One day, I was out walking my dog around the neighborhood, and a young boy approached me and started talking to me about his family and pets. Once the sun began to set, I told him we should go and asked him if he’d like me to walk him home. He said no, but my stomach twisted at the thought of him walking alone at night. He couldn’t have been older than eight. He was friendly, willing to approach a stranger just because she had a dog. He was the perfect potential victim. I started to dissociate, feeling like a supporting character in a crime novel, or like one of the characters in the cold opening of Law and Order SVU, the first segment when the victim is introduced.
As I watched the boy leave, a powerful feeling washed over me that something terrible was going to happen to him, yet I let him go anyway. All night I expected to hear police sirens and for an officer to knock on my door and say, “Excuse me, a little boy has gone missing and you were the last person seen with him. Would you mind answering some questions?” I imagined the boy’s mother blaming me for letting him walk home alone. We had a very emotional argument in my overactive imagination about who was responsible for his disappearance.
The boy didn’t really go missing, but the idea lingered in my mind. What if he had disappeared? What if the whole town knew I was the last person with him? Even if they didn’t suspect me of being involved with his disappearance, they would still gossip and judge me. I even judged myself for this imaginary crime—the crime of apathy. I began asking myself if I had any moral responsibility to ensure that the boy made it home safe. I started thinking about the subject on a societal scale: Are humans morally responsible for children that they do not promise to look after? And if not, should they be? Should we be expected to look out for each other and for the most vulnerable of those among us?
In cases where people don’t try to protect someone, and the potential victim ends up okay, we tend to not question ourselves or our actions. For instance, I could have said to myself, “The kid made it home safe, so obviously I worried for nothing.” When your friend doesn’t get killed walking through the parking lot alone, it validates your decision not to wait until they get into their car to drive away.
It’s only when the worst happens that people analyze their choices and feel responsibility, even though they had no way of knowing the outcome. Are apathetic bystanders any less culpable when things turn out fine? Or, as I suspect, are they just lucky that they don’t have to live with the consequences of their inaction? Most people live one tragedy away from having to reexamine their whole life. That little boy did make it home, but that doesn’t affect the morality of the decision I made that day. If not for my gut feeling and an overactive imagination, I would not have thought twice about my actions. If I can turn that situation and others like it into stories, I can hopefully create an equal level of introspection in the reader. If I can make them feel the stares of disapproving neighbors, see police lights and hear a mother’s hysterical crying, if I can give the reader a glimpse of the worst-case scenario, maybe they’ll think twice if they are put in a situation like the one I was in. Maybe they’ll think “How can I help?” instead of “Not my problem.”
Fiction examines morality. Crime novels are one of the best ways humanity analyzes acceptable behavior, or what is unacceptable and why. They help us judge if the laws are too stringent or if they do not extend far enough. They make us think twice about not aiding someone who could become a victim, or what we would do in the protagonist’s situation. They make us think about our actions and see the world differently. They make us better.
I believe reading mysteries make us more socially accountable, and I believe that writing them helps propel readers into asking the kinds of moral questions that lead to people trying to do better for themselves and others.
Madison Estes is the recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Helen McCloy scholarship. She has had work featured in Transcendent (Transmundane Press), Enter the Aftermath (TANSTAAFL Press), Texas Road Kill Vol. 3 (HellBound Books), The Toilet Zone (HellBound Books), and Mojave Heart Review. Her work is forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal, Tales from Gehenna (Gehenna & Hinnom), Strange Girls (Twisted Wing Productions), Unexpected Heroines (Grimbold Books), and with Mortal Realm. She lives in southeast Texas and has three dogs. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, sculpting, drawing, and reading. Find her on Twitter @madisonestes or Instagram @madisonpaigeestes