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The Race Card: The Place of Race in Mystery

I’m late to the show, but I just discovered Luther, starring Idris Elba. Netflix made it possible to binge-watch. I love a good police procedural, and this one was addictive. Luther has a moral code that due process doesn’t always fall in line with. He wants justice for the victims, at all cost.

I couldn’t get enough of it. What did I love? Simple: the characters of Luther, Alice and Justin! (Don’t worry, no spoilers to follow).

Set in London, its characters grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Why was I so invested in the characters? I thirsted for more (and even now, I’m wishing for another episode). It is because they operated in the real world, and carried the baggage of what it meant to be real (the good, bad, ugly and even naive).

There are many things needed to create a person, to understand the paradigm of a character. Although fiction is separated from the nonfiction of history, when writing crime fiction the three taboo topics are still a part of the world building. I believe there are three precise things that help to shape a character: religion, politics and race.

As a former criminal paralegal, I came to understand the ideals of justice, and although its principles are something we idolize, the system has some shortcomings and flaws. Part of this is based on laws enacted, which emanate into an unequal system, which results in the practice of unequal sentencing under the law.

One of the best examples of this was in regards to the disparity of sentencing of defendants based on the crack and/or cocaine they had in their possession. Often referred to as The Crack Law, The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 recognized 100 grams of cocaine as being equivalent to 1 gram of crack. Under President Obama, in November 2010, with the Fair Sentencing Act, this disparity was lessened from 100 to one to a ratio of eighteen to one. Read More here.

This disparity makes no sense considering that crack cocaine is a bi-product of cocaine, i.e. to make crack, cocaine is required. What is different though as to the drug is the intended user. Historically seen, as in the 1980s, cocaine was a more affluent drug, a party drug of upper-middle class to upper class whites, while crack-cocaine was a drug used mostly by African-Americans. The crack-cocaine epidemic hit many inner-cities hard, and devastated many in the African American community.

This is significant as it has resulted in blacks receiving more time in prison for a drug of less quality. Sentencing guidelines as used in federal sentencing would therefore classify the crack-cocaine conviction with higher points, resulting in a recommendation of a higher sentence.

Of course this is only an example of how race has played a part in the justice system.

We must understand a little more of the history of race relations in this country and how the characters created in mysteries do not operate outside of this history (if one is writing a contemporary story). It is all a large puzzle, pieces interconnected. The best way to relate to this is to think of it as a burnt piece of toast. No matter how much jam you place on the bread, you’ll still taste the char.

When writing, a character is not born without all of the baggage that society brings to it. They are neither born nor raised in a bubble, but the society – its laws, -isms, and customs, will influence every part of that person; influencing them in their everyday life, aspirations, even word choice.

Character building is about building a three-dimensional person filled with likes, dislikes, motivations, fears and even biases. Writers must touch on these things to create their world, their crimes and most importantly their characters, outside of the normal tropes -- creating individuals that can step off of the page.

So, tonight, I will again search online to see where I can buy the latest episode of Luther (the Christmas special), and cherish the characters that have made this girl into a super obsessed fan (and maybe even tweet to Idris Elba a message of gratitude)! But what is more, I'll be certain to make sure that my current WIP carries the nuances of life, which we don't often discuss.

"It isn't about what we so easily show that makes us, but what we deem to hide." -- Tina Glasneck (yeah, you can quote me on this!)

TINA GLASNECK is currently working on a 3-part serial, which she hopes to release later this year. Sign up for Tina's newsletter to learn more about her and her works!

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