Why Crime?

I’ve called this post “Why Crime?”, but I could have called it “Why Science Fiction?” or “Why Romance?”. I’m using crime because that’s the genre I seem to have settled into very comfortably. And I ask the question because, well, I ain’t sure if there’s an easy answer. Why are we drawn to write in a particular genre?

Well, I don’t know why we are, but I might be able to say why I am drawn to crime.

It wasn’t what I started out to write when I discovered I wanted to be an author. If you’ve paid any attention to this blog at all, and if you’ve read some of the writing samples I’ve posted here, you know that science fiction/fantasy (sf/f) is my first love. I fell into it quite happily when I had The Hobbit read to me in sixth grade. You’ll find that story elsewhere on this blog. Tolkien’s Middle-earth took me to places in my mind I’d never been and I wanted more.

It wasn’t long after that I discovered the flip side of fantasy: science fiction. I can’t remember the first sf novel I read. The first one that really stands out is Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. It seems there’s a thing in sf/f for trilogies, though Foundation was written, or at least published, before LOTR, if I remember correctly. Of course, it’s been expanded past a trilogy since then. Asimov had a simple writing strategy: eight hours a day, seven days a week. No exceptions, no holidays. I read an anecdote where he was on a sf cruise once as a featured speaker (along with several other sf/f authors). While the fans were enjoying the attractions of the cruise ship, the authors were in their cabins writing, Asimov among them. He brought his typewriter. I’m not saying everyone has to have that kind of work discipline, but the man did publish an average of twelve books a year. On all kinds of subjects, not just sf or even fiction. He seemed to have an interest in pretty much everything.

Another sf author I cut my teeth on was Robert A. Heinlein, author of such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. If you’ve never read either of these books, do yourself a favor and go get them. Even if you don’t like sf, you might like these books. Heinlein, like Asimov, is one of the Grand Masters of sf, and there’s a good reason for that.

I could go on and on about the sf/f authors I’ve read in the past 30+ years, but I won’t. That’s not the point of this post. I just need you to get the idea of why I decided to become an author. Like fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan, I soon ran out of the kinds of stories I liked. Tolkien died in the early ’70s and, let’s face it, not many can write up to his level. For modern readers, LOTR is probably dry and stiff, especially when you consider Tolkien was a linguist and let it show in his writing. But the story, in my opinion, is wonderful.

I do not now and never did pretend to approach the level of Tolkien or one of my other favorites, Stephen King. But they did inspire me to write, King especially. I’m sure he’s inspired more than one author. For me, it was the first inkling that you don’t have to write like a stuffy professor. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. With his penchant for indirectly addressing the reader and writing in a thoroughly modern style, it was easy to get caught up in the story and, later, think that maybe I could do this writing thing, too.

My first efforts, good as I thought they were then, were embarrassing, to say the least. I came upon one several years ago, something I wrote while I was a teenager, and though I kept it around for a while, I cringed when I read it. I can also remember submitting a story to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine somewhere around that same or perhaps a little later, and when I think of it now (I can only vaguely remember the story, thank God), I picture the editorial staff doubling over with laughter after reading the thing. I was about as far from being a competent, much less good, writer then as I am now from being an astronaut.

But I started out writing sf/f because that’s what I read. I still enjoy the stuff. You can’t read the same genre for as long as I did and not have an abiding love for it. I’ve read several times where some folks always dismiss their reading sf/f in their teen years as being juvenile. As if the only way you can enjoy the subject is by being immature. They look back on it from their lofty positions as sophisticated, hip, modern, urbane writers who can only shake their heads in wonder that they were so immature that they once read such icky stories. Ridiculous!

Well, bite me.

If you read any real sf/f and not that Tom Swift stuff, you’d know that sf/f authors, especially back in the Golden Age of Heinlein and Asimov, took on some pretty weighty subjects there beneath the spaceships and alien races. Speculation about the future and how humans would conduct themselves abounded. Heinlein has a novel called The Menace from Earth that tells the story of First Contact from the alien’s point of view. It’s one of the few (of his) I have yet to read, but you can see how it would be a challenge to write. It’s not just a man trying to write a woman character, which would at least have some kind of familiarity to work with, but a human writing from an imaginary alien character.

It was this kind of thing that made me want to write sf/f. I tried my hand at a few other things, like horror (inspired by my love of Stephen King) and toyed with the idea of doing a Western, thanks to Louis L’Amour. The horror never got off the ground, and the Western never had more than a page or two written before I gave up. I wanted it to be authentic and didn’t want to take the time to know that period of history as well as L’Amour did.

But I devoured sf/f all the time, so it was only natural that I write sf/f.

One of the first serious efforts I made was back in the early ’90s. I set out to write a Tolkienesque fantasy on a world called Aja (stolen from the Steely Dan album of the same title) about a group of characters questing for an object called The Phar Medallion, and artifact crafted by an all but extinct race. I wasn’t sure what its powers were, but I figured I’d know when it came time to write The Final Battle.

That story never got written. Along the way, they met a character named Luke Fontaine, a former bounty hunter on the run from a mysterious past. The more I thought about Luke’s back-story, the more I wanted to write it, so I did. Two novels and maybe half of a third. They’re still on my hard drive as I write this, and I still toy with the idea of rewriting them. I’ve had several ideas over the years, but never sat down and tried them out. I originally wrote them with the idea that I would tell the Phar Medallion Quest from Luke’s first-person POV. The problem I ran into in the third novel was that you can’t tell an epic story like that from the first-person POV. I needed other things to happen, and I couldn’t have Luke be present for all of them. I thought about telling the others in third-person, but never felt real comfortable with the idea. These were supposed to be Luke’s memoirs. How could he tell the things I needed told? I still think about it from time to time.

The bottom line is that I never finished anything, and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, I suspect, it may be that I’m not a sf/f writer. Maybe I’m a crime writer.

I fell into crime through the Tony Hillerman mysteries. If you’ve never read them, do so. The books revolve around Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two Navajo tribal cops in the Four Corners area. They solve mysteries on the Navajo Reservation, and while they’re at it, their lives go on from book to book. It’s not all just about the mysteries. Each of them has dreams and problems, and Hillerman writes them fully fleshed. I have yet to read them all, but I will eventually.

Thing is, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do what they do? Why are certain people attracted, or even driven, to commit acts that the society around them considers wrong? It could be chalked off to one-dimensional reasoning, but that’s not why we write characters. “Oh, he’s a member of a crime family, part of the Mob, and he does it to make money.” Or “He’s evil.”

Please.

Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Not even such icons of evil as Hitler. He thought he was advancing the German people and removing the insidious threat of the Jew. Sure, the rest of us see that as horrible, but he didn’t. To him, he was being reasonable and good. Most, if not all, criminals are the same way. They know their actions are illegal, even “wrong,” but they just think those are artificial restrictions. Either they don’t apply to them, or they just don’t care.

I’ve always been fascinated with this mindset. It started with serial killer novels, but then, after visiting my daughter in LA, I discovered there is a whole subgenre of crime novels set in LA, just as there is another one set in New York City. I started reading them, at first, as a way of feeling a little closer to where my daughter lives. But when I read Robert Crais, and in particular his novel L.A. Requiem, it became about the novels themselves. LA is a perfect city to tell multiple stories in. The settings are so varied and there are so many different kinds of people there.

At first, the idea of writing a crime novel didn’t really occur to me. Reading them was one thing, but writing one? Naw, I’ll leave that to folks like Crais and T. Jefferson Parker.

I kept this thinking up until I went and saw the movie Winter’s Bone. If you’re not familiar with it, Winter’s Bone is set in southwest Missouri and it’s about a girl who has to try and find her father after he’s been busted for cooking meth and puts the family home up for collateral as part of his bond, then disappears. It’s a great movie, filmed on location in the Ozarks, and it uses real homes and people from the area. It’s based on a book by the same name by Daniel Woodrell.

But it’s so damned depressing. I thought about it, and about the Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade and decided that, as a native of the Ozarks, I wanted to tell a different story about us. In both of those movies, people from this area (yes, I know: Sling Blade doesn’t take place in the Ozarks, but it does take place in Arkansas) are grim and going through life just trying to get by.

Crap.

The people I know aren’t like that. Sure, we have our off days. But we don’t go around depressed all the time. After all, we don’t live in New York City.

But what could I write? I’d tried the idea of a horror novel set here, and it didn’t fly. I’d also written an urban fantasy set here, but it felt a little hollow. Urban fantasies really work better in an urban setting. We’ve got that, but not a big one like most of them are set in, like LA or Chicago.

Then I read an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about how Northwest Arkansas is part of the pipeline for Mexican meth going further east to places like Virginia. This was backed up when I read Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding. In an aside, he states that one of the Mexican immigrant informants he interviewed made his first delivery to men with long beards outside Rogers, Arkansas. Rogers is only like fifteen or twenty miles at most from where I live.

Voila. Story. One that started with that infamous what if: what if a local guy got caught cooking meth and was offered the chance to work with law enforcement in lieu of going to prison? That’s how the novel Pipeline was born, and it’s how I discovered Lyle Villines. I’ve gotten to know him very well over the last (almost) 180,000 or so words and I’ll be sorry to see him go. But he’s been a good way to fall into writing crime from the criminal’s POV, and I have a few more ideas on the back burner for more. All told from the criminal’s POV. I figure there’s plenty of cops and private detectives out there telling their stories. I want to tell the other side, the side that fascinates me so much.

And maybe, someday, discover why they do what they do.

Later,

Gil

PS. I just finished re-reading L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais, and I have four words for you: Get it. Read it. It may well change what you think a crime novel is, and it definitely defines what a crime novel should be.

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