Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When Murder Isn’t Fiction

I’ve probably read hundreds of mystery novels over the years. My preference is for the lighter or cozy variety, where the details of the murder are downplayed and the focus of the book is more on characterization and the solving of the case.

Now that I’m writing them myself, one of my jobs is to try to get into the heads of my characters who have a murder come into their lives, in order to accurately portray their reaction to the killing and their emotions. But it’s difficult, because you’re always at a distance from the murder in a mystery. After all, it’s just fiction: no one has really died; no one is truly feeling the void left in their life when a loved one is no longer there.

Though I have had people close to me die, their deaths have all been of so-called “natural” causes, and most were in their old age. I’d never know anyone who was the victim of a murder. Until my friend Beth was shot and killed a week ago Tuesday.

When Elizabeth (Beth) Butler decided to enroll in the police academy, I think most folks were probably a bit surprised. Robin and I certainly were. We’d met Beth when she was a UCSC student, living at Kresge College where Robin worked. Kresge is known for its high percentage of hippies, artsy-fartsy types, and vegans—not your typical spawning ground for a cop. Beth fit this mold in many ways, being a potter, a dancer, a gardener, and a fun-loving gal with a free spirit and wicked sense of humor.

Beth the mom

Nevertheless, she was happy as a Santa Cruz police officer. A community studies major at UCSC, she’d long had the drive to be more involved with the residents of our community. She enjoyed getting to use her Spanish and investigation skills on the job, and loved working in a field where you truly get to help people on a day-to-day basis. During ten years with the force, Beth worked as a patrol officer—both on foot and bicycle—as a hostage negotiator, as an agent with the county drug task force, and eventually as the detective in charge of sex crimes investigations.

Were we worried about her, about the dangers associated with being a cop? Of course. But we also took comfort in the fact that in over 100 years no Santa Cruz police officer had ever been killed in the line of duty.

That statistic was horribly erased when on February 26, Detective Butler was shot and killed along with Sgt. Loran Baker, while the two were investigating a sexual assault. Beth was just 38 years old, and leaves behind two young sons, as well as her long-term partner, Peter.

Beth the cop

I’ve been through all sorts of emotions one would expect when a friend is so suddenly and so violently taken away: shock, horror, anger, grief, empathy for her family. But the most prevalent emotion, the most persistent one, has been an underlying feeling of depression.

I don’t mean to say that I’m thinking of Beth 24/7, for I’m not. But her death is a constant presence, just beneath the surface of my consciousness. And while I’m working in the garden, or cooking dinner, or gazing during cocktail hour at the puffy trade-wind clouds lit up with pink hues, I’ll suddenly remember, and think, “Beth will never get to do this again.”

So for the past week I’ve just been blue. Sure, I can laugh, have fun with my friends, enjoy a good book. But the sadness, the senselessness, of Beth’s murder is always there, too.

Last night, it was with some trepidation that I returned to the Martha Grimes mystery I was half-way through. Would it be too hard, too depressing, I wondered, reading about a murder after what happened to Beth?

Thankfully, the emotional part of my brain immediately got the difference—that this was a work of fiction, not reality. But I also know that Beth’s death has affected me in ways that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I send my love to Peter, Joaquin, Stellan, Louise, Alexis, and all of Beth’s family and friends. She will be sorely missed by us all.


  1. Leslie,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for putting it up. I was at a friend's the other day when everyone decided to watch a James Bond movie. Even though I grew up watching these movies and I appreciate the tongue and cheek culture of Bond, James Bond, I was really disturbed by the excessive shoot-outs, explosions, and general glorification of power and violence. Right now is a particularly difficult time, of course, but given all of the senseless violence in the world, I wonder if I may have turned a corner regarding my ability to watch these kinds of movies. I am confident that reading mysteries, however, will go on at some point.

  2. Follow up comment - it took me FOREVER to remember how to spell the word "tongue." What a bizarre word it is!

  3. Thank you, Leslie. Beautiful post. That underlying depression is very normal, I think. Death weighs heavily on us, especially unexpected, sudden, senseless death. I appreciate all the perspectives you and Robin have given us about Beth. My heart bleeds for her dear family, those young children without a mom.

    They say more than 15,000 will be filling San Jose Arena tomorrow for the memorial service.

  4. Well, that made me cry, Leslie. Thank you for expressing so many of my feelings this past week so well.

  5. Tomorrow is the big memorial service, which, somewhat strangely, will be held in San Jose. I didn't know Beth, though I recognize her face. A lot of people are reacting to the two officers down part of this, but I appreciate your perspective on her as a human being.

    I had a similar experience many years ago, when I was just getting into reading mysteries. I was reading something by Dorothy Sayers, I think a collection of stories. I got a call that our old teen group advisor had been brutally murdered in what would today be called a home invasion. It was deeply disturbing, and it did actually put me off the mystery genre for a long time. I returned to it eventually, but I have always felt the tensions around this whole thing since. No answers, except to say that I think the fictional worlds and the real one split apart from each other over time.

  6. Leslie, you're a beautiful writer. And I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Right now I'm dealing with someone very close to me who is wrestling with suicide. All of us attached to this person are in an agony that certainly doesn't measure against what this person is going through, but it is still tearing each of us up. And then today at the dentist, my hygentist chattered away cleverly (you know the scene: me, with hands in mouth, unable to respond) about not wanting to live forever, thelma and louise scenarios, etc.

    Sorry to go on. The point is, yeah, our entertainments that touch on morbid violence is so freaky. But I think when we return to them, after Beth, after, my friend, it won't ever be so easy.


  7. Leslie knows this...but a good friend of mine was murdered in her 20s. Her name was Mary Jo Thompson, and her husband killed her. She was voted most likely to succeed in our high school, and that irony still hurts. Our reunion is coming up next year, and I am in charge of the database. Every time I see her name, I cringe and it makes me sad. (We have to keep the deceased in the database to honor them at each reunion.) I have never gotten over it; I never will. She is alive in my dreams.

    Now Beth will join Mary Jo in that short list. Last night, Beth and I had a wonderful conversation but then I woke up to reality. I just can't get over Mary Jo's death, and I feel like Beth will be similar. There was no reason for it; it is nothing but tragic.

    Real murder is very, very hard to cope with. Thanks for writing about it so well, Leslie.

  8. One thing about mystery novels is that they provide us with a cathartic and moral satisfaction, as the rule (which is most always observed) is that the killer be caught and justice thereby served. So perhaps the genre is our way coming to terms with the ugliness of human nature that allows the fact of murder to exist.

  9. I'm sorry to hear about that, Robin. Death is hard, but murder is its own category.

    I do think that mystery novels fulfill some need in us that is not exploitive of the real dead, which is not always true of true crime tales. P.D. James talks about fictional murder in her interviews.

    And I will say that in my many years at the bookstore, the mystery reading crowd tend to be a very nice and intelligent crowd indeed. No theories about what that means, but it is very consistently true.