The Archetypal Atlanta Crime (2)

Previous post here.

Today, the AJC released a police sketch of one of the robbers in the big local crime story this week. Michael and Whitney Lash, homeowners in a gentrifying neighborhood, came home from vacation, whereupon four young men showed up and tried to rob them, shooting Mr. Lash and wounding him seriously, and waving a gun at Ms. Lash, who was holding the baby. At the time, I bemoaned how difficult this sort of thing is when it comes to writing crime fiction, because the criminals are usually really, really dumb. Let’s take a look at this guy:


Look carefully. The guy has a piercing in the middle of his forehead. Now, I’m no criminal mastermind, but I’d like to think that if I were going to shoot people in the femur and wave a gun at a baby, I’d either wear a mask or take the dang thing out. I’m not trying to belittle the Lashes’ suffering, which is real and considerable, nor the structural economic and racial issues that underlie this sort of crime. But this? It just can’t be turned into fiction.

It also kills another potential way to write a story about the situation. We might, when writing a piece of fiction, have it be one of the spouses (note: fictional spouses, not the Lashes) hire some local thugs to kill the other for… insurance money, or one of the usual motivations in such cases. But the spouses would have bought a house and gone on vacation, which means they can breathe without being reminded to, which means neither of them would be stupid enough to hire this guy. Who, we should keep in mind, we the taxpayers of Georgia are going to spend at least half a million dollars dealing with, once we add in investigation, trial and incarceration.

So if this is going to become a piece of crime fiction, it needs to step back from the specifics and look at the general situation. How does our society keep managing to create people like this man? Why can’t we stop them before they shoot a guy? What, other than sheer stupidity, makes them do something like this? Keep in mind that gentrifier types pay for everything with cards, not cash, and that the typical return on stolen items to the thief is about ten percent. Robbing people is at best a minimum-wage job.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 5, Scene 3b

TOC page here.

Here’s the rest of the scene, where we discuss religion. One of the ongoing themes here is that Christianity and Islam are both such enormous religions (over a billion followers each) that it’s impossible to say “Islam is this” and not be able to quickly come up with a counterexample. Reverend Carter is one kind of Christian, and Claire another:

Mustapha said, “You get a lot of church groups coming in here and helping out?”

“No. Some donate to us, but if they come in, they always spend more time trying to convert the clients than they do feeding them. There are plenty of church groups who work outside the shelter, though; just head out into Renaissance Park or the parking lot across Pine Street, and you’ll run into one sooner or later.”

“Any of them Muslim?”

“The groups, you mean? They’re all different faiths. There’s an atheist group, which, as long as they’re doing good works, they’re better than half the churches in town. There was even a group of Flying Spaghetti Monster people; you know, with colanders on their heads? They were very nice, but goodness, did they confuse people.”

“Cascade Baptist?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell. But again, they could be out there and I wouldn’t know. I’ve only managed this organization for just over a year now. The people who used to run it? Well, let’s just say that making alliances wasn’t their strong suit.”

Diana looked up from her tablet. “Are you a licensed counselor, Ms. Longstreet?”

“Claire, please. I… no. I do pastoral counseling: Georgia doesn’t require a license.”

“How many clients do you have in the Lazarus Program?”

“That’s… very few. Alex Dawson isn’t—wasn’t—one of them.”

“But that very helpful gentleman who used to know my ex-husband is.”

“Bill Knight. Yes.” Mustapha had no idea what Diana was talking about, but as usual, he let it ride.

“Who else is? How about Mr. Buchanan, working your door?”

“I… look, none of that has anything to do with Alex. I take on a few clients whose efforts to get their lives together are serious and sustained, and help them out with intensive small-group and individual therapy. That’s really all it is. Traditional talk therapy is extremely effective: just imagine how many fewer problems you police would have if we spent ten percent of our military budget on therapy.”

“That’s a lot of couches,” said Mustapha.

“Mock me if you will, Inspector, but you asked earlier about how people become homeless? The single greatest driver of homelessness is bankruptcy brought on by medical bills. In Canada and other civilized countries, access to healthcare, even mental health care, which shouldn’t be a separate issue at any rate, isn’t doled out by class status. People who have been middle-class their whole lives have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between medical care and the electric bill. And for them, therapy is right out of the question.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Haven’t had my tea yet.” He sipped: for herbal crap, it wasn’t bad.

Longstreet sipped her own tea. “I suppose you can tell I’m a bit passionate about this. And Obamacare might be helpful for people with jobs, but it does little for the homeless, for whom even a basic policy is far out of reach.”

Diana reached out, dipped the tip of her pinky finger in her tea, recoiled. “Who was Lazarus? I know, he’s in the bible somewhere, but I grew up outside church.”

Longstreet got up, knelt down under the hot plate where there was a minifridge, put a few ice cubes in a cup and handed it to Diana. “Your teeth?” she said as a grateful Diana poured the ice into her tea and nodded. “We see a lot of that, here. Don’t even get me started on why dental care is a separate issue from regular healthcare.”

“I’m with you, there,” said Diana. She sipped, smiled, swallowed. “So who was Lazarus?”

Longstreet flushed. “I didn’t make up the name, I swear. It was a former client, one now living on his own, who had been a minister before his… issues took control of him. Neither one of you knows the reference?”

Diana said, “My stepmother and I used to read lots of books of mythology together, so I recognized the name, but don’t remember the story.”

“Oh. It’s from the gospel of John. Lazarus was a local man who Jesus… brought back from the dead.” At their expressions, “Like I said, I didn’t make up the name.”

Claire goes by works, not faith nor spectacle. But at the same time, she’s allowing people to call her Jesus, which is generally regarded as a warning sign. She understands that our medical system is the travesty that causes homelessness, but she’s providing unlicensed “pastoral” counseling instead of trained therapy. She’s a study in contradictions, which is intended: it renders her both more vivid and more relevant to the central plot. I’m setting her up to be a point of ambiguity, which remember “ambiguous” is right from the start one of our theme words.

In real life, I the author am pretty hostile to religion in general: it’s an authoritarian fairy tale. This makes it a challenge to portray people with faith without unconsciously slanting things negatively. But of course, there are tens of millions of people for whom their religion is a big net positive, even if I might think that overall religion hurts humanity. One of my favorites among my short stories is Bird of Paradise, which has decent, kind religious people at its heart.