Category Archives: Writing

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody — Part III

Sue Grafton’s recent death reminded me what a joy it was to watch this gracious, no-nonsense writer break into the male-dominated mystery genre back in 1982.

I’ve been thinking of Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.

Sue Grafton

Ellen Kirschman

As I remember the B.C. (Before Computers) era of the early ’80s, novels by unknown writers like Grafton were lucky to be published with a first printing of 5,000 copies — and luckier still to clear a sale of 3,000. Grafton’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, took a risk on her first novel, “A” Is for Alibi, with an initial printing of 7,500 copies and was thrilled when it sold 6,000.

As the world now knows, one reason for its success was Grafton’s catchy, classy idea of making a lethal murder mystery sound like a children’s spelling book. Something about following the alphabet had a huge and immediate appeal, and why not? Few could resist solving “B” (Burglar) without looking forward to “C” (Corpse). Readers coming in late at “E” (Evidence) seemed to always want to go back and start with “A” Is for Alibi.

This was also the PFE (PreFeminist Era) when publishers were just beginning to realize that women not only bought most of the books in the United States; they actually read the damn things and, in the mystery genre especially, spread the word of an intriguing newcomer faster and more powerfully than any marketing or publicity campaign ever could (still true).

So it meant something that readers so quickly took to Grafton’s female private eye, Kinsey Milhone. An Everywoman alone in the universe, a loner who likes but is never dependent on men, Kinsey avoids violence, isn’t conventionally beautiful and doesn’t use wisecracks to get laid. Right through 25 novels sadly ending in “Y” Is for Yesterday, she has remained her own person — thoughtful, observant, a bit hermetic but curious about the world, and adventurous in her own way.

“A” Is for Alibi, Grafton’s first novel, 1982

And unlike amateur sleuths, Kinsey has sought to be a professional PI from the start. She rents an office, charges for her time, works comfortably with male colleagues (especially the police) and keeps a formal distance between herself and clients. Only we know how deeply she may care for people along the way, sometimes at great risk to herself.

From Kinsey Milhone to Dot Meyerhoff

The matter of professionalism defines Sue Grafton’s legacy in a way that rang a bell when I came upon Ellen Kirschman’s protagonist, police psychologist Dot Meyerhoff (see most recent two posts below).

First, a quick observation: Every genre hits its trendy periods, but it’s been both fascinating and scary to watch the attraction of psychotherapists across all boundaries of fiction for the last 20 or 30 years. By now, mysteries can easily get junked up with superficially drawn psychologists who function only to fill a narrative hole. Their job is to offer cheap motivations, gossip in the form of red herrings and dark impulses that make voyeurs of us all.

Dot Meyerhoff is not that kind of character. In her 50s with decades of experience, she’s so much “the real thing” that readers can relax and enjoy her dry humor and unique commentary without feeling used. As far as I know (readers, please tell me if I’m wrong), Dot is the only professional female police psychologist in mystery fiction to function as a modern sleuth.

Kirschman, herself a police psychologist for more than 30 years, is famous in her field as author of nonfiction guides for First Responder families (I Love a Cop, I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.). In these, she writes with such a natural flair for entertainment and instruction that it’s fun to watch her pass the fictional baton to her shrewd yet often very funny alter ego, Dot Meyeroff.

Kirschman’s nonfiction books

The twist here is that the Kenilworth Police Department where Dot works, despite its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, appears to be stuck in a “cowboy culture” of the 1950s.  Most everyone on the nearly all-white, all-male police force regards emotion as a sign of weakness, so no cop wants to be seen talking to the department’s “lady shrink” in any formal way.

Dot is patient enough with her macho clientele to do a lot of counseling “on the hoof,” as she says. So she just happens to bump into cops she’s a bit worried about, strikes up conversations in hallways or patrol cars,  asks questions about family life and on-the-job pressures that won’t sound too probing, but are.

Over time, her understanding of cop life makes Dot more trustworthy to Kenilworth’s cops (and to us) than many a psych consultant who’s called in for a quickie consult.

From Suicide to Child Pornography

Kirschman’s themes are not easy. In Burying Ben (2013) Dot confronts the growing national tragedy of police suicide. In The Right Wrong Thing (2015) she faces blatant sexism and racism when a white police officer shoots an unarmed African American teen. (The fact that both cop and suspect are women throws a new angle on Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, movements that emerged after publication.)

The Fifth Reflection

And now in The Fifth Reflection, published in the midst of the nation’s crisis over sexual abuse and discrimination, Kirschman directs our focus to the larger, more complex phenomena of child pornography, pedophilia and sex trafficking.

Here we meet Manuel Ochoa, a promising young cop at Kenilworth PD who’s working to the point of exhaustion, even paranoia, on a child-porn operation with ICAC (the real-life national task force called Internet Crimes Against Children).

Manny has volunteered for the job because there’s more money and chance for advancement than the usual “leaf blower complaints and barking dogs” that beat cops usually investigate. He gets to choose his own team and set up round-the-clock systems in which detectives find hidden websites and track child pornography networks that lead to real perpetrators and real arrests. It’s tedious, depressing work, but as a new father, he comes to the job fired up and raring to go.

That would be a terrific start for an action novel about cops, but Dot Meyerhoff works in a real-life police station where evidence-gathering is always piecemeal and often frustrating. Her job is to spot  risky behavioral patterns that many cops fall into and don’t know it.

“Manny started out in this job, as they all do, thinking he was part of an elite group of invulnerable people — smart, strong, and determined. This is not narcissism, it’s a necessary fiction. Without it, Manny or any other cop couldn’t do what society needs him to do. Or see what society doesn’t want to acknowledge.”

What’s the “necessary fiction” nobody talks about in law enforcement? I think Kirschman means that Americans fool ourselves thinking police are out there solving sophisticated modern-day crime when the truth is, they’re barely making a dent in the big stuff, especially child pornography.

At the same time, politically motivated brass like the Chief at Kenilworth PD tend to toss ambitious but ill-trained young cops like Manny into the fray.

Manny’s training so far: The Chief sent him to talk with “a retired guy from Child Protective Services.” His specialized workplace: A shoddy substation with cheap furniture and cast-off computers. The caliber of the detectives he works with: One cop on the team admits he “likes porn and thinks he can spend all his time hanging out in massage parlors.”

Dot sees Manny taking the brunt of all this.

“Investigating child pornography is one of the most stressful assignments in law enforcement. No one should be placed in a stressful specialty without first being screened. Manny has a small child of his own. That brings everything closer. Makes him vulnerable to over-identifying with the victims.”

Ellen Kirschman

That’s the pressure so many cops are under. Manny believes he’s tough and strong enough to fight whatever “emotional consequences” may sneak into the job. But his wife Lupe tells Dot that he can’t eat or sleep, won’t let any male near their baby daughter — even family — and is overprotective to the point of bullying.

Soon we see how invaluable “counseling on the hoof” can be. On a visit, Dot suggests that Manny move photos of Lupe and the baby away from the computer where he’s spending half his life viewing the worst kind of child pornography while trying to buddy-up to the perpetrators for the next sting operation.

Dot also begins “stress inoculation” for Manny by bringing Lupe in on strategy sessions at the station and at home. Keeping boundaries separate, she says, is a big step away from taking the bad stuff personally. But it’s only a first step.

When Naked Children Are Art, Not Crime

I wish Kirschman had shown us more of what a police psychologist actually does to help overwhelmed cops like Manny before his family and colleagues are afraid to come near him. Instead — and I admit it’s a fascinating and important subplot — the location changes abruptly as Dot and her fiance Frank attend an avant-garde art exhibit that features controversial photos of naked children.

In one image, Dot notes, a nude boy turns a “furious” expression at the camera, his “eyes blazing with the angry intensity of a powerful secret.” In another, a pre-pubescent girl with “an amorphous sexuality” lies face down, nude except for “wet leaves, some randomly stuck to her body.”

What’s the difference, people at the exhibit (and we readers) wonder silently, between these photos and child pornography?

Dot, both specialist in crime and art enthusiast, is at first open-minded. She finds the photos “gorgeous (and) evocative, drawing me in but repelling me at the same moment.” If they’re erotic, she thinks, they are also “bordering on pornographic.”

Sally Mann, photo of her children, Virginia, Emmett and Jessie.

(This is the kind of disturbing internal dialogue that has been discussed for years regarding the work of Sally Mann, the acclaimed yet sometimes censured photographer and mother who, like the character of JJ in The Fifth Reflection, has photographed her own children in similar poses.)

Soon a fight is brewing. Frank, an amateur photographer who may have a crush on JJ, his strikingly attractive mentor and the exhibit’s most controversial artist, insists the photographs are “sensual, not sexual. These are works of art,” he says, “carefully composed.”

Even more unsettling, the children depicted get younger and younger. In one photo, an unclothed three-year-old girl is “sitting on a log in the middle of a stream, her knees pulled up to her chest, looking down at the water swirling in circles under her.”

Frank: What do you think?

Dot: She’s naked.

Frank: So is Venus rising out of that clam shell. And all those naked cherubs in the Italian masterpieces…Since I’ve been studying photography I see the naked form everywhere. Imogen Cunningham, Georgia O’Keefe, they all photographed naked women.

Dot: Women, not children.

Frank: How are these images any different from what you see every day on television? Victoria’s Secret’s ads, Sports Illustrated swimwear edition…

Dot: Those are adults. They can give informed consent to being photographed.

Dot is still pondering the difference between art and crime when Frank shows her the exhibit’s most praised photo, a picture of JJ’s daughter, Crissy, who’s two years old.

Dot: Her arms are at her sides and she’s dangling a toy dog by the leg — its head drags on the ground. She is naked, wearing only a white headband with a large floppy bow…Her eyes are huge and her skin flawless. I have no children of my own, but the image is so powerful I can literally feel the sensual appeal of Chrissy’s smooth skin, imagine how it would be to cover her plump pillowing body with kisses.

 Wow. I put that quote in bold because I can’t imagine a straight white male protagonist in other mysteries, like Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher or Dave Robicheaux, saying such a thing about kissing a naked little girl’s “pillowing body.”

Sally Mann, “The Perfect Tomato”

Of course the statement itself is fine — many hardboiled detectives are fathers who have hugged and kissed their toddlers that way all the time. It’s just that  with the explosion of complaints about sexual abuse of minors in recent years, mystery authors tend to avoid any hint of impropriety on the part of the male hero.  (Without a hint of irony, many of these same mystery authors bring us the most hideous stories of curvaceous young women being raped and tortured before the murder mystery even begins.)

Kirschman is fearless in this regard. Emotions that cops usually keep hidden in the shadows are fiercely explored in Dot Meyerhoff mysteries. While Dot will still emerge as a master of deduction — her eye misses nothing, her logic is impeccable —  at the same time her heart, too, is wide open. She not only reads emotions of others with precise understanding; she’s vulnerable to human foibles as much as anybody.

What We Learn

And thanks to Dot, readers learn about pressures in police work that rarely make the news. Remember that white male cop in Texas named Eric Casebolt who knew a camera was on him during a chase, so he performed a martial arts “barrel roll” on the ground before slamming a 14-year-old African American girl in the dirt? And aiming his gun at unarmed  teens around him? At a pool party?

Officer Casebolt subdoing 14-year-old suspect

That’s the kind of event that’s come into public discourse with the rise of cell-phone video technology and movements like Black Lives Matter and now #MeToo. It’s important that we see videos of police officers making good and bad decisions, but the question I think Kirschman wants us to ask is: How do we think about such images?  Do these cops represent a few bad apples on the force, or does the whole system of police hiring and training need to be rehauled? Does a “cowboy culture” reign in police stations like Kenilworth, or is that familiar racist/sexist/macho swagger fading into a thing of the past? Should we be wary of cops today as “bullies or bigots with a badge,” or can we feel some empathy toward the pressure-cooker life that police officers step into every day?

That’s part of the legwork in Dot Meyerhoff mysteries. Along the way toward matching wits with our cop-shrink sleuth, readers gain some understanding of the political and emotional environment in police stations, the mental health training or lack of it we give to cops and the demands of peer pressure that may lead to episodes of false bravura.

The problem with The Fifth Reflection, however, comes when the inevitable mystery takes place: Too many subplots, suspects, detours, undeveloped clues and characters, unresolved infighting, unfinished theories and (unintended) red herrings fill the pages until the focus of the novel turns blurry and we lose the great Ah ha! moment.

I have no doubt that Ellen Kirschman will write her way into this series with increasing authority and finesse as a fiction writer. She’s already nailed Dot’s wonderfully acerbic narrative voice; improvement in narrative construction and characterization seems inevitable. And she knows how to lay an early foundation, as in The Fifth Reflection, for a kidnapping that may or may not be connected to Manny’s child-porn investigation and JJ’s art exhibit.

I mention the kidnapping specifically because this, too, like the constant reappearance of psychologists, has become a worrisome trend (next up, nannies). It’s as though mystery authors need to sell women’s fear as justification for women’s courage — that is, kidnapping as a really good plot device and character motivation combined.

But with so many authors on the bandwagon,  kidnapping has become a cheap, cruel, phony and manipulative vehicle that, incredibly, makes children irrelevant.  Who worries in the midst of HFW (Having Fun with Whodunits) about the damage being done to the little boy or girl who’s terrified and alone or sold off to sex trafficking or cut up into proof-of-life samples or buried or gone for so long that he or she is unrecognizable upon return so Mom and Dad go berserk until a shrink discovers a terrible secret that makes the sleuth, a gorgeous babe herself who forgets to close the blinds while bathing despite the serial killer across the street, look great.

Sue Grafton’s last novel, “Y” Is for Yesterday, 2017

Well, goodbye, Sue!  Thank you for “Yesterday.” We know “Z” would never have stooped to such histrionics.

And come back soon, Dot! We miss you already.









A Thought While Reading ‘The Goldfinch’

I’m not sure The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt deserves the Pulitzer Prize. It’s way too long (771 pages), and the pace mires down way too often. Early promises aren’t fulfilled, the characters are more adored than developed, and parts of the narrative turn preachy and patronizing.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; $30)

Yet I loved the reading of it for the most part. Observations and insights are so rich that I don’t really care what the story is about, especially when it comes to themes about art and the flow of people’s lives around art objects.

Take the narrator’s mother, a self-taught art buff who’s rushing Theo, her 13-year-old son, through an exhibit of Dutch Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It’s hard to like this character’s air of false cosmopolitanism (“Oh, drat,” she exclaims at the first sign of rain). But her regard for these paintings is so exuberant and her knowledge so intriguing that (like other people in the museum) I want to sidle up close to hear everything she has to say.

“They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters — ripeness sliding into rot,” she says gaily as they move quickly toward the Rembrandt painting at the heart of the show, The Anatomy Lesson.

Theo has viewed this image on the exhibit poster so many times that he now sees only “the same old corpse with the flayed arm,” but his mother reveals much more as they slow down before it.

The men in the painting are “very naturalistic,” she begins.

'The Anatomy Lesson'

‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“But then — she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger — “the body isn’t painted in a very natural way at all, if you look at it. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy, almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it’s shining with its own light source? He’s painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it — make it jump out at us.”

The novel itself never shows us a picture of anything, but we end up sharing her fascination with the flayed arm because Tartt articulates the mother’s excitement about it so perfectly.

Closeup of the flayed arm in 'The Anatomy Lesson'

Closeup of the flayed arm in ‘The Anatomy Lesson’

“See how (the artist Fabritius) calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He’s even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he didn’t do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand — we see it immediately, something very wrong — but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can’t put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick.”

Okay, a trick (it looks okay to me), but why would the artist do that? we wonder, waiting for Theo to ask this very question. However at that moment, the boy’s attention has wandered to a girl nearby with bright red hair and “golden honeybee brown eyes” – a girl who is “too thin, all elbows, and in a way almost plain, yet there was something about her too that made my stomach go watery.”

This happens before his mother moves smoothly on to the real gem she wants Theo to see, The Goldfinch of the novel’s title. It’s “a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition,” Theo tells us —

image of 'The Goldfinch'

image of ‘The Goldfinch’

although he’s also inclining his head to get another glimpse of the girl and the grandfatherly man accompanying her – “and the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”

It doesn’t register at first, but that small looping chain and “twig of an ankle” will return to our memory in a subliminal way for the next 700 pages. As will dozens (I’m still counting) of other references, each looked at first from an odd angle and later more provocatively, causing us to remember and wonder each time we leave the page or screen.

For instance, Tartt knows enough about Amsterdam and Las Vegas to take us to these cities in vivid, visual detail. But she is eloquent about New York City, particularly when Theo finds his bleak mood reflected in a simple walk down Lexington Ave. Though he bypasses subway stations to “clear my mind” (to further mess up his mind, is what he means), the city is there, as always, it seems, to mirror anyone’s deepening despair.

“… weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like a stone.”

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

Tartt doesn’t allow many lengthy sentences in The Goldfinch and seems to dismiss stream-of-consciousness as a cheap trick. So this passage is a rare surprise. It’s risky and wordy and malaise-ridden — and for some readers incredibly true.

Again I wouldn’t give a literary award for The Goldfinch, but when the writing is enthralling on every page, you have to say the author deserves a lot of credit.





Tennis v. Shootout, Anyone?

It used to be a cliche in the theater what whenever a playwright wanted to clear the stage so that principle characters could talk alone, an actor in white shorts would rush in waving a racquet and shout, “Tennis, anyone?”

Then all the people who weren’t needed for the next scene would race off.

Bringing in the Greek god

Bringing in the Greek god

A similar device in Greek theater is known as deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” which means that when human characters confront an unsolvable problem, the playwright flies in a god to fix it. In Greek times, a visible machine with a crane was used that the audience pretended not to notice, thus granting the gods their divine power.

In the 20th century, the transition to a new kind of deus ex machina was attributed to actor Humphrey Bogart. After reporters asked for years if he made the Tennis, Anyone? device famous, Bogart told a Hollywood columnist in 1948:

“I used to play juveniles on Broadway and came bouncing into drawing rooms with a tennis racket under my arm and the line: ‘Tennis anybody?’ It was a stage trick to get some of the characters off the set so the plot could continue. Now when they want some characters out of the way, I come in with a gun and bump em off.

Picture of Bogart with gun

Bogart clearing the room

Amazing, isn’t it? The entertainment world changed this plot device from a mild invitation to play tennis to a deadly attack by gunshot. In the process, you might say that Tennis, Anyone? turned into Shootout, Anyone? and the guy with the pistol became a criminal version of deux ex machina.

Today the phrase,Tennis, Anyone? is a catch-all for the kind of phony contrivance you see when, for example, a TV actor like Josh Charles, who plays attorney Will Gardner on The Good Wife, refuses to renew his contract.

That was the “gut punch” that Robert and Michelle King, creators of The Good Wife, confessed knocked the stuffing out of them when Charles’ made his surprise decision to quit the program. They felt backed into a corner, and who could blame them? Will Gardner’s passion for protagonist Alicia Florrick had become central to the show’s enormous success over four seasons.

How to get rid of the lead romantic interest? A new version of Tennis, Anyone? — like a judge rushing in with a basketball, asking, “Pick-up game, anyone?” — had been used before, when Will got in trouble for allegedly bribing judges. So that was out. Giving Will cancer would be too slow (Josh Charles wanted to leave now), and we know Will wouldn’t fall in love with somebody else (tried it — she went to London). Going to prison was not an option (that’s Alicia’s husband Peter’s gig), as was falling out of love with Alicia (never).

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in 'The Good Wife'

Josh Charles as Will and Julianna Margulies as Alicia in ‘The Good Wife’

So killing him off was the only answer, it appeared, but the Kings forgot a key writing requirement that comes with this deus ex machina choice today: If a beloved central character like Will Gardner must die, he has to die for a reason. He has to be involved organically in the ongoing story, and the legacy he leaves behind must contribute to the growth of other characters, which we’ll get to later.

I think the Kings forgot about this because they seem to have been distracted, as 21st-century TV creator-writers often are, by the fact that in our post-9/11, post-Columbine society, you can do so much with blood spatter after Dexter. They knew the Shootout, Anyone? device happens so often on TV crime shows that a clerk in a local convenience store can’t look twice at a customer without guns coming out and soda bottles bursting and Little Debbies shot off the shelves as automatic firearms go ding, ding, ding down the row.

We viewers in turn are so accustomed to out-of-nowhere violence that we can predict it’s not the anonymous clerk who’ll be caught in the crossfire — it’ll be the beloved Dad who innocently stopped by for milk and is now lying dead among the Debbies, or the newly engaged fiance who’s just discovered she’s pregnant, or the veteran cop who never fired a weapon in 20 years “on the job” and was hurrying off to the retirement dinner when Fate intervened.

Promo for Will's death scene - don't forget that happy smile

Promo for Will’s death scene – don’t forget that happy smile

This is why killing off Will Gardner in a courtroom shootout was so obvious and cheap. It was beneath the standards we’ve come to expect of an otherwise smart, relevant and innovative series. The coincidences alone were hard to believe: Will just happened to get in the way of a flying bullet? His colleagues Diane and Kalinda just happened to be working down the hall? The bailiff just happened to leave his loaded gun unbuttoned, inches away from the client’s unshackled body? The deranged client just happened to turn paranoid at the moment the pistol came into view? (And why did the usually observant Will miss every warning sign the panicked client revealed from the first arrest? We viewers all saw it — Kalinda kept mentioning it — so why not Will, except that it was another convenient coincidence.)

I thought TV critics would denounce The Good Wife for using such a tacky plot device that broadcasts a dangerous and inaccurate message about violence in America. That message is: Shootouts are so prevalent today that gunfire is as likely to kill Our Hero as a heart attack or car accident. This is not true, and it’s doubly irresponsible coming from writers who’ve been so fastidious about the accurate portrayal of real controversies in our time, such as Bitcoin currency, insurance fraud, rape in the military, undocumented immigrants, surrogate mothers, army torture,sexual harassment, capital punishment, wiretapping, and of course the Cheese Guild (which you have to see to believe). Shootouts are incredibly rare in society, but they’re so sensationalized by the American press that they seem to be “considerably more common than they are.”

So why did the Kings use the Shootout, Anyone approach? Maybe all they wanted wanted was a big distraction. Maybe they hoped the gunshots, screaming crowds and blood-spattered walls would cause TV critics to be so dazzled that they’d forget how shameful and outrageous it is that Josh Charles would blithely walk out on the complicated and seductive character whom he and the Kings so carefully created over four seasons.

Writer Delia Ephron

Writer Delia Ephron

Indeed, other than Delia Ephron, who wrote a silly essay in the New York Times that she was mad at the “selfishness” of Josh Charles because she personally was going to miss his sex scenes, most of the critics I read praised the show for unleashing a “bombshell” and keeping Will’s death a secret for nearly a year.

Josh Charles himself appeared proud and happy on the Dave Letterman program when he should have been ashamed and apologetic for crippling the series by removing its most riveting male character and story line. it was as though he expected audiences to pretend not to notice the deus ex machina of the moment so we could keep on loving the character of Will after he’s gone.

Which brings us back to the integrity of any work of fiction, which is to say that every event has to have a reason, including a character’s death. The great irony of The Good Wife is that a foundation had been laid for several legitimate possibilities leading to Will’s murder that would have contributed to the strengths of the show. All the writers had to do was follow their own subplots.

Suppose, for example, Will is killed — possibly assassinated? — when he’s on the way to meet someone involved with, say, the voter fraud issue that’s dragging Peter down, or the drug-smuggling kingpin who may switch law firms, or the Milwaukee Food Festival bomb suspect, or webcam spies, or tampered juries, the hilarious Office of Public Integrity (this has got to be a spoof on the National Security Council), all of which offered complex gray areas in which Will is neither villain nor hero.

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

That self-righteous guy, Eric Bogasian

There he is, wearing that great Will Gardner glower that means he’s going to do something big, maybe change the world, maybe tell Alicia he loves her, when bam, shots ring out, intended only for him. Given his history of shady legal deals, Will’s death would leave a mystery to be solved in subsequent episodes that could challenge every character who knew or loved him. In the process, everybody on The Good Wife might think a little more deeply about the difference between living passively and meeting one’s destiny. So in a dramatically challenging way, Will’s death would have contributed to the advancement of both story and character.

And because that self-righteous guy from The Office of Public Integrity would positively drool with a new sense of purpose, the story would pick up again rather than bog down in the next episodes with everybody crying mawkishly over Will’s loss. I’m not saying the characters shouldn’t feel grief; rather, the series would be deepened and enlarged if they’re hit with one real crisis after another while they’re trying to recover. Otherwise the story just lies there dragging the pace down growing more mawkish by the second. (I didn’t buy Diane kicking out the rich client; she’s too professional to parade her woundedness like that, and she was wrong – Will would never have lost those billings, either.)

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

Robert and Michelle King, creator-writers of The Good Wife

It’s too bad that Kings have defended the courtroom shootout as part of the theme: “To us, there always was a tragedy at the center of Will and Alicia’s relationship,” they wrote in a letter to viewers. “The tragedy of bad timing. The brutal honesty and reality of death speaks to the truth and tragedy of bad timing for these two characters.”

Uh-huh. Let’s see now, tragedy = death, you say? As in Shakespeare or something? Like star-crossed lovers who bemoan their fate but can’t do anything about it?

Sigh. Sometimes the writers are the last to know.

The best part about The Good Wife is that tragedy happens to Alicia and Will before the story begins. It’s the tragedy of Alicia being the loyal housewife and mother who depended on her husband Peter to keep the family secure while he ran around with prostitutes and crime figures. It’s about Will, the sensitive but ruthless attorney-on-the-make who can’t commit to anyone in a love relationship and tends to bend the law too far.

So from the start, the theme of the show poses this question: Can Alicia transform herself from the loser wife (as people see her) standing powerlessly by her fallen husband to a self-actuating single mom who can think on her feet and have terrific orgasms on the dresser with a rehbilitated Eliot-Spitzer hubby or in a hotel suite with the charismatic-yet-ruthless mentor-with-a-heart Will?

To many viewers, thats the theme: Whether Alicia can learn to carve out her own choices in a world that’s filled with hidden agendas, political in-fighting, social back-stabbers, romantic subterfuge and government/corporate surveillance. And if she can, what about Will, Kalinda, Diane, Eli, or Cary? Indeed, can any of us? One of the joys of watching this richly detailed story unfold is to witness this theme filtering down to even the minor characters in the show, including the shy new law partner (Nathan Lane), the attorney who exploits his own disability (Michael J. Fox), the possibly autisticfixer (Carrie Preston), Peter’s ethics consultant with the too-big lips (Melissa George), Eli Gold’s far-too-young love interest (America Ferrera), and dozens of others, all struggling to define themselves as independent players in a world of conformists.

Will's own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

Will’s own deus ex machina, Elsbeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston)

But i think it’s Alicia’s children who could have played a key role about Will’s future with Alicia when unfortunately the Kings killed him off. Zach and Grace were just beginning to realize that Will was their mother’s terrible secret, the Guy Who Isn’t Dad. They were suspicious of him, and he was awkward around them. How intriguing it would have been if Will happened to help Zach in a dispute with police, or represented a young Christian minister whom born-again Grace idolized. Then Will, the famously shy and tongue-tied adult when he was around Alicia’s children, could have begun to make a commitment for the first time in his life for the betterment of another human being — not just a love interest (Alicia) but young people he found valuable in his own life and in the world.

That commitment could have challenged the kids’ limited understanding of moral issues and forced Alicia to confront her own fears about what kind of “good” mother and “good” wife she would continue to be. Then, just when everybody was in the grip of life-changing events, Will would get killed, and the more dubious his legal situation at that moment, the better.

A second scenario lost in the Shootout, Anyone? debacle involves the one thing Will never knew: that Alicia left Lockhart Gardner to get away from the boss/associate and partner/partner relationship problem so that she and Will could go at it in the front seat without violating company rules. Having Cary as her law partner across town, she would have been free to choose Will as a lover (or not) without worrying about client relations or Diane banging on the hood of the car. She could tell the kids the truth, decide about divorcing Peter, earn more money by poaching clients and live openly on her own terms. That, too, would be a great time to whack Will.

Some observers say that all drama is about the possibility of transformation, which is why a Greek play can still be inspiring — the god they lower from the skies is really a stand-in for ourselves. The choices made by a divine power are dangled in front of human characters every day. What made The Good Wife so engrossing was the authenticity of every choice, the rich detail with which we could see that life isn’t stagnant, that independent thought can be scary and fulfilling at the same time. That’s not lost in the shootout; it’s just weakened.

In the end, I could see somebody knocking off Will Gardner for his annoying habit of obsessively unbuttoning and rebuttoning his too-tight suit jacket every time he stands up to address the judge. James Spader did this in every episode of Boston Legal and he, too, should have been jailed for it. Let’s hope Finn (the new love interest? so soon!) uses Velcro.

Will Gardner's too-tight suit

Will Gardner’s too-tight suit