Thursday, January 14, 2010

Violence Is Golden

When I started writing again, both teachers and theater rats asked me the same question:

“But why crime?”

Let me give you the long answer first.

People fascinate me.

We all want something really badly.  Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s that new iPod.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is what you’ll give up for it.  You have to give up something to get something.  That’s how it works.  If it means working for hours at a job you don’t really like, or cleaning up your language and remembering her birthday and learning to open doors so she can walk through first, that’s one thing.

When you fudge that simple rule and take a shortcut, like robbing a bank or killing her current boyfriend, that’s another.  The shortcut may get you there faster, but the consequences come up thick and fast, too, and how are you going to avoid them?  You have to take another, bigger shortcut, and then you’ve got…

That’s where I come in.

It doesn’t matter whether you read Thomas Hardy or the Hardy Boys. People want, and their desire will drive them over that seductive little line while we sit back and watch.  Crime writing has been with us from the very beginning when Cain killed Abel or Zeus overthrew Kronos.  But innocence isn’t lack of evil, it’s lack of knowledge of evil, so until we can make a choice (Hey, Adam, want a piece?), it doesn’t count.

Crime writing counts.

Crime writing examines people who want something too much and explores what happens when they pick Door Number Three.  We’ve all been an eyelash away from doing it ourselves, and maybe we even envy those people—the guy who gets away with ten million dollars or buries the body so he can be with Alotta Libido—don’t we?  Just a little?  Sure we do.

You’re never quite as alive as when you’ve got a problem and the clock is ticking.  That’s why we bet on the Super Bowl.  Then the clock runs out and so do the shortcuts.


We need the Good Guy, too. After all, someone has to clean off the fan and put the furniture back.  We still want to believe someone else can fix it.  That’s where the cop, little old lady with cats, or curious neighbor comes in, to restore order and make sure everyone gets what he deserves.  We need the world to make sense, and crime writing invokes reason and logic.

Joyce Carol Oates has said that, in some form or another, everything she writes is crime fiction.  She’s not alone.  Lord Jim, Beloved, Oedipus The King, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, Macbeth, The Brothers Karamazov, Pride And Prejudice, Native Son, Our Mutual Friend, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, Sanctuary, Madame Bovary, and To Kill A Mockingbird all have a crime at their core.  And they barely chip enough off the literary iceberg to cool your cocktail.

My latest published story sees the world through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy meeting his divorced dad’s new girlfriend and her daughter for the first time.  He’s jealous.  Stuff happens.

But why crime?

Well, you’ve heard the long answer.

The short answer?

It’s fun.


  1. I've often felt exactly as you described without being able to put it coherently together like you have here. Almost every book I've ever read has had some sort of crime or wrong doing at it's core - it is the basest need of what motivates so many people and you addressed it very well.

  2. Bravo, Steve! YES, that's what I love about the genre too! Every great story is a mystery at its core. Excellent way to explain it. By the way, when you mentioned your story about the 8-year-old, it vaguely reminded me of a bestseller that came out a few years ago, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime, which also was a mystery told from a child's viewpoint. (Except it as wasn't marketed as a mystery.)

  3. Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed your post today! I'm not a straight-mystery reader myself (admittedly I nead a strong romance plot that engages my girlish fantasies), but your "long answer" completely intrigued me. I never thought of things in quite that way. People fascinate me as well (which was why being a lifeguard when I was younger was the perfect job. What was that? Get PAID to watch people? Absolutely!), but I find their relationships - whether romantic, friendly, indifferent or worse - to be what fascinates me.

    However, I do enjoy a great crime/mystery aspect as well. And as C.J. pointed out, they can usually be found at the core of almost any genre we read - romance included. Thanks again for a great post and an entertaining look into your reasons for your preferred genre. :)

  4. Wow, now that's going in-depth and it wasn't boring like my post. I like how you used examples and even quoted Joyce Carol Oates. You made your points and you qualified them.

    Maybe that's why I have more podcasts of old-time radio mysterious on my iTunes than even science fiction.

  5. Oh how we all like to see justice in the end, unless of course we're the criminal. Although I do have to admit I enjoy seeing the bad guy get away it every now and then, only to return to wreak havoc on another group of victims. Also love a good white collar crime novel like Grisham weaves, where the perpetrators take years to exploit and steal from the public. But then again, we call that business. ;-)

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  7. [...] or three genres crossing into all the bestsellers.  I think Steve explained it best in his post on why he writes crime.  Every story has a puzzle behind it, or it wouldn’t be worth [...]