, like everyone with a connection to Paris, I received texts from friends who had sisters or brothers or pals in the Bataclan.
I felt insensitive, like a voyeur. I understand murder now, what it does to the people left behind. If I make murder into art or entertainment, am I making everything worse? Am I damning myself? Should I write, and read, stories about people who rescue caribou in peril?
A friend reassured me there would be plenty more murders, even mass murders, before my publication date. She was entirely right.
I wake up every morning and write fiction. All I can do is deal in my obsessions and in the storytelling obsessions of our culture, which have been the same since The Epic of Gilgamesh. We think about murder. We write about murder. We murder.
Every few days I read Paula's Facebook page, to remind myself not to deal frivolously with love and violence. I hug my brother. I try to make it mean something.
Todd Babiak's Son of France: A Christopher Kruse Novel will be released March 8 from HarperCollins Publishers.