I’ve talked before about how I’m fascinated with the idea of the illicit drug business. I like the double lives the dealers and importers lead. Even the cops who work that as their beat—from the DEA to the local vice cops—generally are leading double lives. Then there’s the whole thing of secret meetings in out-of-the-way places, everybody there already paranoid, and most of them taking their own product doesn’t help.
Would I want to live in that world? Absolutely not. But it’s great looking at it from the outside.
Style, man. That’s what they have. You can watch the fictional version, with Miami Vice being one of the more
well-known examples, or you can get into the reality with documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys, which chronicles the times the original Miami Vice made famous: the Cocaine Wars of South Florida in the late seventies and early eighties.
You got expensive cars. Sonny Crockett drove Ferraris on TV, Jon Roberts preferred Porches and Mercedes in real life. They had expensive clothes, with Sonny doing the Armani thing, and I’m not sure what Jon wore, but they were flashy.
Of course, we’re talking about opposite sides here. Sonny Crockett was a fictional vice cop. Jon Roberts was a very real importer for the Medellín Cartel. According to his own estimate, in a roughly six year period, he burned thorough some one hundred fifty million dollars. He bought seven or eight Mercedes a year. He and his girlfriend Toni once trashed two in a fight with one another. He called someone the next day to haul them off and they went and bought a couple more.
Expensive cars. High-end clothing. Exclusive clubs. It’s the kind of setting I’d like to write about sometime. Mostly because, at the very least, I don’t have to keep track of my characters’ budgets. And who knows? Maybe I will someday.
But then again, maybe not. My style seems to be different. No matter how much I might admire the films and TV shows based on this—and the flashy style they convey—my fiction is, for the most part, rooted closer to home. My characters tend to be more down to earth…and a lot poorer.
Take the characters in my forthcoming book Spree. Yeah, they go through a considerable amount of money during the story, and end up with a goodly sum at the end, with the prospect of more to come. But when it starts out, they’re just scraping by, a couple of two-strike losers looking at doing some serious time if they screw up again. Like a lot of people these days, they’re one paycheck away from living on the street. In fact, Steve has spent a lot of his life there.
And then there’s Lyle, the central character in my Rural Empires setting. When we first meet him, he’s already around forty, and he’s spent almost twenty years in a factory job when he’s confronted with the specter of leukemia in his daughter. If not for that, he probably would have lived his life out working the factory job and dealing with his divorce. Pretty Joe Average kind of stuff. And even after he makes a ton of money distributing meth, his lifestyle doesn’t change that much. He spends a lot of money carting his daughter around the world seeing if there’s some way to get her to walk again, only stopping when she insists. It’s the kind of thing most of us would do for our kids.
And I think that’s why I might not ever write about the characters I mentioned above: I’ve never led a life with expensive clothes, cars, and houses. I’ve struggled to make ends meet for as long as I can remember. Seems like I’m always watching people around me slowly build their fortunes, or at least achieve a level of being comfortable, but I don’t even have a retirement account right now.
I’m not looking for pity. I’m just saying I can’t easily relate to driving around in sports cars and needing a machine to count my money. I can’t imagine my biggest problem being finding a way to avoid paying taxes on the proceeds from my latest drug deal.
But I think, in a lot of ways, that means I write characters readers can more readily identify with. Even Eddie and Steve, career criminals that they are, are more relatable than someone like, say, Tony Montana is. We like Scarface because, in the end, we see a guy get what’s coming to him. He lived a life of excess and danger, and made tons of money. But he was still a psychopathic killer who cared pretty much for only one person: Tony Montana. So when he takes that coke-addled, bullet-ridden plunge into the pool at the end, we’re a little sad, but we nod to ourselves and think he got his just desserts.
But Steve Wilson, or Lyle Villines, they’re just a couple guys trying to make it in the world. One is a criminal, one becomes one to take care of his child. The first one comes to regret his life of crime and seeks a way out. The other one does his best to abandon his life of crime at the earliest opportunity, only to find it keeps pulling him back in.
Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making movies that involved men who were out of their element, but had to deal with
it. I just watched North by Northwest the other night, and that’s exactly what Cary Grant was in that movie: a man out of his natural element. But as the movie progresses, he adapts to the reality he finds himself in and even excels at it.
That’s what I try to do with Lyle. Working in the drug distribution business was never on his list of things he wanted to achieve in life, but he finds that he’s good at it. And has a disturbing ability to deal with the violence that goes along with it. Much to his dismay.
Will I write a slick Miami Vice-style novel someday? I hope. I still think it would be great to pull one off, if only as an homage to something I love. But for the most part, I imagine I’ll stick to what I do best: taking some poor schmuck and plunking him down in a setting he never imagined to find himself in. And in that way, I’ll make my own style.
One I’m happy with.