Normal Teenagers Steal Cars

Last month, I wrote about Barney Simms, local community leader killed in his front yard, and while I made it clear that the real Sims deserves our respect, as a crime fiction writer the story was very appealing. The murder of a public figure, I wrote, taking a fictional community leader as the example, gives rise to all kinds of other causes that the typical motives for murder don’t cover.

Recently, a suspect, 17-year-old Eric Banks, was arrested for Simms’ murder. Banks was seen with Simms about an hour before his death: Simms took him to lunch. Banks’ mother claims, naturally, that her son is innocent:

She said her son told her he accepted a meal from Simms at the Waffle House, but that when the two parted ways, Simms was still alive.

“After that, (my son) left. He went somewhere. I don’t know where he went after that,” she said.

Atlanta homicide investigators said they believe Simms was shot about an hour after that encounter. A neighbor found Simms dead in his front yard. His car had been stolen.

Only CBS46 was there as police lead Banks to jail, now charged with murder.

“He did not kill that man. He’s not capable of doing nothing like that,” said Banks’ mother.

She acknowledged that her son has a criminal history.

“But not with no violent history or nothing bad,” she said, “only like what teenagers do — normal teenagers do — steal cars and stuff like that. That’s it.”

“Normal teenagers steal cars” is just great: it had to be the title here. So let’s return to fiction, and have a similar situation where community leader takes wayward teen to lunch, then is shot an hour later. In real life, the cops probably have all kinds of reasons to believe Banks is guilty, but in fiction, let’s say we don’t. The fictional young man was seen with the fictional community leader, the fictional young man seems good for it, lets himself get bullied into some kind of quasi-confession, charges are filed.

But in the original piece on Simms, I wrote about how people might have all kinds of reasons to have it in for a community leader. Let’s just say someone was looking for a chance. They see our community leader with our wayward/normal teen, figure out the kid is the perfect patsy, show up and kill the leader and drop the gun off in the kid’s yard. Now imagine the story from the mom’s point of view, and from the actual killer’s. Twin them off and alternate between them, or do half the story from one’s POV and half from the other’s. Someone out there was so intent on what they thought was justice that they’re going to commit a great injustice. The mom surprises herself by actually being willing to believe her kid did it—at first.

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The Sad Tale of Barney Simms

Atlanta Police appear to have some good leads in the murder of Barney Simms, a longtime community activist and leader who was murdered in his front yard on 09 April. Simms had a long record of working to help the less fortunate, on a hands-on as well as an institutional level, so while it is to be hoped that his murderer is caught and brought to justice, this still won’t make things better for Simms’ family or the vast number of impoverished people he served in his lifetime:

Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms called Simms a pillar of the community who would not only don T-shirt and jeans to pick up trash in his neighborhood but also wear the finest suits to meet with leaders who could be held accountable for change.

“I am simply heartbroken by the senseless killing of Barney Simms,” Bottoms said in a statement. “As an active and gracious leader of the Bonnybrook community, there was no task, too big or too small, that he engaged in to make his neighborhood, and city, a better place.”

It’s a sad story, and one I’ll follow as leads arise. But this is a crime fiction blog, and like a lot of other banal and brutal crimes, a death like this fits into the tropes and conventions of crime fiction.

Let us set up an analogous, fictional situation, where a universally-beloved, charitable community leader is killed with no apparent suspects nor motive. Usually, there are only five reasons someone commits murder: love, money, revenge, silencing a witness, or psychosis. You set up a crime novel with a public figure, all of the original reasons apply: he could be killed by a jilted partner (even in his seventies, it happens, especially if dementia is involved); he could be killed for an inheritance or something as simple as a robbery; he could have, e.g., pointed the police toward a crime suspect; in his position, he could have seen any number of crimes, from lowlife robberies to political corruption; or as a public figure, he’s that much more likely to attract the attention of a mentally ill person.

But with someone like this, we have to address the character of the person—and just to be extra clear, we stopped talking about the real Mr. Simms two paragraphs ago. It’s very common, especially among Gen Xers like myself, to look at someone who garners universal praise and immediately assume there’s something deeply wrong with them: the effort they have to make to be that saintly in everyone’s eyes forces them to conceal some Jungian shadow that’s just bent as hell. So while we could write a story about any of the five causes above, and do it well, the public nature of our hypothetical person almost demands that we integrate their public life into the story, and have it be something that at least contributes to getting them into the situation where they end up murdered.

A different sort of crime novel might take as its central narrative the story of the one person who was both victimized by the not-so-saintly figure and has the wherewithal to do something about it. Imagine the pent-up frustration at nobody listening to them because of the figure’s reputation. Imagine them hooking up with someone else who has one of the five usual motives and turning the story into that of the relationship between these two people. Imagine, say, a grandson who really needs that inheritance money using and framing a victim for the crime.

But the sort of cynicism that assumes a Jungian shadow is necessary isn’t itself necessary. Eye-rolling Gen Xers aside, there really are people who are genuinely good. So one way to write this story is to have the good person be unable to see the evil in another; as in, they’re used to dysfunction, but have a hard time grasping real evil. They try to help a person, not understanding that this person wants access, not help. This is problematic, however, because people in this position are generally fairly well acquainted with evil and the difference between it and dysfunction. Nobody spends decades as a community leader without developing a pretty good eye for this.

Another way to do it is to have the public figure willing to help a person, but just unable to do it: their power simply doesn’t extend that far, and can’t. Let’s say, a felon out of jail and trying to stay on the straight path, who has done all the right things but can’t get anywhere because of the conviction. They’re just convinced that this towering figure has the power to do this, and the figure can’t convince them otherwise.

Or, of course, it could all be a case of mistaken identity, something the cops only figure out long after they’ve spent months investigating everyone close to the figure, and finding all sorts of other, horrible, but fundamentally unrelated crimes.