Zoë Sharp recently posted an excellent piece on the question of why we—meaning you, me, and the shy, skulking, blinky stranger in the threadbare overcoat crouching over there in the corner with the thumb-worn paperback—why we, dear friends, read crime fiction.
Given a natural, almost irrepressible inclination to let my mind wander and generally, hopelessly digress, I soon found myself mentally drifting into the conjectural weeds, wondering about a related question:
Why do we write crime fiction?
I’m hoping all my fellow Murderateros chime in on this, because I have a nagging little notion that the answers will prove not just revealing but jaw-dropping.
I mean, why does a conscientious, civil, well-educated, upstanding, socially responsible, personally hygienic, cheerful, brave, clean and reverent soul and lifelong swell gal like Pari Noskin Taichert or Phillipa Martin—to take but two blushing examples—come to share the blue-skied expanse of their otherwise benign imaginations with schemy lowlifes, bumbling thugs, skin-curdling perverts, gun-toting birdbrains, shuffling miscreants, jolly sadists, penny-ante lawmen, bogus medicine men and anarchist shoplifters?
I hope the dozens-to-hundreds of the rest you toiling away in the crime fiction boiler room—whether famous or obscure, published or soon-to-be-published or dreaming-of-being-published or willing-to-kill-to-get-published—will also pipe up and be heard. Why oh why do you do it?
I can only speak for myself, of course, and what purpose would generalizations serve? So here is my sad and sordid tale, my ars poetica.
Let me take you back to the tranquil midwestern burg known as Columbus, Ohio—a great place to raise a family, it was often said. Or brew up a first-rate neurosis. Everything of any import, I was convinced, happened elsewhere. In particular, it happened in books.
I was a brainy, tubby, near-sighted kid who read voraciously, tirelessly, endlessly, so much so my less print-bedazed brother considered me an excellent target for mockery, torment and contempt. To little avail. I devoured the Hardy Boys and Danny Dunn and the We Were There novels—We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge, We Were There on the Chisolm Trail, We Were There at the Oklahoma Land Rush—and the Random House American history set that taught me about everything from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the U.S. Marine assault at Belleau Wood. I had the kind of knowledge that would serve me well later as a PI—a thousand miles wide and two inches deep. All of it from books.
Meanwhile, there was a gas station in my neighborhood run by the Moro brothers who always bought the change from my paper route, and once that transaction was complete I normally bought a soda from the machine and a candy bar and hung out for a while. Though not exactly Tom and Ray Magliozzi—NPR’s infamous Click and Clack from Car Talk—Jimmy and Johnny Moro weren’t far off, and they mesmerized me. They were earthy, funny, fouled with grease and full of fun. They laughed loud and seemed to possess that rarest of gifts I so wanted to share: They lived.
I wondered if it wasn’t an Italian thing, for I saw much the same kind of gioia di vivere at my buddy Vince Milletello’s house, even though he was even pudgier than me. His mom and aunts were gorgeous, their husbands charismatic, the food incredible—I didn’t know why everybody didn’t hang out at that house. (Mrs. Milletello was constantly trying to get me to go home, to the point, on occasion, of shaking her shoe.)
These people just lived larger than my family did. In my home, anything remotely emotional remained studiously in check—until unleashed by alcohol, or uncorked by rage.
This resulted in the all too familiar fate of the bookworm: self-loathing. I was convinced an essential piece to the puzzle of life was by its very nature nowhere to be found—by me. And it was the piece that had to do with the dirty business known as Life As It Is, not Life As It Appears In Books.
My egg-headedness began paying dividends, though, at least in attention from teachers—I still got the usual ragging crap from classmates—and I embraced my IQ as the quintessential essence of my life. Or at least the most direct way out of puberty. I was the guy who got straight A’s, but with a bit of a mouth, the class clown attitude, a rough edge here and there. I was never top of my class but always close. And in the pit of my black little soul, I sensed that any hope I had of getting a girl, it would probably be because I was so doggone smart.
What an idiot.
But I was also musical, played guitar in the campus coffeehouses, and then took a year off from THE Ohio State University to join a bar band, touring Midwestern backwaters like Beckley, West Virginia; Lima, Ohio; Kokomo, Indiana; Midland, Michigan.
It was a formative time. I met many cocktail waitresses.
(If you want an idea of what one of our signature tunes was, go here.)
But the siren call of campus life drew me back. There’s only so many times you can play “Color My World” to a roomful of horny, polyester-clad divorcees drenched in Old Spice—or sweet Midwestern fogheads nodding on quaaludes—before you begin having unhealthy imaginings, replete with knives and curdled in bile.
I returned to college and somehow bumbled my way into a math major. I was the department freak—a hippy entranced with diophantine equations and Fermat’s Last Theorem. I continued playing in coffeehouses, dabbled in writing, won a poetry prize (figure that one out), hung out with dancers—I mean, who wouldn’t?—and was basically on a collision course with full-blown academe.
But I had no clue what to do as a graduate student. I threw a dart, hit linguistics—a perfect marriage of my fascination with language and my scientific soul—and won a full scholarship to U.C. Berkeley.
Within a matter of weeks, I was drowning in doubt and my own lack of talent, not to mention a serious deficiency of oomph. I saw the life my professors were living—marrying young, the girl across the table in the library, then divorcing at 40, lustily chasing their students—and I ran screaming. On some deep level I knew I had to climb down out of the ivory tower and wander the world. Get my heart broken, my nose bloodied.
But I still had that artistic itch, so after leaving school I studied acting and began writing short stories. Ironically, it was two of my friends from acting school who turned me on to the PI firm where I would spend the next thirteen years of my life. One friend worked as a receptionist, the other as a stringer (serving subpoenas, spending hours in his car conducting surveillance), and they both made it clear—if I wanted to write, I couldn’t beat this job for material.
I bugged the owners of the firm, Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland, for nine months, and was finally hired because I wore them down (they graciously referred to me as the most persistent applicant they’d ever had—persistence, incidentally, being of far more use to a PI than anything else). As for my writing, I told myself: These will be my years at sea. What I saw and did would provide not just the subject matter but the texture and worldview that would inform everything I wrote for the rest of my life.
The job rooted me to the real world like nothing had before. I was now working for men and women whose freedom, life-savings, even their very lives were at risk. Half measures wouldn’t do. The stakes were high and the lights were on. I loved it, like no other job I’d ever had. I felt like I could finally go back home, walk into the Moro brothers’ gas station and not feel like a phony. I was no longer waiting for my life. I’d found it.
Up to this point, no joke, I hadn’t picked up a crime novel since the Hardy Boys. I associated crime fiction with B movies, fun but campy, and preferred Kafka and Borges and Robbe-Grillet, Pinter and Stoppard. Now that I was actually working in the world of crime, I figured: Oh, what the hell. I picked up Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Shortly thereafter I devoured Cain’s Double Indemnity, and then the clincher, James Crumley’s The Wrong Case.
No, I wasn’t hooked. But I got it. And the point hit home in a way it hadn’t before. I saw the world I knew, the world of the justice system—witnesses, criminals, victims and cops, snitches and lawyers—transplanted to a literary landscape, a smart one (of course, I couldn’t give up that), and my artistic sensibility and my real-world existence had finally meshed in a way they never had before.
Here was the literary representation of the authenticity I’d been craving since my boyhood, the world where people didn’t think about life, they lived it. Yeah, sure, they existed in books, so sue me. Or shoot me. The characters in those books suffered the terror of their smallness before the crushing wheel of power, they fought and even killed for just a little more, they needed, they craved, they believed, they despaired. Justice might be small but it was everything. And even the most cynical had an inner fire.
Due to the heritage of American realism, there was a convincing lack of prettiness, a sharpness, a directness and hard-edged simplicity that rang true for me. I didn’t completely forego lyricism but the mode was now decidedly minor. And though I didn’t give up on literary fiction I needed the edge I found in crime, that same lack of sentiment, that commitment to a life faced squarely and lived fully, damn the bloody noses and broken hearts.
Please chime in: Why do you write crime? And if you don’t write, what do you expect from the crime writers you read that you don’t expect from others?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: My own music career was behind me when Steve Earle came out with “Copperhead Road,” but on one of my very first author panels—which I got to share with both Laurie King and Michael Connelly—I admitted that this song probably had as much influence on me as writer as anything I’d ever read. Still does:
I write crime (fiction and poetry) because, as engaging as reading it is, I wonder what I (or my characters) would do in the same situations. The curiosity eats at me until I pick up a pen and paper. Yes, that's still most often how I start writing.
If I ever tried to commit a crime off the page, I suspect I'd be caught right away if not in "just thinking about it" phase. Still, every personality has positive and negative aspects–light and dark sides, as they say–and writers' ability to explore their dark sides on the page can prevent harmful tendencies from manifesting themselves off the page. Writers' conscious exploration results in fewer subconscious tendencies. To know oneself is to have greater self-control.
I also write crime because every paragraph, every sentence, every word seems to have purpose. That's how I like to write anything.
I was born and raised in the north of England, a part of the country that’s more dependent upon physical rather than intellectual labour. My father was a university educated police officer (in and of itself something of a rarity at the time) and my mother was a pastry chef who’d failed her 11plus (meaning that she’d been streamed into vocational, rather than academic, study) she was also the daughter of a miner. There were, to be frank, tensions.
These tensions were exacerbated by the fact that in 1984 the Government and the National Union of Mineworkers squared off and our prime minister decided to break the striking miners and used the police to do that. It was horrible and fascinating at the same time, posing questions about class, the individual, society, what the police service was actually for (because, I’ll tell ya, as many of my ‘uncles’ felt that they’d been hijacked from their chosen professions for 18 months and forced to act as strikebreakers.) and the question of what our national identity was.
Flash forward a couple of years and my mother, concerned that I’m still reading comic books, goes to a local used book shop and loads up on a handful of Elmore Leonards. Some of his westerns and some of his earlier, harder-edged novels. I liked them to the extent that I tracked down an interview with him and in it he extolled the joys of George V. Higgins’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.
I tracked down a copy, still haunted by the miner’s strike and the question of what the police force was for. It blew me away, the concept of a criminal justice system that was just as dysfunctional (and dependent upon) the criminal hierarchies that it was designed to counter-act? Well, let’s just say that no joke is an old joke to someone who hasn’t heard it before.
I was still a police officer’s son, though. I was still 14, still isolated from the world at large. (I spent the last part of my adolescence in a suburb called Gildersome, a particularly drab part of a particually drab town.) I, frankly, didn't know shit. that changed two months past my 16 birthday when I found myself under the ageis of something called ‘Nightstop’, which placed homeless teens in a different home eveynight. In order to protect myself from the boredom of waiting around all day to find out whether I had a bed that night (and the insecent questions that often occurred when you got to that home, everyone wants the inside dope after all.) my reading compulsion kicked into high gear. I read Hammett’ RED HARVEST during this period and felt that I knew instinctively what strikebreaking was.
(this has always been a crucial part of the appeal of American crime fiction for me. Firstly, there’s a sense of the other about it: the British and American sensibilities are simultaneously fundamentally similar and very different in character. Secondly, possibly more importantly, crime is transatlantic. CLOCKER’S could be set in inner-city Manchester and the main difference would be scale.)
Anyway, between the ages of 16-18 I lived in a hostel. (it was a legal requirement, as I wasn’t yet old enough for ‘independent living accommodation) and the guy who became my best friend there was a kid who’d been caught stealing a car some months prior to my arrival. It was months before we knew if he was going to prison or not and watching him hold it together and unravel and hold it together and unravel really impressed upon me the real world implications of my father’s job. At this point in my life, I’d elected to tell people that my father was a plumber. It seemed sensible.
I’d always written. Back before I could read I’d played with action figures and developed backstories as to why my toys were kicking the crap out of one another. For me, an inherent part of reading an Elmore Leonard and recognizing the worlds depicted was realizing that I could, maybe, do that too. Now though, my world had expanded to include people like my friend –who always claimed he was with a gang of boys and unlucky enough to be the one who got caught. Maybe so, maybe no—and a world of underage drinking, petty rivalries, teen sex and the problems that combination of things tends to bring.
It was messy and ugly and things had a tendency to spill over, but lord it was a stark contrast to my own upbringing.
I began to feel, correctly or incorrectly, that if I worked at it I could have a top to bottom insight on British Society. That I could speak to the philosophical problems with the police force, the question of whether they were simply tools of the state and I could also speak for people like my friend (and he was far from the only one who was in trouble with the law) and the forces: be they lack of education, lack of money, lack of opportunity or simply boredom that drove them to this point. What I needed was the points inbetween.
And that’s what I’ve been working on, in one sense or another, ever since.
I write crime because I've always been acutely aware that for women, on any given night, a walk out to the parking lot carrying groceries to our cars can end in rape, torture and slow, agonizing death. It's our day to day reality. On the page I decide who lives or dies. Much better odds.
Sometimes crime looks more like horror, and that's how I sometimes write it, too.
I write crime because it has cycled through my life and battered my world view. I write crime to face the horror. Fight back. Attack it.
Great question, David. I thought I'd ask Sylvie Granotier, the French author we are now translating into English, why she writes crime fiction. This is what she says:
The reason I began writing crime fiction was the challenge: could I give the same type of pleasure that I got as a reader? That is, could I write a page turner with a final twist that would not let readers down?
Fourteen published novels later, having been asked that question a number of times, I have decided that I like the rules of the genre: tell a believable tale, look under the carpet of good manners and clean appearance to reveal the darker, hidden sides of life by dealing with transgression.
What’s the point? I believe we make evil more powerful by pretending it roams in monsters only, everywhere but in ourselves or our familiar world. Plus I love this unwritten duty: do not bore your reader, or as Billy Wilder put it about films: “Grab the audience by the throat and never let’ em go.” And if I do my job properly, a good crime fiction novel will have various levels, the easy, enjoyable first approach and deeper meanings as you dig, if you want to, that is.
Lastly, I love the idea of books you don’t buy so they’ll look good on your shelves, but because you actually intend to read them.
Alex, just saw your comment and knew that the horror you write of is what I seek as a reader. It is a mindful defense.
Oh man, I LOVE this column! And if I hadn't had a *@&^ trial this week (now settled) I'd have signed up for your online course as well – is that still open? I've probably missed too much… Let the day job come first, story of my life.
Love Steve Earle's music. First times I heard "Oxycontin Blues" and "Copperhead Road" I was in my car and had the old "shot by a bolt of lightening" moment – who is this guy? These songs are freakin genius!!!! Love "The Gulf of Mexico" too. Tells the story, gut punches you at the end, but gently.
Your story of the child reader was very familiar to me – grew up the pudgy, nerdy only child in a family with a lot of secrets. One grandfather was a homicide detective who wouldn't talk about his work to children or girls, another drank and chased strippers and cocktail waitresses and at one point had to call on the other to get out of the drunk tank. There was illegitimacy, scandal, hushed-up crimes, family shames and disappointments, suicides, bad choices and regrets all simmering in the background of both families all the time. We still don't know who the father was for someone now long dead. We still don't know if a few cousins on the other side were closeted and gay or just "lifetime batchelors." I still suspect someone had an affair with the local funeral home director (little kids aren't dumb…). There was a suicide, and a family member found the note – bet you $100 the note disappeared (and maybe destroying it wasn't the finder's right). We could not talk about any of this – absolutely not. The merest hint triggered tears, rages, or accusations that the hinter made it all up – we were perfect.
And despite it all, I had the bookworm's self-loathing and belief that everything was more interesting somewhere else. Of course, now I know that all I have to do is touch my amazingly f-ed up family's past and I have material ….
I read crime, and wish to write it, for reasons like Alex's – I want to make it turn out to my tastes, not the way it actually does.
Gerald: I ‘m intrigued by the notion of wondering what would happen if you were to commit the crime yourself, and that inspiring you to write. And then using that as a deliberate way of exploring one’s own dark impulses. I think it’s rather enlightened, and reveals a willingness to understand uncomfortable things about yourself. I would imagine there are limits to that—but as you say, as long as it’s on the page and not real, the exploration is just that, and harms no one (hopefully). I also think you’re right, crime requires and rewards attention to every word, because pacing is so key, and a tight style is so often expected.
Gordon: That’s some story. We over here don’t understand as well as we should what the miners strikes really meant, and what Thatcherism represented. We have or own version but the distinctions are telling. But your impulse to not just give a voice to the voiceless but to render intelligibly the contradictions you saw in your life, to tell the story that doesn’t get told — I think that strikes at the heart of great crime writing. There is a sentimental or even political delusion, a willful delusion, about who’s truly wrong or bad or evil or guilty, and it differs with each person and each group and each class, and to cut through that and see people independent of that convenient moral straitjacket is a motivator for a great many crime writers, I think.
Alexandra: Although it’s not rape, a lot of guys deal their whole lives with the issue of getting beaten up, having to deal with bullies and violence and their fear and shame, and I think that motivates a lot of crime writing. How does one deal with the problem of violence, the problem of abusive power—and your writing seems to come from that place, but on a distinctly more personal, physical not abstract level. I think there’s a sexual element to horror that could be a whole other topic of discussion, with the monster standing in for our libidinous rapacious nature. I just stopped typing for a second, getting lost in thought on that subject. We should do a post on the links and differences between horror and crime.
Reine: I think you’re on to something important. Crime fiction is very much about seizing power, refusing to be a victim. At its worst, it’s victim porn. At its best, it’s the reinvention of the heroic narrative, and tries to reconnect the reader with their own courage and dignity.
Le French Book: Please let Sylvie know I wish I’d written what she said. I think her notion of transgression coincides well with what Alexandra and Reine said about the role of violation in crime writing, and her comment about the rules being in fact a comfort reminded me of Gerald’s comment about the need to make every word count. I think there’s something important to the point that crime fiction is difficult to pull of well, something that seems to escape a great many high-minded morons who sniff at it. But my favorite point was how we make evil more powerful by projecting it onto monsters instead of seeing it ourselves. That, I think, defines greatness in crime writing, and I admit I’m a bit saddened at times at how frequently readers and writers refuse to embrace that point.
MJ: No, it’s not too late to sign up for the class. We’ve only just begun and I’ll make any and all allowances to bring you on board. And I think your family tale dovetails well with Gordon’s, and resonates with what Sylvie said: It’s liberating and crucial to a descent sense of self and sanity to strip away of the façade, the denial, to get at the thing beneath the thing, to tell the f-ing truth for once. I think crime fiction, with its fascination with secrets and the dark things they’re meant to conceal, is particularly ripe with possibility for exploring all that.
Gar is having issues with the software, and asked me to post this for him:
Every crime novel deals in mystery—whether it's a conventional whodunnit or not—and that's why the genre appeals to me as both a reader and a writer. Don't we all spend the vast majority of our time asking questions? Who, what, why, etc.? In life, so many of those questions go unanswered, some forever. As a crime writer, I get to ask those questions, explore their implications, and ANSWER them (at least to my own satisfaction).
What a deal.
Gar Anthony Haywood
Ah, to grow up a bookwormish kid. I remember that well. Great essay, David!
I write crime because I never got over my first betrayal as a child. Also, I've always been a bit morbid–goes with my inner landscape. Also, I'm interested in psychology, and it doesn't get any better than with the criminal mind. Also, I've always longed for fairness in everything, but life isn't fair and that continues to pain me terribly. I write crime because I'm neurotic (not too bad, but yeah, I am).
Alex is right-on about the specter of violence that haunts us women.
I don't know how it started. It was before puberty so it can't be because I like bad boys or I want to beat up bad boys. I did read all the Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Happy Hollisters, Bobsey Twins before junior high. Then I started on MacDonald and Rex Stout and it went from there. I watched every cop show in TV since I could walk including Perry Mason, Car 54, Whirlybird and Highway Patrol to Hill Street Blues, NYPD and so on. So law enforcement, crime and the area in between has facinated me since I can remember. I've wanted to write mysteries and crime novels since I had a memory. Maybe it was because my Dad liked those books and he read to us until we were in high school (at that time, drunken poetry at the dinner table, the best way to learn). Maybe I have a facination for the warp a mind goes into to commit a crime, since I also read all crime columns in the paper…. All I know is that I'm hooked.
MJ: I'm sitting in a depo right now. Sign up for David's course. We can't do this shit forever.
Ellroy famously had a line, didn’t he? (I quote from memory, so please forgive me if I inadvertently paraphrase: “Chandler wrote about the kind of man he wanted to be, Hammett wrote about the kind of man he was afraid he was.”
Which is to say that I think the capacity to look at people: virtue, vice, waystations in between absolutely informs the best of crime fiction (or at least what I consider to be the best of crime fiction which may, of course, not be the same thing.)
I sometimes think high mindedness can over whelm craft though: I love Mosley and Pelecanos for those reasons. They look at the fraud of the human condition, the sociological conditions that inform our sense of ourselves and others…whilst being more entertaining than a sociological essay. I find that’s important to bear in mind, at least for me.
Yeah, the space between the various arms of law enforcement and criminal enterprise (major and minor scale) is some fertile ground. There’s gold in them thar hills.
I write crime fiction–or maybe more precisely genre fiction–because I like things to happen. I like action, movement, danger and violence. I think most everyone–especially men–are drawn to this. It may be wired into our consciousness. Think of football, which can be compared to an action movie. But I also grew up reading a fair amount of literary, inward driven fiction-Steinbeck, Pynchon, etc.–so writing crime fiction just because I like guys shooting each other would bore me quickly. The very fact that we write and read crime fiction, where human beings transgress society's laws, says something about us, not necessarily positive or complimentary (Sam Peckinpah recognized and confronted this in "The Wild Bunch" and other films). So, while i write crime fiction, I'm also wondering why I do and wondering at its impact on the soul and also it's origins in the darker recesses of the both the psyche and the world around.
Lisa: I’m intrigued by how conscious and up-front the palpable, daily threat of violence is to your and Alexandra’s interest in crime writing. Guys get that young but then often develop a façade to deal with it, and peeling back that denial is one of the reasons I write crime, to own up to my own collusion in violence, and to find some sane, honest way to deal with it. I came from a family where the angriest person won, and you see that everywhere—on the highway, in politics, in the workplace. I think crime fiction offers a great place to explore the seduction of rage, the phony empowerment it offers. And yes, no edgier, more complicated, more misunderstood place exists than the mind of a criminal.
Allison: The drunk father reciting poetry at the dinner table. I expect to see that in your pages some day, the sooner the better.
Gordon: I know it’s a paraphrase, but I love that quote, and I think it’s interesting: writing from the POV of the man you fear being. It reminds me of Gerald’s comment, and of Sylvie’s, about recognizing the monster inside us. And yet, as you say, to do that and still create entertainment is a real challenge. It’s not dumbing down, it’s crafting art in an established form.
Thomas: I think the most responsible thing any writer can do is write as honestly as he knows how. Beyond that, you simply can’t predict what effect you’ll have on a reader. John Fowles spends the entire middle of THE COLLECTOR exploring the victim’s POV, humanizing her brilliantly, which is why the book is so effective and horrifying. And yet I worked in two serial killer cases where the killers thought of the book as a kind of inspirational text, completely disregarding what Fowles was trying to say.
Ah, David — you're a good man. I like your honesty.
The kind of violence I encountered as a young girl was the insidious, intimate scary kind. You grow up feeling safe, or you don't. I didn't feel safe as a young girl…The friend's older brothers just back from 'Nam who were so totally fucked up that my mom should have known better than to let me play at that house, the father (yep, mine too) who erupted in anger for no reason I could fathom, the weird upstairs area in my babysitter's house, the scary sense that something very wrong was going on inside another little friend's house.
I was a 1970s kid with a huge imagination, who was left to wander around fending for myself. When I think about my early childhood, it almost has a gothic feel to it–everything was just so LADEN with–something–threat. And that's part of my worldview as a woman to this day (unfortunately). It's no wonder I write (at least for now) about crimes within families and friendship circles — betrayals, secrets, what sits beneath the seemingly normal surface of things.
I had a therapist once who told me (based on symptoms I described to her) that by the time my family finally, thankfully, moved away from the neighborhood I'm describing, I had PTSD. I was a very odd child for a long time until I latched onto about the most wonder-bread classmate I could hope for — she seemed so normal and I learned how to be a "normal" child from her. But I still feel like I'm faking "normality" alot of the time…
I get to let all the abnormal out of me when I write crime fiction.
Allison – I signed up. I cross examined someone on Monday and was deemed to not be "humiliating enough." Shoot me or save me, but one has to happen soon.
I’ve read crime fiction since I was a kid and love it, but I never thought about writing any, in any flavor — figured I wasn’t clever enough.
And then one day, I was listening to Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion and he mentioned that one of his aunts kept locking her keys in her car and got pretty good at jimmying the door open. He said (more or less) that this seemed like a great opportunity to launch a late career in the auto theft industry.
Two days later, I sat down and started writing about an older, widowed woman who discovered she was a talented natural car thief, in much the same way . . . except she only ‘reparked’ the cars of people who annoyed her (by parking in handicapped spots or taking two spaces or just in general). But one day, she stole the wrong car and parked it in the wrong place. And then a dead body shows up in *her* car . . .
The story, to put it kindly, wasn’t well-written and it sputtered out once I figured out who the killer was. But I had fun with it and it made me think that maybe I *could* write crime fiction, if I practiced and decent stories if I *really* practiced.
So I have.
And along the way, I’ve discovered that cozies aren’t really my forte . . . but I might have a use for all that pent-up rage and powerlessness from my own childhood (and some of those latent criminal tendencies).
And there you go and I guess we'll see.
Listen, brother, crime is where the fun is.
It's life and death.
It's questions of morality.
It's crossing the line.
It's good VS evil.
And it's a big canvas.
Great blog, David. Really fun and filled with insight.
By the way – I'm a big fan of Click and Clack. I'm not even a car geek, but I listen to them every chance I get.
MJ: you need some midnight boosting as you deal, or you want another pair of eyes on the great mansucript you're going to write, let me know. Writing is my light at the end of the tunnel. And "humilating" rarely illicited good testimony. Ask Corbett. He did great with witnesses because he played the "can you help me?" role. Makes you crazy, I know.
David: will do. I learned Shelley, Keats, Robert Service, Tennyson, Kipling, Ben Jonson….
I read crime because I want to be engaged and entertained.
Although purely literary fiction can be challenging to read, I want things to happen in a book and for the story to have strong consequences. I write crime for the same reason.
And maybe for one more reason — My Crim Law prof said that criminals were, for the most part, people who made some questionable choices. I've always wondered why people do bad things or if bad things are redeemable if done for the right reasons. And i love that mysteries are always about the search for truth.
I write crime fiction because, on the pages of my stories, the good guys seem to win a whole lot more often than I've found them to in real life. I could spin a lot more verbiage than that, but I guess that's the bottom line. In my life and in my work (I'm a mediator and communication/conflict skills trainer now, apart from the writing, but I was a paralegal in the foster care system for a while before that) I've seen the bad guys get away with far too much, far too often. And, like Alexandra talked about, I know only too well what powerless and afraid feels like. I know what the world looks like at knifepoint.
In my fiction, the.good guys can always win. The costs of the victory are what keeps the story interesting.
Lisa: You have that thing-beneath-the-thing awareness that kids from abusive or otherwise problematic environments have. Hyper-vigilance. Sad to say it, but it’s a great tool for a writer. You’re hard-wired for subtext. And that gothic sense of suspense will serve you only too well. Family secrets and betrayals – those stories are biblical. And as you and so many others have noted, fiction provides you and your readers a safe place to work through some pretty terrifying stuff.
Sarah: You remind me of Gerald, putting yourself in the place of a criminal in the act of commission. And like Lisa and a number of others, crime fiction is not just an outlet but also a means of exploration. I’m finding this fascinating, how many of us do that.
Stephen: You’re right, the stakes are always huge and it’s a charge just dealing with this stuff.
Shizuka: That too seems to be a resounding thing: In crime fiction, something happens. Simple as that. As for the bad decisions — I have a cop buddy who says the difference between him and the criminals he chases is they never seem to be able to think more than a few hours ahead. They have no sense of a definite future. And though I like the search for the truth you find in crime fiction, I’m too often disappointed in how tidy that truth turns out to be.
Thanks, David. I do love subtext, that's true (had never really throught about the connection before now).
Allison – blood sisters, OK? We will overcome.
Yep, MJ. You betcha.
Tammy: Sorry for being a bit tardy in this response. I’ve been getting up at 4:30 recently and so hit the hay earlier than usual last night.
I think what you say is a crucial point, and it’s something I came to perhaps too late. I felt the point of giving a voice to the voiceless was to not sugarcoat the reality of the hardship, the cruelty, the raw deal. I felt that so much of America is conditioned to find the glowing rainbow beyond the bloodbath that they become blind to the carnage. What I failed to see as what you see—that those who are embroiled in teat fight don’t need me to point it out, they need some sense that the fight is meaningful and worth it. As you rightly point out, that means the victory needs to be earned—a cheap victory is insulting—and the costs of the victory are what makes the story interesting. It’s so much harder to realistically portray that kind of turn than to simply reveal the bleakness. I do believe in tragedy, and I think America has become second-rate in many ways because of it’s rejection of a tragic aesthetic, but I also see the need for a realistic portrayal of the guy who actually does fight the good fight and prevail
David, I think you're missing a key point in women's reaction to violence. Men fear violence from other men. Women fear violence from men.
It's a big difference in world view.
Thanks, Alexandra, for pointing that out. I apologize if I offended anyone, or minimized what they've been through or continue to have to address.
I wasn't offended, but it's an interesting subtlety. Most men can easily overpower most women–that's scary–our vulnerability simply because we don't have tons of testosterone flowing through us. It's rarely a fair fight between a man and a woman. That's why self-defense classes are aimed at women–to give us a fighting chance–hopefully.
Think about it like this: half the human population can take the average women down. Men have way better stats in their favor.
Lisa: I'm glad you weren't offended. My point wasn't that there is an equivalence between rape and what men deal with, and I'm a little surprised my remark was taken that way. What I said is that I think a lot of crime writing comes from that place where the writer is dealing with his or her own experience of wrongful power/abusive violence. I'm teaching a class in which two of the students write from a place of parental abuse — from the mother. For you and Alexandra the issue has a clear sexual edge, due to the physical difference between men and women. With men, it's not just the bullying, it's the recognition that we are now expected to deny our fear and shame and "act like a man," which often results in learning at least some of the behavior of the abuser — and I think having to deal with all that inspires some men to look at crime writing as a means of expression. We can wrestle with our demons. But I wasn't saying that the two circumstances are the same in any way, just that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a lot of both men and women come to the genre with that issue very much in play.
It's all good. Believe it or not, I actually understood your overall point. I didn't take anything you said as equivalence — I guess it probably seems that way. Yesterday, I was simply exploring this sentence you wrote:
"I’m intrigued by how conscious and up-front the palpable, daily threat of violence is to your and Alexandra’s interest in crime writing."
I'm just as intrigued by the what men have to contend with re: "act like a man." I've got two nephews who aren't macho boys. They are sweet-natured and nonconfrontational. My brother-in-law worries about how they'll fare in life. I think he'd feel less worry on their behalf if they were macho boys.
As for this morning's comment – blah. Not enough caffeine. Superfluous addition to the conversation. Feel free to delete it. 🙂
Lisa: Oh I'd never delete it, and I wasn't referring to you when I said I was surprised. You were adding context and replying to my apology, so all's good. And I wholly understand your concern for your nephew. I know that playing football, being a musician and being a PI all contributed to a sense of male confidence that helped a lot, and I realize in retrospect how profoundly I needed all of that. But what if you're not into sports, etc. What do you do? I think boys are incredibly under-tutleged in how to deal with the whole issue of violence, power, aggression and "maleness." I had a great dad but he never went anywhere near that stuff. And I think that's sad, because it feeds into the cluelessness of a lot of men, and much worse, into sexist and even predatory behavior.
Perhaps a follow-up question would be, why do writers approach crime fiction <i> the way<i> they do? The motivations would break down not only along gender lines, but also among individuals on both sides, I bet.
Speaking briefly for myself, I was much the baby in a family of an angry, abusive, no-fused authoritarian ("conservative" is too too liberal a word) who stormed out on us (wife and three sons) when I was around three or four. I was "sheltered" from some of this, neither very effectively nor to my benefit. (Mentoring was lacking, shall we say, for both my brothers and I.) I had no idea my parents were divorced until I was nine.
Now I'm an outward-looking writer and not too interested in using my life a source, at least in a direct literal sense; nevertheless, I find myself often writing tales of sheltered, sometimes naive, outsiders who suddenly find themselves in the middle of terrible, malevolent, danger and have to find and fight find their own way out, with few around to trust–everyone seems to know more than my protagonist does and are not about to let him in on it.
This influence is clearly unconscious on my part. But I bet, among the male writers, you'd find a wide array of motives, some greatly dissimilar to mine.
This has been an interesting thread, David. Thanks for starting it!
<Swiping forehead with back of hand:> Whew!
I agree with Thomas: great thread!
It's a great thread because so many people have contributed so honestly and insightfully. I was really interested in how people would respond, and I've been intrigued and gratified by the responses.
That includes you, Tom. Interesting how the unconscious serves us up this stuff unbidden — whether we want it to or not. I found I was often writing about the despised outsider who redeems himself through an act of selfless courage — my chief daydream as a kid.