Category Archives: David Corbett

The Neighbor Who Vanished, or Didn’t

David Corbett

I didn’t know what Louise had planned for yesterday when I decided to post this. It’s either a different slant on the matter or maudlin overkill or something else entirely—I’ll let you be the judge of that.

To borrow a phrase from Richard Ford: This is not a happy story, I warn you. More troubling than that, I’m not entirely sure it’s true, even though I remember it all vividly.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. When I was four-to-five years old, I was one of the younger members of the neighborhood pack of kids, a collection of maybe a dozen brothers and sisters from five families in a residential part of town called Beechwold.

I was not just younger, but inward and awkward, relying heavily on my older brother John to help me navigate the social minefield that childhood so often becomes.

Normally, John was stellar, protecting me from embarrassment or harm. In the instance I’m about to describe, that excellence faltered. I don’t blame him. He was becoming aware of his own homosexuality at the time, and was plagued with his own fears of embarrassment and being found out. So in this case, I was on my own.

Two doors down from us lived the Lehman family, and they had a son named Gary who had Down Syndrome. We didn’t call it that back then. We called Gary retarded.

Gary would sometimes come out into his yard to play with the rest of us, and he had a fascination with the cartoon character Popeye. The other kids would goad him, saying, “Popeye, Gary! Popeye!” And Gary would mimic the cartoon, reach inside his shirt for his can of spinach — in truth, just slapping his chest — down the spinach in one gulp — he would lick his hand — then flex his muscles and, with his arms windmilling, charge whoever the instigators pointed out. More times than not, it was me. I was the designated Bluto.

I had nothing against Gary but I knew I couldn’t afford not to prevail in our encounters, or so I believed. I wonder about that now, wonder what would have really happened if I’d let him win, but the world that choice would have created was lost long ago. He was bigger and heavier and stronger than I was, but I could usually wrestle him to the ground and pin him without too much effort, at which point the others would cheer, the bout would be over, and things would eerily return to normal, as we knew it.

The shame of this was heightened by the fact I had a crush on Gary’s mom. Mrs. Lehman was young and far more attractive than the other mothers in the neighborhood, with short black hair cut in a pixie style so fashionable back then. She wore capri pants and men’s shirts with the sleeves rolled up, an arty look back then for the Midwest. She mesmerized me, haunted me. She at times watched as the kids crowded around Gary, lured him into the Popeye bit, then gently called him inside afterward. He would bound toward her, oblivious to being the butt of our jokes; she would not look at us, just let her son into the house, the door would close. I cannot envision her in my memory without an expression of helpless sorrow. And that sadness made my shame and guilt unbearable.

At some point Mrs. Lehman vanished, and another woman appeared in her place — older, frumpier, aproned, more conventionally maternal. She led Gary out among us one day and smothered him with kisses and hugs and told us all how much she adored him, called him her precious, her darling. The love was almost garish but sincere, there was no mistaking that. But who was this woman? Where did the other, mysteriously lovely Mrs. Lehman go? As ashamed as I felt, I missed her, even pined for her in the way young boys do for beautiful mothers, even when they’re not their own (perhaps especially then). How could I ever tell her how sorry I was, which would begin my rehabilitation in her eyes? How could I atone and so begin what, in my five-year-old heart, I perceived as our romance?

Sometime later, I don’t remember exactly when, the Lehmans moved away. And sometime after that — or so I recall — my brother told me that the beautiful Mrs. Lehman had committed suicide.  No one knew why. Or if they did, they never said.

Again, I’m not entirely sure this beautiful woman really existed. Maybe the sweet, frumpy Mrs. Lehman had been there all along, and the arty woman in the black pixie who died so tragically was just a figment of my imagination, a false memory forged from loneliness and guilt. I’d ask my brother but he too is gone now, a victim of that first wave of AIDS that swept through San Francisco in the 1980s. And so I’m left with a hesitation where a memory should be, a silence in need of a ghost.

Are you unsure of a seemingly seminal memory? Does the past sometimes seem as hypothetical — or illusory — as the future? Is there an incident from your past that puts the lie to the myth of “normalcy.” Have you ever been goaded by others into an act that, for years afterward, stirred the deeper waters of your conscience? Has such a moment found a way into your fiction?

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I couldn’t leave you with such a troubling story and not try to pick you up, at least a little. Here’s one of my favorite love songs, a bit of poignant gentleness (with ukelele!) from a band not normally known for it, The Who — a tune that puts all the world’s wisdom in two simple lines:

The pleasure seems to balance out the pain

And so you see I’m completely crazy …


The Great San Quentin Literary Throwdown

David Corbett

In my last post, I said I’d be submitting excerpts from my upcoming book on character as follow-up to my last contribution here. Well, good news and bad news, Penguin has purchased the book. But they’ve asked me not to post any more of its content on the web because they have first right of serialization, and are considering publicizing sections either online or in magazines. So please indulge my changing course.

There have been a number of posts these last two weeks dealing with the issue of the outsider. Over the past year, I’ve twice been involved with a particular group of outsiders — or perhaps I should call them insiders — thanks to the Bay Area writing team of twin brothers Keith and Kent Zimmerman.

A little more than a year ago, the Z-Men, as we call them, in association with Litquake, hosted the very first Literary Throwdown inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison. It took place at the brothers’ creative writing class on the San Quentin H-Unit yard.

I joined five other authors from the outside — Joe Loya, Bucky Sinister, Jack Bouleware, Anne Marino and Alan Black— competing against six inmate writers selected from the class.

Three Hollywood authors/screenwriters — twins Noah and Logan Miller, and Michael Tolkin —  served as judges at the next week’s class.


In trying to reflect on what moved me most about the experience, I keep coming back to the intensity and generosity and humility of the men in that writing program. A number of them reminded me of former clients I had, working as a private investigator — guys who had made mistakes, serious ones, stupid ones, or who had suffered black periods of shoddy luck so savagely overwhelming they’d succumbed. Some had plunged face-first into oblivion — alcohol, drugs, rage — and all but drowned. Some had given in to the seduction of power crime provides, and awoken on the sharp end of its consequences. None would qualify as evil, but nobody was innocent either.

They had names like Rolf, Pitt, Frenchy, Banks, Mister Morrison, Big H, Daleadamown, Jo Jo and JFK, even Dinero D the Dynamic “P” (for pimp) and, yes, Buckshot (his given name, oddly enough).  But they also were William and Tim, Dennis and Daniel, Kent, Raul, Jonathan, Todd. Almost to a man they possessed insight into what had brought them to that place, that prison, insight into their natures, revealing a depth of self-examination often rare in people on the outside, which was what made their writing so compelling.

And they were grateful. They appreciated the fact someone bothered to show up, pay attention, not dictate but share.

They also understood things about writing itself I wish more of my own students grasped so instinctively: Tell a good story, don’t waste time, momentum matters, be honest, focus on specifics, make it funny. And God, those guys can be funny. They can also break your heart.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t think I’d been transported to some kind of testosterone Magic Kingdom. There was bullshit on both sides, and a lot of feeling each other out, the natural cagey distrust of men with men, inside or outside, though accentuated by the higher level of scrutiny inmates live with day in, day out. They look at you carefully, assess you hard. By and large they were incredibly gracious and accepting in their welcomes, but they were also sizing us up. And my guess is they got us a hell of a lot more than we got them.

That sense guided me when I wrote my own piece. I knew that whatever I wrote, it had to be real, it had to be true, it had to strike hard and deep. Anything less was chickenshit, and the whole room would know it.

We were given thirty minutes to write longhand—no computers allowed—on a topic that was sprung on us right before we were told to begin. The topic was, “Damn, Back at Square One Again.” (To read what I wrote, go to the bottom of this post.)

* * * * *

It wasn’t just the inmates who impressed me.

Memoirist Joe Loya, himself a veteran of crime and prison, reached out to those men in a way none of the rest of us could. He let them know they had strengths and virtues every writer needs: a high tolerance for ambiguity, a knack for risk, a long experience of story-telling that lacked patience for vagueness, dishonesty or digression. And they all had at least one good story: the story of their arrest. (And yes, most of them wrote about it for the throwdown — everything from a screen door blown off with a shotgun during a speed binge to a DUI car wreck that killed two people.) 

Screenwriter and novelist Michael Tolkin told them that he was blown away by the stories he heard — they were actually about something — and how strong they were compared to the recent offerings by the newly anointed geniuses in the New Yorker’s fabled summer fiction issue.

And Bucky Sinister read a poem from his collection All Blacked Out and Nowhere to Go that blew me down — it hit everybody hard. The kind of magical moment that can’t be faked. I was grateful, for I didn’t feel I’d given back as much as I’d been given. Mister Sinister bailed me out.

Oh, and as for the competition: The judges tallied, the votes were counted. We held our breath. The winners? The inmates. By half a point. (Frankly, I didn’t think it was that close.)

Last month, the brothers had me back, this time as a judge. Anne Marino’s creative writing class took on the inmates this time. I remembered some of the men from the first go-round, some were new to me, some of the ones I’d met before had been released and replaced by new faces. Again, the pieces were strong and wild, heartbreaking and funny. Once again, the inmates won — this time, going away.

For a good long while there’s been an upsurge of the throw-away-the-key zeitgeist in this country, a knee-jerk belief that people don’t change and everyone in prison deserves what they get, or worse. Criminals are animals to be kenneled and quarantined. My experience with these men in this classroom reminded me of just how mendacious and self-serving and just plain wrong that is.

Insight matters, and writing requires it. Men who write about themselves this honestly have what it takes to begin the long hard fight to change. I left that prison wanting to say one simple thing: Listen to them.

So, Murderateros: What would you have written about, given the theme: Damn, back at square one again? Do you believe people can change, or is that just bleeding-heart BS? Where do we draw the line between bad luck and bad character? And what about the families of the victims of men like this — do I mock their pain when I speak of these men the way I do?

* * * * *

 Here’s what I wrote for the throwdown:

Twenty-four hours before my wife died, I walked out of her room at the Stanford Cancer Clinic, stood in the center of the reception area, and bellowed at the top of my lungs: “Who the fuck do I have to kill to get my wife out of pain?”

A mere twelve hours earlier, I’d made the decision to end all treatment and feeding. I’d given the hospital the go-ahead to let the love of my life die. I’d fought with her brother about it—he was a gentle, caring guy who believed in miracles and such. But I knew the science and I knew the odds and I knew, despite enough morphine pulsing through her body to anaesthetize seven men, my wife was still in horrible pain and demented from the drugs and the chemo. Her name was Cesidia Therese Tessicini—Terri, we called her—and she had stage IV epithelial clear-cell ovarian cancer, a death sentence, and I had no right to prolong her agony out of some sentimental need to hang on or prove I loved her not just to the end but beyond the end. I was her husband and I had power of attorney and I said do it, let her go. I did it because she gave me that power, sure. More to the point, I did it because I loved her and she knew that, trusted that. It still haunts me, ten years later, the guilt of that decision, even though I know I did the right thing, the loving thing. But guilt and love sometimes walk side by side in a human heart. They do in mine.

But back to the story—everyone told me they’d control her pain. And that was a lie.

In truth, some genius had decided to lower her medication level then bring it back up bit by bit until they knew just how much morphine she needed—this after already telling me they were baffled by her pain, baffled by how much morphine she needed, but not baffled about her needing it. They turned my dying bride into a guinea pig and I watched her writhe in pain for four hours until I couldn’t take it any more. The nurse was helpless, she could only follow the protocol the doctors had laid down. And so it was up to me, and there I was, in the center of the reception area, shouting like some demented creature who’d just escaped hell: “Who the fuck . . . do I have to kill . . . to get my wife . . . out . . . of . . . pain.”

There was just one doctor on duty. He sat there in the reception area, jotting notes in somebody’s chart. He was a young guy, hip little beard, chi-chi glasses, looked like he played tennis or rode a bike to keep fit. Probably a lady killer, ho ho. I strode up to him: “Are you treating my wife?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the door to Terri’s room. “She’s not my patient.”

Later, I’d tell myself: I’d be a hero in prison for killing this punk just for saying that. But in the moment, I said: “I was promised my wife wouldn’t suffer. Get in there and find out what’s wrong.”

He would later tell security that I lunged at him. I remember him shooting up from his chair and running away, and I just followed him. We’re probably both right.

Then a nurse’s aide named Esmerelda swooped in, snagged my arm, said, “Come with me, my dear,” and delivered me to a waiting room. She told me to sit there quietly, don’t come out, then closed the door.

She and the other nurses stuck up for me when security arrived, letting them know I wasn’t a menace. I’d not slept or eaten in days and I was raw and exhausted and despondent. But no threat.

A bargain was struck. I’d go home. The doctors would change Terri’s protocol and her pain would be treated as promised.

And that was why I wasn’t at her bedside when she died the next morning just before 7 AM. I drove in after hearing from her brother, crying over the phone, that she was “gone.” When I got there, I asked to be alone with her for a few minutes, and I kissed every inch of her body. I had never loved anyone like I’d loved her and I’d never been loved the way she loved me. But that was over now. Love was gone, death had won. I was alone again, but worse, because now I couldn’t pretend that being alone was okay, that it was enough.

Terri had sometimes joked that I was a Lone Wolf when she met me, but she’d changed that. And that was absolutely true. Because of her — and no one else in my life — I knew what it meant to trust, and I knew Terri would insist I not give up on that. She was dead but I wasn’t, and I would have to learn to love again.

But that would have to wait. For now, I was just back to square one. A lone wolf. Howling at a ghost.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: The late great Astor Piazzolla, whom I was lucky enough to see perform shortly before his death. He fought through decades of oblivion and opposition from traditionalists as he almost singlehandedly reinvented the tango. I once described his pieces as “music to die in your lovers arms by” — which, at the moment, seems apropos:



Characterization: Controlled Hallucination or Craft?

David Corbett 

Inspired by Alexandra’s postings on craft, I’ve decided to chime in with a bit of scribbler wonkery of my own.

Rather than address story, however–which Alexandra, to my mind, discusses as insightfully as anyone I’ve read–I’d like to talk about character.

What follows is the introduction to a book I’m writing on the subject, and I’ll follow up in following weeks with portions from successive chapters. (This being a mere introduction, it’s general and thematic, not practical; the wonkery will follow.)

The book began as lectures for an online course I taught through UCLA’s Writers’ Program, one of the best resources for classes geared to both aspiring and working writers I’ve ever been around:

I’m very much interested in what the Murderati crowd thinks on this subject, and what insights and suggestions each of you might have. 

During a 2010 interview in San Francisco, the British novelist Kate Atkinson confided that her characters—who are some of the most unique and engaging in current literature—appear to her imagination fully formed, like dream figures.

Queried on the subject of teaching characterization—specifically, asked what strategy or technique she might suggest to students for bringing a character so vividly before the mind’s eye—she conceded puzzlement, remarking candidly, “I really can’t imagine what that might be.”

Consider this book a humble attempt to inform her disbelief. A writer of Atkinson’s gifts arguably has no need of what appears within these pages, but there are perfectly competent writers who do, or might benefit from it, and they need malign neither their imaginations nor their talent for that.

Of course, it’s not as though Atkinson is off the mark. What every writer hopes for—one might even say requires—is a full embodiment of his characters within his imagination, as though they possess a life of their own.

I realize this makes writing sound like a quasi-functional neurosis, or at least a kind of controlled hallucination—or professional daydreaming. But writers almost universally admit that when things are going well, it’s because the characters seem to act at will, of their own accord.

And yet fluidity of conceptualization guarantees neither richness nor elegance of portrayal. A great many characters who have leapt fully formed within their creator’s imagination have done so precisely because they were facile, predictable, clichéd. Whatever else can be said of characterization, it is absolutely true that if a portrayal falls flat, it is not the character’s fault.

For all but a lucky few, writing requires more than taking dictation from imaginary beings. One must be ready not just to bear witness but to engage the imagination—to ask penetrating, even embarrassing questions of one’s characters, to mold them, remold them, defy them, even destroy and resurrect them, while still maintaining that curious capability to step back, allow them once again to escape their creator’s grasp—dust themselves off, as it were—and reassert their enigmatic independence.

This dialog between deliberate and spontaneous, intentional and unknowable, conscious and unconscious lies at the heart not just of characterization but of all creativity. It is the pulse, the inhalation and exhalation, of the artistic endeavor.

Even at its most realistic, art remains an approach to the mysterious, and working with the depiction of human life can often seem particularly tricky—like fingering smoke. But at their most unique and unforgettable, characters strangely feel no less real to us than human beings themselves—seemingly infinite in their complexity, fathomless in their depth, tangible and yet ineluctable.

That does not mean, however, that the craft of characterization can’t be analyzed, or is resistant to technique. If that were the case, Atkinson would win the match and this book would be pointless.

And yet I make no claim that what you will read on these pages alone can instill an unerring gift for creating memorable characters. Since their appearance in the mind remains a mysterious business, the craft of rendering characters well is by its nature incomplete. Magic once explained ceases to be magic. But the act of conjuring should not be mistaken for what is conjured.

What can be learned in this book are ways to help you bring forth a concrete, compelling and dynamic image in your mind, and further shape what appears. This is no small accomplishment. Without it, storytelling withers into convention, hackwork, formula—worse, propaganda. The lifeblood of any story resides in characters that are, at one and the same time, vivid, unpredictable, and convincing. And the art of creating, shaping, depicting such characters is an exhilarating, at times maddening business.

But at some point in your life you have felt that curious, ineffable stirring in your imagination—the nameless, shapeless volition that seems to both arise from within and yet come from elsewhere, that manageable madness, that quickening pulse of urgent light we somewhat crudely refer to as the creative impulse. It is why you are reading these words. You may even believe it is why you are alive. You craft stories. Whether characters are demons or angels, apparitions or simply mental stuff, they are your inescapable companions. Hopefully this book will help you engage them with greater confidence and deeper insight.  

So, fellow Murderateros–intrigued, confused, inspired, bored? Chime in, pipe up, fire away. Please.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: You have not lived until you’ve heard the gypsy wedding band Fanfare Ciocarlia play the James Bond Theme:


Get up and rhumba!!

For more on Fanfare Ciocarlia, go here: 

Zombie in the Pudding (reflections on men, women, violence and football)

David Corbett

This one’s for Charlie Stella, crime-writer extraordinaire, who suffers in the purgatory of Buffalo Bills fandom. Here’s my shout out, on the eve of the NFL Draft. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a guy thing. So sue me.)

* * * * *


The reason so many women, smart women in particular, have such lousy taste in men is because they fundamentally don’t get football.


I don’t mean they should watch it more, pretend to like it more than they do, or tune in to NFL Playbook and bone up on the trapping game or the two-deep zone.  (Though, on reflection: Could it hurt?)

I mean women don’t actually get why teenage boys want to play the game, and what lessons it can teach you if you’re open to them.

Admittedly, sometimes the lessons don’t sink in. Men are wildly imperfect. Sadly, that may be the most interesting thing about us.

This all came to me when a woman friend, who’s a huge New York Giants fan, told me she’d caught some serious grief from other women for being into football.

“It’s so violent,” they complained.

My friend replied, “Well, yeah, but it’s also really graceful at times—you know, like ballet.”


When she told me this, I stared at her like she’d sprouted a second head.

“No,” I told her, “football’s really violent. That’s what makes it fun.”

Then it was her turn to stare at me like I’d sprouted a second head.


Violence is one of the great riddles of the male sphinx. And football, for a lot of teenage guys, is how they learn to solve it. (In other parts of the world, it’s rugby. Or armed robbery.)

Blame testosterone—that strange ineluctable whatzit that rises up inside you (if you’re male) during puberty, insinuates itself into your psyche like a menacing twin, tries to take you over or at least wrestle you down into the blood and muck.

Call it: The zombie in the pudding. Out of the sweetness of youth it comes. And just keeps coming. And it wants to eat your brain. 

The author (right) with his older brother John: the Pre-Zombie years.

About the time you begin having those urges, you also find you have a predatory instinct. And before too long you learn there’s a food chain, and every guy you know is trying to figure out where every other guy fits in. And you’re all hoping—secretly, if the guys are your friends—that they’re lower down than you are.

I was a pudgy kid who began dropping the baby fat around age twelve. For a couple years I pretty much had to fight my way home from school every day. I got my ass kicked good once—this guy named Chappy, flunked his way out of high school into the marines. And I kicked some other kid’s butt once, some greasy loudmouth whose name I no longer remember. The other dust-ups were basically a draw.


There is a profound lack of satisfaction to the average fight, a sense that the real point, which is almost mystically nebulous, remains unsettled—even with the aforementioned ass-kickings. Maybe especially then.

But with its rituals, its discipline, its strategy—they don’t call it violent chess for nothing—plus the fact it’s played before all the people who might feel inclined to mock you, football offers a way to scatter the ghosts from all those unsettled fights.

There’s one major caveat. It only works if you have a coach you respect and trust. I was lucky. I did.

His name was John Dorrian—sometimes known as “Bud” (he taught biology) or “Shag” (he also coached baseball). I count him among the three most influential men in my life.

Mr. Dorrian had all the visual appeal of Ichabod Crane (not the Johnny Depp version). He was tall and reedy, prune-faced, pucker-mouthed, weak-chinned—but he also possessed an undeniable dignity and strength.

An aging jock with an intellectual’s sense of the absurd, he read parodies of the Iliad at pep rallies, with the star players’ names inserted where the Greek heroes’ would have been: fleet-footed Mollica, fire-eyed Molloy. (He killed with Sister Canisia, who taught Latin and Greek.)

He’d been an All-American in baseball at Notre Dame for three seasons before being beaten out his senior year by a freshman phenom, some hump named Carl Yastrzemski:

This mysterious, quiet, intense, intelligent man, this man who knew what it meant to have his dream snatched away but who’d found a way to soldier on—this man took notice of me, and praised my effort.

Not because I was gifted. The reason I played football and not baseball or basketball was simple: I lacked any conceivable athletic talent. The only thing slower than me on the football field were the goal posts.

I played center because it limited the ways I could screw up—all I had to do was remember the snap count, hike the ball, and hit the fat guy. (A lot of fat guys are incredibly strong, by the way. And unpleasant.)

Oh, and I was secure enough in my manhood I could deal with the razzing I got for having the prima donna quarterback plant his hands up my ass every sixty seconds.

But I digress.

The beauty of football, at the high school level anyway, is that it’s the one sport where even a lead-footed no-talent like me could take his shot, because what it actually requires, at least for linemen, lies more in strength and attitude than speed or hand-eye coordination.

What it requires is a taste for violence.

One of the seminal moments in my life was my first tackling drill in full pads. Coach Dorrian taught us the proper technique: Get low, face mask between the numbers, lock him up, put him down.

Full go. Whole squad watching.

I was terrified, and fear makes you too stupid to do anything except what you’re told. (I’m sure there’s a history lesson in there somewhere.)

Two tackling dummies on the ground formed a lane, down which the ball carrier barreled toward me. I lowered myself, aimed my facemask at his chest and launched myself at him.

The thundercrack of that collision was absolutely one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. As I would learn to say later: I almost came.

Oh, and I locked him up. And I put him down. And Coach Dorrian blew his whistle and shouted, “Solid hit! Pay attention, gentlemen. Next!” 

As I got back in line, one of my teammates muttered, “Man, I’d never hit anybody that hard.” It wasn’t a compliment. He meant that I was too dense to get that this was just practice.

Part of me thought, somewhat dimly: I didn’t realize I had a choice. But the other part of me was still glowing. I knew I’d crossed some threshold. I was a smart, lonely, scared kid who’d learned how to deliver a blow. And a man I respected had taken notice.

As for the guy who’d muttered his critique? He got stuck on hamburger squad.

Later that day, Coach Dorrian huddled us up to make sure we knew that hurting someone was never the point, and anyone who deliberately tried to injure another player would be off the team. No exceptions.

“But,” he added, “when you play with discipline and focus, at full speed and within the rules, this game can be a lot of fun.”

Which was exactly what I’d tried to tell my woman friend, the New York Giants fan, and what I wanted her friends to get. But to do that, you have to really unpack what Mister Dorrian was trying to say.

He was telling us: I know you’re violent, and I know you like asserting your will. I’m going to teach you skills to do that. But the other guy likes asserting his will too. And in this context, asserting your will involves inflicting pain. That’s where the rules comes in. That’s where the discipline comes in. They’re there to teach you the difference between being aggressive and being a punk.


Not that the lessons are unambiguous. Of the many things that get shouted at you—and you get shouted at a lot in sports, that way the lessons sink in deep, become a part of muscle memory—but one of the most insidious things that gets bellowed at you in football, the thing that plays on your deepest insecurities and haunts you, comes during blocking drills.

You line up in your stance, face the man across from you. You wait for the coach to blow his whistle, and when he does you fire out, lock up, drive, and as you do he’s caterwauling at you so loud the words echo through your brain, your blood stream, every fiber in your body.

What he says is: Punish that man!

Now, you may ask yourself: Punish him? For what? What did he do?

But I got it. On some level, I understood that that man bore the Mark of Cain. He was violent. Just like me. My job was to subdue him, control him, defeat him. My manhood depended on it. Because he was me.

I realize not all guys come away from football having imbibed that lesson. And it’s no doubt glib to blame their coaches.

Admittedly, it was nothing Coach Dorrian explicitly said that made me self-direct this notion of punishment. It was his example: his decency, his integrity, his commitment both to aggression and to playing by the rules. The phrase “tough but fair” gets thrown around so much it’s virtually meaningless. Unless you’ve had a Coach Dorrian in your life. Then, as I suggested, it becomes part of your muscle memory.

As for the guys who didn’t get the message, in my experience they fall into two distinct camps: Those who want to be pitied for their failures, and those who expect far more praise than they deserve for their success. The brooding Byronic losers, and the Apollonian golden boys.

The psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined masculinity as “an anxiety-tinged narcissism.” The anxiety comes from the guilt of violence — and the shame of being its target. The narcissism is a disguise, a way to pretend the shame and guilt are somebody else’s problem.

And all too often that’s what they become. They become a woman’s problem, in particular.

And sadly, all too often, women jump on board, perpetually nursing Mr. Pitiful out of his bottomless funk, or latching on to Golden Boy with his blowfish ego and riding him as far as he’ll take her, even if she knows it will never be all the way. (Sometimes, of course, they’re the same guy.)

And smart women are particularly prone to this mistake because they more than anyone are repulsed by violence. They get fooled by the mask in masculinity. Like the men they fall for, they want to pretend the zombie in the pudding is a myth. Or if he’s real, he’s out there somewhere, wandering around inside other men.

“My man is smart, he’s sensitive, he abhors violence.” To which I can only respond: Run!

Maybe it’s because I was an offensive lineman — the patrol cop of football — and never got pampered like a star. 

But what football taught me was how to recognize within myself the things I hated in the other guy and use them to my advantage, while never losing track of the simple humbling fact that he was just like me. I learned to be proud but never to gloat, because as soon as the whistle blows my golden moment—or my moment of shame—is over, and I’ve got to get ready for the next play.

Football didn’t teach me squat about masculinity. It did, however, teach me at least a little about manhood.


Mister Dorrian retired after my sophomore year and was replaced by a man I’ll call Joe Bonaparte. The only thing big about him was the chip on his shoulder. He had the cocky swagger of a star jock whose heyday was long gone. And so he took out his frustrations on people he deemed lesser than him. Like his players.

I became a starter junior year but lost interest. I had nothing to prove to a man like Joe Bonaparte. And I was getting a little cocky myself, a little mouthy; coaches hate that, especially from a player they know is smarter than they are. I lost my starting job. Curiously, I cared a great deal less than I thought I would.

Then, in the last game of the year, the guy in front of me got hurt. Coach Bonaparte looked around the sideline, spotted me, pointed and said, “Corbett, you ready to go in?” I couldn’t help myself, the inner smart-ass just took over. I said, with mock wistfulness, “You remember my name . . .”

And that, as they say, was the end of that.



A few years after I graduated I ran into Mister Dorrian at a local mall. He looked rested and healthy (we’d heard rumors he’d been ill). He asked me how I was doing, and I wanted to tell him how much he’d meant to me, how much I’d learned from him. I wanted to say, in whatever mangled fashion I might manage to get it out, that he’d taught me a lot more than how to block down on trap plays, neutralize a nose tackle, or dig a linebacker out of the hole. He taught me what it meant to grow up. That I had to control my aggression, I had to deal with my guilt and overcome my shame. Women, in my future life, would thank him. Maybe even the smart ones.

But I said none of these things. It would have seemed gushy, and that was most definitely not Shag Dorrian’s style. We kept it simple, exchanged pleasantries, shook hands and said goodnight.

But as I walked away, I felt a small swell of pride.

He’d remembered my name.

The author, circa his playing days. (Note hair. Please.)



I realize this post has little to do with crime or writing, but violence lies at the heart of what we do.

Do these reflections resonate with your understanding of men and women and violence, or do you find them wildly off the mark?

How have you had to come to grips with the real (as opposed to fictional) violence in your life?

Does your real-life experience with violence find its way into your writing — if so, how?

What say you, Murderateros?


Noir, Tragedy, and Other Dreary Bummers (Ho Ho)

By David Corbett

First, I want to say that I’m flattered  to be invited to join the Murderati Cabal. The folks who run this joint are not just some of the finest writers but some of the nicest people in the biz. I promise to do my best not to soil the linens, or leave too many surprises in the punch bowl.

To that end: I’ll launch my life as a Murderatero with something I’ve been chewing on for some time, and have written about in one form or another before—on the peculiar perils of being deemed a writer of “noir.” (Don’t worry. It won’t hurt much. Just a tiny little sting.)

The term “noir ” has become so universally misused—like other vague descriptives such as “Freudian,” “post-modern,” and “cute”—that it’s virtually a cipher, obscuring more than it clarifies.

Ask three different people if a certain writer is “noir,” you’ll get three different answers. (Yes. No. Go away.)

Is Charles Willeford “noir?” James Elroy? Lynne Cheney?

This is sloppy, it’s wrong, but mostly it’s annoying—especially when the marketing flacks at major publishing houses slather the term on a book jacket to scare off the pious scoutmasters, breathless virgins and hysteric spinsters whom the publisher fears will fall into palsied seizures in the bookstore aisles if they mistakenly crack the cover.

I speak, sadly, from experience.

If words, like people, can be known by the company they keep, then “noir” might benefit from a higher class of friends. You never seem to see Our Friend Noir without his sidekicks Gritty, Brutal, Grim or the ever-faithful Uncompromising. Throw in Brooding, Dark and Relentless, you’ve got one mean set of dwarves.

And never, never, never be so simple as to believe that calling a book “noir” will boost its sales. One might as well just slap DEPRESSING! on the cover. The only thing conceivably worse than being labeled “noir” is to be considered “political.”

I speak again, sadly, from experience. But I digress.

Getting back to our original question: What exactly is this thing called noir?

To answer these and other questions, I turned to Dark City by Eddie Muller—the “Czar of Noir.” I was particularly struck by his distillation of the noir protagonist’s philosophical dilemma: He can’t choose the world he lives in, only how he intends to live in it. (This leaves out, of course, the question of rent.)

In a way, this formulation calls to mind Sartre’s immortal, “Each of us gets the war he deserves.” Mention of Sartre in turn evokes existentialism, everybody’s favorite easy credit. I have sometimes wondered if the noir protagonist is in fact nothing but the existentialist hero—alone against “the benign indifference of the universe,” stripped of certainty and even a knowable self, burdened by guilt—or, if he plays his cards right, a full-blown psychosis.

Or, put it this way: Maybe the noir protagonist is simply the existentialist hero inserted into—get this— a crime story.

I know. I’m so bright my mother calls me Sonny.

Concerning protagonists: Sophocles is credited with the invention of the tragic hero and he used the word deinos as a descriptive. It is normally translated to mean “terrible, wondrous, strange,” and his heroes were seen as both repellent and admirable.

The Sophoclean hero was also unique at that time for his isolation, especially in relation to the gods, who were largely absent. This absence of divine guidance resonates with the “benign indifference of the universe” I already mentioned (the coinage is from Camus).

Euripides, a contemporary of Sophocles, went one better. His gods weren’t absent, they were regrettably all too present: petty, callous, vengeful.

In many of the plays of both Sophocles and Euripides, the protagonist faces a crisis in which disaster can only be averted by a compromise that, in the hero’s view, would constitute betrayal of something he or she holds to be supremely important. The hero refuses to make this compromise and, as a result, is destroyed.

Put otherwise, the great bulk of Athenian tragedy can be synopsized with: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In case you were wondering why Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.

Aristotle, writing a century later in his Poetics, argued that the best tragic protagonist was neither a righteous nor villainous man, but “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, [but] whose misfortune . . . is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.”

Or, once again seeking to encapsulate the point in a pithy bon mot, Aristotle considered the major premise of most great Greek tragedy to be: Oops.

But what does any of this have to do with noir, I hear you cry.

Let us review: We have before us a form of drama in which a psychologically and morally complex hero, who is both repellent and admirable, neither pre-eminently virtuous nor just, prone to error, stands alone in the face of an indifferent if not actively hostile universe, confronting a choice between two alternatives, neither of which is acceptable and the one ultimately chosen leads to destruction.

If I may: What’s not to noir?

A great deal, as it turns out. In noir, one often finds a protagonist whose misfortune is brought upon precisely by vice or depravity—his own. Think Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Think George Neff in Double Indemnity. Think any number of Thompson’s or Willeford’s or Woolrich’s or Goodis’s protagonists. The strength of this approach lies in its ability to submerge the reader in a treacherous, unforgiving world she would normally never visit and, I would argue, a world which the authors believed pretty much resembled what modernity had to offer.

The limitation is thematic: Bad things happen to bad people. Crime doesn’t pay. These motifs are hardly startling, but it isn’t so much the destination as the journey that delivers the pay-off. And besides, as I’ve already mentioned, you can reduce the theme of even the greatest drama of all time to a caustic one-liner.

And though it shares a lack of sentimentality with tragedy, noir discards the necessity for “the moral nobility of suffering” one often finds in tragedic drama. In noir, even nobility is seen as sentimental. And here again the existentialist influence returns. “Existence precedes essence,” the great bumper-sticker slogan of existentialism, means we’re making it up as we go along, there is no transcendental meaning to be had, and there’s nothing inherently noble or degrading about anything. (To borrow a line from Zen: The situation is neutral.)

But another thing noir and the Greek tragedies have in common is their matriculation in the course or the aftermath of a lost war. The “neo-noir” films of the late 1960s and early 1970s—The King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and, of course, Chinatown—are a case in point. Though America had not yet “lost” Vietnam when some of these movies appeared, there was an overwhelming sense that it had lost something. And this was true of noir as well even after victory in World War II. Battle-scarred veterans recoiled from the notion of themselves as heroes because they knew all too well that pitiless luck and certain varieties of “vice and depravity” were what it took to survive combat.

Then again, maybe this is all just a bunch of cynical—and therefore, sentimental—hooey. “Like all dreamers, I mistook disillusion for the truth.” That’s jolly old Jean-Paul Sartre again. How come nobody ever calls him noir?