Welcome Guest Blogger Libby Fischer Hellman!!

Going to the Dark Side

They say that if you keep writing crime fiction, you will
inevitably write darker. But they never tell you why. As someone who’s gone
down that road, I’d like to try out an explanation.

But first, thanks to the Murderati gang, especially J.T., for
this opportunity.

Over the past 6 years I’ve written four books that – while
not cozy – feature an amateur sleuth who’s a video producer. The situations
Ellie Foreman finds herself in aren’t light, but she has a dry sense of humor
that helps keep her grounded. More important, she has a support system and
family structure that, in some ways, curtail her behavior as well as the arc of
the plot. The danger and chaos she confronts — whether it’s neo-Nazis, the Russian
mob, or terrorists – are short-lived. By the end of each book, her world order is
restored. She goes to sleep without any demons plaguing her or her family.

In my third book, AN
, I introduced a character from a different world than
Ellie’s. Arin was from Eastern Europe, and her life fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed. Her husband became an arms
smuggler and disappeared. Her best friend was drawn into sexual trafficking. Arin
was forced to make choices just to ensure her survival. She became an illegal
diamond courier who ended up making a good living from illegal activities. Anything
to feed her son and herself. At the time I thought Arin was an anomaly. A one-time

She wasn’t.

As I read more about crime, both true crime and fiction… as
I watch the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” news stories, I’ve come to believe that the
act of bad things happening to good people – like Arin —  is more random than not. Victims of crime become
victims because they’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – not
because of some grand design.

Sure, you can argue that someone who lives in a gang-infested
neighborhood is more prone to a drive-by than someone in the affluent suburbs…
or that the house with snowbird owners is more likely to be robbed than a house
whose occupants are present. But the selection of the person who is shot, or
the home that’s targeted, is essentially a random act. It depends on a number
of factors, any one of which might suddenly change. The drive-by victim might
be at the grocery store, rather than on the street, and thus survive. The home targeted
for a robbery might be occupied by a son or daughter home from college and so
escape theft.  The actual doing of the crime
can be as flimsy as a feather quivering on air currents.

Even orchestrated conspiracies — the stuff of great
thrillers – in which plans are conceived over months, years or decades – are
often thwarted at the last minute by a random event or observation. Remember
the film (the original version) of The
Day of the Jackal
? De Gaulle turns
his head just as sharpshooter Edward Fox lets loose with a shot. A random head-turn
vanquishes the evil and saves France.

The fact that disaster is only a hairs-breath away… that the
worst could happen to anyone at any time, given the circumstances, is a powerful
driver, and I realized wanted to explore a character who understands that.Easy_innocence_cover1

Enter Georgia Davis, my protagonist in EASY INNOCENCE.
A cop for
years (Like Arin, she was introduced in AN
), she’s now a PI. She has baggage. And secrets I’m just
learning about. But her greatest strength is that she implicitly recognizes the
fragility and vulnerability of life.

My friend (and fabulous writer) Michael Dymmoch likes to quote from the film Shakespeare
in Love
. She always says that everything will work out if you persevere, work hard, and are talented
enough. Although Michael is talking
about writing, Ellie subscribes to that theory. She’s an optimist. She even
tries to control her universe. She would never dwell in the dark. For her everything
can be fixed.

Georgia doesn’t have any illusions. She knows it’s useless to try and control life. Of
course, it helps that she has a less than sanguine view of human nature. She
doesn’t doubt the cruelty that goes on behind closed doors — even in beautiful
surroundings. She realizes that because it’s random, evil can never be
destroyed permanently. In fact, she embraces that randomness. She is still committed
to fighting it and railing against the injustice it triggers, but knowing it
will always be there in one form or another is part of her world view.

It’s a dark view of the world. But it’s a compelling one. After all, we are all
gapers, aren’t we? What’s the first question we ask after a senseless crime or
accident? Why? How did it happen? When we hear the answer, maybe we shiver, or our
stomach lurches, or we give our kids an extra hug. But we know, at a very basic
level, that life is random. That we don’t have control. That we can’t prevent

That’s why I’m writing darker these days. To plumb the
depths of that randomness – to see how it affects characters in my imaginary
world. Maybe it will even teach me how to accept it in the real world.

But enough from me. Readers, why do you read dark? Or not?
Writers, why do you write it?


Libby’s 5th novel, Easy Innocence is a “spin-off” of her award-winning Ellie Foreman series. Libby also edited the acclaimed anthology Chicago Blues. Originally from Washington DC, Libby has lived in Chicago for 30 years and finds the contrast between the beautiful and the profane in that city a crime writer’s paradise. She lives on the North Shore. Her next work, a stand-alone thriller called Set the Night on Fire takes place in part during the Sixties.

P.S. — A wine suggestion, from a friend of Murderati — Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. Yum! Coppola bough the Alexander Valley vineyard in 2006. I’m not sure how that will change the appellation, but it’s worth a try in the later years as well. Many thanks to fellow scribe Chuck Driskell for the suggestion.

And a boatload of thanks to Libby for standing in today. Don’t forget, Simon Wood joins us next week!


19 thoughts on “Welcome Guest Blogger Libby Fischer Hellman!!

  1. Deane E.

    Libby, you ask an interesting question of us readers. Why read dark, or not? For me, there’s an element of “there but for the grace of God go I.” If darkness befalls someone else – in the news or in a book – it’s not befalling me, yet. The more I read about others’ horrible events, the farther away the events seem from myself and my family. Maybe it’s a statistical thing. The more bad things happen to others, the less likely it becomes they will happen to me. Maybe at some level I believe that if I read enough dark fiction and news I’ll protect myself from darkness in my own life. But down deep I know this is crazy, false thinking, and I basically agree with you that crime is random.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Libby: in my day job, I practice a lot of criminal law. And real-life murder is, as I’ve written before, rarely the tip of some great iceberg of conspiracy for the sleuth to uncover. It’s almost never a device for the protagonists to meet cute and fall in love over the still-warm corpse.

    Recently, three young knuckleheads broke into a trailer on a country road near where I live. They didn’t realize that a 12 year old girl was home sick with strep throat. when she surprised them, one of them shot her dead. That’s pretty random, and stupid, and pointless.

    THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND begins with a killing that’s the result of a couple of fuckups doing what fuckups do. No one started out that day intending to kill, but one lousy choice led to another, and chaos ensued afterwards. I wrote that because that’s what I see all the time.

    I write dark because I’m trying to process what I see, trying to make some sense of it. Maybe if I can get it down on paper, it’ll be more manageable. Maybe it won’t hurt so much to think about. Maybe that sense of futility and that sadness won’t ride me like a pair of ravens on my shoulders.

    And maybe some day that trick’ll work.

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Great post, Libby, As a writer, we always have to heap misfortunes on our protagonists to conquer. For me, I find it a challenge to to put my Protag in tougher situations. Make her make tougher decisions which seems to lead toward more darkness.

    As a husband and father, I look at my own fears and find it easier to stir fear and anger in a reader.

    As it turns out, my best writing is the really dark stuff, which makes my wife a little leary about falling asleep beside me.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Libby, so great to see you again so soon! I’m loving EASY INNOCENCE – my favorite book of yours so far.

    I’d never heard that about writing darker over time. Yike, I’m in big trouble, then!

    In life I tend to look on the brighter side – I’m generally optimistic and positive. But I’m not naive to what’s out there. I guess writing dark is an acknowledgment that – well, that I’m very, very lucky.

  5. Libby

    I’m with you, JD… I think we keep trying to make sense of the non-sensical (in all its horrific connotations) partly to persuade ourselves that in our little corner of the world, everythin is still in order. And of course, that’s an illusion.

    Thanks, Alex, for the kind words…and you’re right — you’re way ahead of me in the dark terrain category. Which is why I loved the HARROWING… still have the new one on my TBR pile. Great to see you too!

    And WIl, complicating life for our protagonists is just one of the nasty things we do to them, isn’t it?

    What I didnt get a chance to say, though, is that we don’t have to reach far afield. Violence and crime are such a common thread of our culture that they seep into everything. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we are so fascinated by them.

    Dark thoughts on a Friday, huh…

  6. Dana King

    Since we’re speaking of darkness, let’s gte one thing straight. I saw Libby in person on Monday, commented to a post at The Outfit’s blog on Wednesday, and I’m here today. I am NOT stalking her.

    As a reader I like dark books, so long as they don’t become nihilistic. Serial killers don’t appeal to me, because they’re psychotic aberrations. I’m interested in how the evil in all of us is given looser reins in some, and what drives them to keep letting it out.

    My writing has become darker as I go. I keep humor in all books, but I see it becoming more sardonic as I write. To paraphrase Chandler discussing Hammett, I like to see murder (and crime) in the hands of those who use it for reasons other than to provide a body.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Libby

    Great to see you here on ‘Rati. Welcome! And what a stunning cover for EASY INNOCENCE. I’m delighted to see Georgia on the shelves – she’s such a great character.

    Dark is good. Dark comes from inside and everybody has a little something of the night about them. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when that dark side steps out into the light and takes control.

  8. Louise Ure

    There’s a great history of writing dark, from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare. For me, whether I’m reading it or writing it, it’s all about catharsis.

  9. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Libby,Welcome to Murderati! What a wonderful post. There’s a lot here to think about it. I’ll probably be processing it far longer than today.

    And, what a gorgeous cover for Easy Innocence.

    I know my third book is darker than my first, that I’m dealing with deeper issues in it than in the debut. Part of the reason for this is that I’m just a more experienced writer. And, for me, part of it was to show that my work wasn’t fluff.

    The fourth book is shaping up to be lighter though. My new series isn’t goofy, but it’s got humor as well. I guess that’s where *I’m* most comfortable writing.

    Thank you again for such an interesting topic. I look forward to reading the discussion.

  10. Libby

    Hey, Pari… I noticed that with your new book, and I did wonder how and why you chose to go darker. I think dark is somehow more compelling, although it probably takes more talent to make a “lighter” mystery great…

    Thanks, Louise for the historical perspective… I love your new book …

    Hey, Zoe… We need to catch up. Did I tell you I am now the proud owner of a portable TomTOm? I call her Lucy and she has led me all across the country.

    Dana, How nice to “see” you… again.

    I’d like to pose another question… how much violence is too much? At what point do you say… enough already… he/she could have accomplished the same thing much more sparingly?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Everyone had their own level of tolerance on violence, just as with bad language. There are some swearwords I would just never use. Period.

    If it is required by the story, it’s in, regardless of how graphic. If it isn’t required by the story, it’s gratuitous, no matter how mild the actual violence depicted might be.

    That said, my editor did make me tone down the torture scene in THIRD STRIKE …

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Sorry, I’ve just read that back and realised I didn’t answer properly ;-[

    Yes, we must catch up! Long time no speak. My Skype kept falling over but I may have to resort to the good old-fashioned telephone.

    Glad to hear about Tom Tom. Isn’t it great? Except UK postcodes are not as accurate as US zipcodes. Over here, our Tom Tom tends to get us within about a quarter mile and then go, “What the hell – you’re on your own!”

  13. Wilfred Bereswill

    Good question, Libby. I always struggle with that.

    In my first novel I have a very early scene where a terrorist convinces a Doctor to cooperate by showing a videotape.

    The first draft of the scene had the doctor watching as his unconcious wife is thrown on a bed in his apartment where she is fairly brutally violated. I stopped short of killing her.

    The final draft has the video showing the terrorist cutting the woman’s blouse off, button by button and as he’s about to cut off her bra, the video goes blank leaving the doctor’s imagination going wild assuming the worst. I thought by deleting the explictness of the scene, it gave it more impact.

  14. Elaine Flinn

    Great to see you here, Libby…love the theme of your post! Reminded me of a Mark Twain quote – “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows anybody.” Far be it for me to change anything Twain wrote -but I’d love to add – “except writers.” 🙂

  15. JT Ellison

    Elaine, that’s a great quote. I agree, we all have some darkness within, and for me, it’s a good exercise (exorcise?) to get it out on paper.

    Libby, thanks for the thought-provoking post! I write dark for a number of reasons. One, I wanted to make sure I could draw in male readers as well as female, and thus choose my subject matter accordingly. But more than that, I love being able to resolve issues. In my books, there is some form of closure for the victims and their families, to an extent. It’s my way of righting the wrongs I see on a daily basis. In the real world, the idiots get away with more than they should.

  16. D.A. Davenport

    Hi, Libby. A great topic!I read darker stuff because as I age I realize that life has very few perfectly happy endings.I found the treacle of some writers’ finales hard to swallow and I quickly left them behind me.I am pulled towards crime and mystery because they make me think. And the ones that leave me somewhat unsettled, that chill my bones, that haunt me long after I read them, they are the ones I crave the most. They are the ones I want to write.

  17. Patrick Balester

    Much as we sometimes enjoy happy endings, I like to read dark to unveil that side hidden in a set of characters normally seen as ordinary & normal (hence the appeal of Easy Innocence). To see how they handle a set of circumstances that tempt them from law abiding into an act of crime. What does it take to push us over that edge?


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