Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Notes from a Lockdown Zone

Last week, I started drafting a cheerful post for this blog. It was about mystery and thriller books I'd read recently. In preparation for a workshop I'm teaching, I've discovered many new and exciting novels for young readers , and I've been looking forward to discussing my reading binge: great, page-turning mysteries and thrillers for kids.

Then I was interrupted. Real-life crimes, with real-life criminals, were unfolding in the news. In my hometown.

In Boston, where I've lived since 1994, an event dear to our hearts -- the marathon -- was attacked by bombers. Days later, my suburban town was in lockdown, and then our whole city. A manhunt took place a mile and a half away from my house.

In the photo to the left you see the view from my dining room window. It's small in this picture, but what looks like a bird in the middle is actually one of the helicopters looking for the suspected bomber #2. These helicopters were our constant companions from Thursday night -- they woke us up -- all the way until the dramatic capture on Friday night. At times they flew so close they rattled our windows. Even after the lockdown officially ended around 5:30 pm on Friday, the suspect still at large, the helicopters continued. Then crescendoed. As our dishes vibrated on the dinner table, my husband and I just looked at each other. "This isn't over," we agreed. Sure enough, the suspect had been spotted in a boat in a backyard, and the authorities were cornering him.

For an entire day, we did not leave our house. Nobody did. I will forever remember the eerie duet of birdsong and helicopters, because that's all we heard on Friday. No children played outside despite the gorgeous weather. No work got done. My husband's business, like businesses all over our town, had to close. My childcare plans were cancelled -- no school for my kindergartner -- which meant I couldn't work either. I envied those birds their freedom to go about their business. Thousands of people were similarly paralyzed, riveted to the news -- or, worse, mourning loved ones hurt or killed in the blasts.

Although the writer in me is always curious about new experiences, I can report that there's nothing exciting about being told to "shelter at home." Other feelings roil. Like anger about the numerous victims of this senseless crime spree. Like impatience. (When will this end? How will it end?) Panic. (Please don't let this play out anywhere near my street. Please stay down on your end of School Street. And can my husband take the trash out to the garage, or will a helicopter spot movement and zoom in?) Dread --robocalls from town police and alerts from the school where my husband teaches advised us to keep our doors locked, and only answer the door to uniformed police officers. (Only it wasn't just police officers going door-to-door. This caused some confusion to some of my young son's classmates, whose houses were searched not by familiar-looking officers in blue, but by SWAT teams with different uniforms and "noisy boots.") More dread -- could the guy be seeking shelter in our backyard? Behind our garage? (I kept chastising myself for that paranoid thought, until, of course, he did actually turn up in someone's backyard, outside the 20-block search zone).

Oh, and there was boredom. Lots of boredom while waiting for updates and trying to entertain our young son indoors, hour after hour after hour. We built every Lego creation ever designed. We played with everything. Watched happy movies. A snow day with no snow.

Our house was not searched, as we were outside the 20-block zone they were sweeping. We didn't hear gunfire or explosions from the awful events on Thursday night. But these events were close enough to feel extremely uncomfortable. I could have jogged twenty-minutes to where they found the guy in the end. The staging area for police and press conferences was in the parking lot of my local Target, where I run weekly errands. TV footage showed armored vehicles rolling place the little pink trattoria where my husband and I go for occasional date nights, and by where my child takes swim classes. I live in a town that borders Watertown, and consider it an extension of my neighborhood. My kid goes to school in that town. I write in the library there. I spend over 50% of my time in Watertown. 

Now in the aftermath, in the midst of the inevitable media hype and speculations, I find myself looking at the list of mysteries and thrillers I've been reading, the books I wanted to write about. And looking my own book, the mystery/thriller I am supposed to be revising at this very moment. And I find myself in literary lockdown. Whenever there is a big act of violence reported in the news -- such as Newtown a few months ago, and now this -- I experience a period of paralysis, followed by introspection.

Here's where I'm at. Young people are affected by violent crimes in real life -- as victims or as perpetrators. They are also, like us adults, living in the world, and affected by what they hear in the news.

Do those of us who write about crime, for young readers, have a moral imperative to handle this subject with extra care? Are mysteries and thrillers for kids and teens more than entertaining page-turners? Can they also help kids understand why people make certain choices, and what the consequences of those choices might be? Can thrillers help readers grasp how the world is no longer the same place once humans have been harmed? Can mysteries remind young readers that good can prevail, that justice must be served?

What do we want young mystery/thriller readers to take away from their fictional brushes with crime?


Diana Renn grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, June 2012) is her first novel. Her next YA mystery, LATITUDE ZERO, will be published by Viking in 2014. She is also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network).


  1. What a great post.

    I think it's important for kids and teens to feel that justice is served on some level--most of the time. To be honest, I like to feel that way as an adult, too. Fiction where there is no sense of right in the world is so hard on the soul...

  2. Thanks! And yes, good point, adults also craving a sense of justice may look for it in fiction, and find some relief.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Diana. I agree that showing *why* people do what they do is important, perhaps in particular when the news in the real world is so scary and answers don't seem to be forthcoming.

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