This essay originally appeared on July 14, 2021, in CrimeReads, the online suspense magazine. If you enjoy it, I encourage you to view it in its original published form — and consider subscribing to CrimeReads! (It’s free, seriously informative, and immensely entertaining.)
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“Crime writers are the nicest people.” I’d heard this for years, and it puzzled me. Really? How is that possible? People who spend their time dreaming up the grisliest, most ghoulish acts of human barbary. If they’re such nice people, what on earth drives them to write such ghastly things?
Now suddenly I was one. And still asking the same question.
Hey, I’d spent more than a decade of my life writing nice, quiet nonfiction books about agreeable things. Leadership. Motivation. Personal development. Some memoirs, mostly of business leaders overcoming hardships to carve out careers making quiet contributions to society. Hell, I’d coauthored the sequel to Who Moved My Cheese. Cute little fantasy mice in a make-believe maze learning life lessons in language an eight-year-old could read? I think we can all agree, it doesn’t get a hell of a lot more socionormal than that.
So what was I doing putting myself into the shoes of a sociopath as he coolly dismembered his shrieking victim before tossing him off a boat into the jaws of a waiting tiger shark?
This was not some idle philosophical musing. It was a career decision.
Back in 2009, when I started working with Brandon Webb on his memoir of life as a Navy SEAL sniper, he told me about an idea he had for a novel. And then he posed a question: “Would you ever be interested in cowriting a thriller about a serial killer on an aircraft carrier?”
I (being an agreeable person and all) said, “Of course.” And inside I screamed, Wait—what are you saying!
It wasn’t just the intimidation factor. (I didn’t believe I had the chops to pen a full-blown novel.) Or the military setting (no military experience here whatsoever). It was the focus. I was a firm believer in the mantra, “That which you focus on increases.” Did I really want to spend a year of my life plumbing the mind of an evil, sociopathic executioner who caused obscene amounts of pain and suffering?
For the next decade I wrestled with that question: not how to write a convincing killer, but whether I wanted to do so at all—and if so…why?
Why Write Murder?
What drives decent, ordinary folks to write about murder and mayhem?
There’s an easy answer, of course. “Everyone loves a good mystery.” There is something deeply satisfying about working out a good puzzle.
The first book I ever read was Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik, a quartet of stories for young children. The opening gambit, “What Will Little Bear Wear?,” was as great a mystery as anything by Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle. It’s cold out, and Little Bear needs something to put on. His mother makes him a hat, then a coat, then snow pants, but it’s not enough: he’s still cold. Does he wants a fur coat, too? Yes! He does! So she takes back all the items she just made and points to him standing there in nothing but his own fur.
“See,” says Mother Bear, “there is the fur coat.”
“Hurray!” says Little Bear. “Now I will not be cold.”
“And he was not cold,” concludes the narrator. “What do you think of that?”
I’ll tell you what I thought, when I first read it as a little bear myself: I thought it was the cat’s pajamas. I still do.
“What Will Little Bear Wear?” magnificently follows the first rule of great mystery-writing: the eventual solution to the riddle must come as a complete surprise—yet it must be a surprise that was sitting right there in plain sight the whole time. As I thumb through that little story today I still get a thrill when I reach the last page.
So, yeah. Everyone loves a good mystery.
But to me that didn’t really answer the question. There were all sorts of puzzles you could write. Why murder?
Oxygen, the Oprah-inspired TV network, was launched in the late nineties to provide “content for women and children.” It languished for years, yet when it started running Snapped, a show about women driven to murder, ratings soared. Oxygen took the cue and relaunched itself as “a crime destination network geared toward women.” Bingo. Its viewership ballooned—an audience packed, we can surmise, with plenty of good, decent folks.
That other stuff, the Disney/Hallmark–style content, was fine entertainment. Tasted great. But this crime content was more. It was feeding these good, decent folks something the other programming wasn’t giving them. Something they were hungry for.
So what was the sustenance of a great crime story? How did it not just entertain, but nourish?
The Crimes of Our Lives
After Brandon posed his would-you-ever question I dove into crime fiction, plowing through everything from Chandler and Highsmith to Tana French and Kate Atkinson. I’d always loved reading, but this was something new. It was delicious, deliriously so, yet at the same time somehow deeply nourishing. I could feel my own (nonfiction) writing getting better.
Hell, I could feel my life getting better.
I was gaining perspective, absorbing something, learning something, and it wasn’t just about how to write atmospheric descriptions or outrageous similes. There was something about great crime writing that felt weirdly personal.
I say “weirdly” because it wasn’t personal, at least not for me. If I’d had a sibling who’d been strangled, a best friend abducted and murdered, or I’d lived through a horrific home invasion, then sure, I could imagine wanting to exorcise those demons with pen and paper. But none of those things had happened to me.
And, frankly, aren’t likely to. The odds of any one person being the victim of a real-life violent crime are slim. (Somewhere between 0.4 and 2.3 percent, depending on the source, and for being murdered more like 1 in 10,000.) Crime writers are not typically the brothers and sisters of murder victims.
So no, it wasn’t personal.
True, I’d never actually experienced the impact of murder myself—but I’d suffered tragedy. Haven’t we all? In my case, I’d lost a child to meningitis, a business to bankruptcy, two marriages to divorce. For others, it might be lost friendships, lost jobs, lost health. The scars of prejudice, economic inequity, personal and societal betrayal. Broken hearts. Broken promises. We’ve all borne the brunt of injustice, had hopes punctured, joys trampled, doors slammed in our faces.
We’ve all been hurt.
Were these real-life injuries finding a kind of sympathetic echo in the evil plots and grisly murders of the novel’s pages?
After years of gobbling great crime fiction (and ruminating over my career koan), here’s what I came to: the fictional crime served as a stand-in for those real-life crimes against, if not our flesh, then our happiness.
I was reading great crime novels, yes, for the richness of language and character, the ingenuity of plot, the poetry of pacing and rhythm. But I was also reading them to see those wrongs addressed—because I wanted my wrongs addressed.
Flawed Heroes, Devious Fiends
My philosophy of writing says we love stories so much (indeed, need them) because they resonate with the events of our flesh-and-blood lives. You and I are also full-time story-tellers, after all, the authors of our own living novels, laying down draft after draft upon each blank new day, rewriting and revising and gradually working out just what this story is that we’re telling.
Therefore, the most effective stories are those that most powerfully evoke our real lives. Not the details, of course not; but the important parts. Stories pinpoint those elements that are most critical in our own experiences and distill them down to a tellable tale.
I found that resonance in spades, for example, in the murder-solving heroes I was reading.
Most crime heroes were one case away from broke. Or struggled with booze, or had lousy relationships or abusive parents. They were ordinary, in other words, just like us—yet they transcended their ordinariness. And don’t we all aspire to that?
This, I figured, must be why we like our heroes flawed, weak, and challenged. We don’t really want to read about Superman catching crooks. We want Hitchcock’s “ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances,” or the guy walking Chandler’s mean streets whom Chandler describes as “a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man”—unusual because he is aspirational, common because he’s relatable. Jack Reacher is a giant who can fell ten men at a blow, but he can’t drive worth shit and doesn’t know how to use a cell phone.
“Okay, writing flawed heroes I get,” my inner nice-guy murmured. “All over that. But why such awful crimes? Why such malevolent villains?”
So I reasoned it out.
The essence of every story is this: A hero wants something and is hindered from getting it. What the hero wants—what we want—is to resolve the crime; the hindering force is the criminal. For the story to work, the villain needs to resonate as authentically as the hero does.
Which means the crimes need to be awful, because that’s how the wrongs in our lives feel, even when they don’t look like it from the outside. As a child, being constantly screamed at is terrible, beaten even worse; but there are plenty of adults who will tell you the young scars they suffered from neglect and isolation cut just as deep. For the hero’s triumph to resonate, the mountain she climbs has got to be a tall one.
The realer the struggle, the more it is about not only the hero on the page but also you and me.
I hope I never have to face the kind of evil Caitlin Hendrix faces, say, in Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB books, and I hope you never do, either. I figure the foes we face in our lives are hindrance enough. But I’m grateful Caitlin does—because her story gives me that much more fuel for my own journey.
Ordinary Men, Broken Societies
Okay so far. Crime, hero. Problem, solution.
But it seemed to me there was something else going on in these books, something it took me a while to identify. It nudged me while reading John D. MacDonald; with Chandler the nudges became pokes; with Lehane and Winslow the pokes grew insistent. Eventually I got it.
The crime/hero, problem/solution equation was neat and clear, and that was the problem. It was two-dimensional.
In great crime fiction there is a third dimension, which is what makes it so real.
Call the crime a can of beans. You need to open the can so you don’t starve, but you can’t open it all by yourself, so you use a can opener. Your hero is the can opener.
But great crime stories aren’t that simple. In great crime stories, there’s the can, the can-opener—and then there’s the fact that the opener doesn’t work properly on this goddam can, because this goddam can is full of design flaws no doubt caused by some roomful of goddam geniuses with marketing degrees who are fed at the company café and have never had to eat out of a can they opened themselves. There’s a problem and a tool for solving it—but there’s also the world itself, so flawed and corrupted and contradictory that it seems to produce two dozen more rusted-out, bent-lipped, bacteria-laden cans for every fresh one you manage to pry open.
There’s the hero, the villain—and the fallen world where it all takes place. A world that becomes a crime-fiction character unto itself. One that pushes back against the hero almost as much as the criminal himself. Sometimes even more.
In The Odyssey, it’s those jealous, bickering gods. For Travis McGee, it’s the corrupting force of modernization. To Philip Marlowe it’s the crooked cops and crooked dames and whole damn crooked world—the mean streets themselves.
No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh is just about as perfect a villain as anyone could imagine, yet when you read the novel, you come away with this unsettling sense that he isn’t simply a terrible human being but a clonal incarnation of the unforgiving West Texas desert landscape.
In the nineteenth century, some bright social theorists postulated the Great Man theory of history. Heroes emerged from time to time, so they said, individuals of exceptional virtue who singlehandedly shaped the course of human events. Others argued that this idea was naïve and simplistic. Great men, the critics said (and yes, it was always men in these theories), were simply the products of their time. Call it the Great Societies theory.
That debate might make for great biographies and histories, but it’s lousy crime fiction. The Great Man and Great Society theories both describe some abstract place and time, not the world where we lost our job, had our hearts broken, and our best friend was killed by a car driven by a teenager who hadn’t yet worked out how to tame a six-pack.
We don’t live in a world of Great Men or Great Societies. We live in a world of Ordinary Men and Broken Societies.
Crime writing taught me how to fall in love with that world. Maybe even helps me live in it.
Sunny Side Up in a Dark World
The strange thing for me in all this is that I have by nature a sunny disposition. I do live by those positive-thinking mantras. To me, the world is a benign place—dangerous, yes, but ultimately generous. That’s my bias.
And yet the tragedies are there, the brokenness undeniable. So how do you reconcile those two perspectives?
You could turn a blind eye to the world’s evils—snap off the TV at the first hint of yet another school shooting, clap your hands over your ears at news of deceit and betrayal. Refuse to acknowledge others’ pain (or even your own), stay relentlessly, intolerably positive. Or you could give in to the bad news, let your worldview tilt toward cynicism and negativity. And then? Well, “that which you focus on increases.”
Or you can find a way to live with the paradox.
You can build a worldview that helps you reconcile the contradiction of being an eternal optimist in a fallen world—and perhaps, in so doing, bring a measure of redemption to the broken.
That, I think, may be what crime writing does, and why we write it.
Brandon and I finally wrote that book, the one about the serial killer on the aircraft carrier. Nearly finished writing the sequel, in fact, and will write more after that. But I’m still writing those kinder, gentler parables, too, though they feel more colored all the time by the pathos of real-world humanity and the suffering that comes with it.
Hell, who knows. Maybe I’ll wind up penning another fable and title it, Who Killed My Cheese?