Why I Hate Genres

By guest blogger, David Hewson

davidhewsonsmall Back when I was young, a time of plague and much wailing, I used to spend long and happy days in libraries. I’d like to say this was a literary leaning on my part, though the absence of girlfriends and money may also have made their contribution. In the late 1960s my local library in northern England was a wondrous place, full of books all neatly divided into two principal categories. There was non-fiction, broken down into the obvious sub-divisions, such as science and philosophy, nature and art. And there were novels which, as far as I recall, had just a single section to one side  – the yellow-jacketed science fiction titles bought in for the local weirdos.

The rest was just fiction. No labels for crime or thriller, noir or mysteries. Just books all jumbled up together. The way you picked one was to ask for recommendations among the people you knew or simply flick through the covers on the shelves to see what took your fancy. This, I guess, is why I read widely, from Robert Graves to Ray Bradbury, Jung to the weirder corners of magic. The grim god of genre had not yet reached my cold little corner of the north. As readers we were free to enjoy what we pleased without wondering whether we had crossed some invisible line into the land of the damned.

The writers of the time were, I guess, free to pen whatever took their fancy too. Don’t you envy them? A little while back I heard a couple of people saying about one well-known author who’d dared to do something unexpected, ‘He’s dissing the genre’. Apparently I’ve transcended the genre too on a couple of occasions, which is good I gather, not that I care much because a part of me wants to know this: What *$@*^& genre?

Now don’t get me wrong. If you write about werewolves and vampires, distant galaxies or detectives who happen to be the pet cat of Tutankhamen, you are in a fixed and discernible category of fiction to which people can and will attach a label. The same goes for an author who chooses to set a tale in 1940s Hollywood with a private detective as the protagonist. Or maybe anyone who uses a PI as a lead character. I’m a Brit. I have never in my entire life met a private detective. We scarcely have them over here. Yet still people turn out Brit-based private eye stories as if the back streets of Peckham are just duller, rainier versions of Chandler’s LA. Why? Beats me…

Most of us – and I include the luminous regulars around here – don’t fit any such bill. We write about a world that’s near as dammit real, and that – I hope – is what gives our work its power. There is no deus ex machina, no wizard with a wand, sometimes no super hero, with or without magical powers, to get our characters out of their fix. Nor are we alone.

200px-Charles_Dickens_3 Consider this for a story. A troubled young man discovers his father was murdered by the man who went on to marry his mother (who he, the son that is, happens to find rather hot). Crime? Noir? Thriller? Or just Hamlet?

How about this one? A starving student cooks up a plan to murder a greedy old woman he regards as a parasite. The crime goes wrong and he winds up killing her half sister too after she stumbles on him mid-blow. Haunted by his increasing guilt he’s driven to confess the crime first to a prostitute, with whom he has a strangely sexless relationship, and finally to the police. When he’s sent to jail in a distant prison the prostitute follows with some hope of redemption. Dexter with a twist? No, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

200px-Robert_louis_stevenson You see the point? Genre, for most of us, is an invention, a con, a tag to make us outcasts stuck in some well-labelled siding so that people – well, literary critics anyway – don’t make the mistake of taking us seriously.

The truth is that most of the folk around here are slap bang in the mainstream of popular story-telling, writing for the most part about ordinary people in extraordinary and threatening circumstances, which is 200px-Joseph_Conradwhat authors have been doing for centuries. Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and Émile Zola are just a few of the ‘literary’ writers who produced work which, if it were new today, would be classified as crime or thriller or noir or mystery. Does that lessen the power of books like Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, The Secret Agent or Thérèse Raquin? Of course not.

Genre is an irrelevance, at best a marketing tag, at worst a straitjacket that stops people writing what they should. It’s a control freak parent screaming at you to conform when you should be rebelling. It’s a comfort blanket slyly telling you to be lazy when really you ought to stretch and feel the pain.

200px-Emile_Zola_2 The longer I spend in this business, the more difficult I find it to categorize the work of the many talented and interesting authors I encounter along the way. This is as it should be. The little library back home that first fired me with the ambition to be an author derived its power from its refusal to classify the books it contained. If it had, I wouldn’t have read as widely as I did, and I wouldn’t be writing the books I do today.

Literature’s greatest strength is its rich breadth, the fact it doesn’t adopt the dumbed-down one-size-fits-all philosophy that has taken over so much of our culture. Does that embrace sub-categories? Yes, but only when we choose to place ourselves inside classifications – horror, history, or science fiction, say – that make sense to readers and writers alike.

garden-evilFiling everyone else who writes popular fiction under the catch-all labels of crime, thriller and mystery serves no one any purpose. Next time you find yourself in a book store gravitating automatically to the shelves and names you know so well here’s a tip. Go try something else.

David Hewson’s latest book The Garden of Evil is the sixth in his Nic Costa series set in contemporary Rome, and his twelfth novel. He lives in the UK (hence the spelling) but will be at Bouchercon if anyone is still speaking to him.

Special note: Join us on Sunday, September 7, when our guest blogger will be bestselling thriller author, Alafair Burke and on Sunday, September 28 when we welcome guest blogger, Allison Brennan.

Congratulations, you didn’t win … again.

After judging a major literary contest, I can tell you fellow authors that your submission is taken seriously and considered earnestly, and that basically each is an audition for a group of very attentive and appreciative readers of good books––your fellow authorish persons. It would be wonderful if every author could win an award, feel appreciated for their literary labors, but when there’s one prize and four hundred or more entries, that’s never going to happen. The fact is that the odds are superly gynormous against just being nominated, much less winning. If you do manage to get nominated for an award you should be monstrously flattered to know that out of the hundreds of books published during the year that a handful of fellow wordsmiths agreed that yours was one of their five favorite performances. I can tell you that we judges didn’t vote for a book because we knew the author, or for something an author wrote earlier that we loved, and that makes the honor of being nominated mean so much more.

I was a judge for the best novel category for a major organization named for a dead writer and devoted to mystery authors, and if you think there’s a more difficult job for an author than judging that contest, I’ve yet to experience it. It often seems that the only people who agree with the judges’ final decision are the nominees. I seemed that the people who were the angriest and most verbal over the lack of female authors nominated, or the fact that certain kinds of books weren’t nominated, and several more complaints I can’t recall at the moment, seemed to be the authors with the books least likely to win. Face it, some authors are just supremely talented and some just are not so much. The novel any individual thinks is the best novel of the year (aside from their own) may or may not get the award, but the one by the the whiniest, most “I feel persecuted” author probably won’t. A “squeakiest wheel” award is a great idea since there’s a big a list of nominees already compiled somewhere.

In the space of a few months we judges received hundreds of submissions, and we spend every waking hour we could beg, borrow, or steal reading submitted novels. Poor us? Well, we did volunteer, and while none of us are sorry we had the experience, most of us will probably tell you we’ll never do it again. The books come in from publishers constantly, and often in something more like an avalanche of FedEx or UPS envelopes or boxes, some containing up to fifteen novels. Typically a judge reads well into each book and makes notes. I read at least twenty-five pages of every book I opened and I used those sticky arrows in colors so I could tell at a glance whether or not I loved the early pages or if I hadn’t become invested in the book by then. The submissions I loved, I read through to the end, unless somewhere past those initial engaging opening pages it began to disappoint me. We all know that a great book will draw in a reader in the first ten pages, then pullus straight through a story, and have an ending that will leave us wishing the book were longer. Some books fall apart early, and some wait until near the end to fall apart. Few books start, run their course, and then finish in such a way as to leave you awed. But when one does, the feeling is that of excitement.

I enjoyed a lot of the books I read. I loved far fewer of them, and I thought far too many were a waste of the time of innocent readers not to mention printer’s ink and paper. But of the top twenty entries (and especially the top ten) any could have won the contest and it was a matter of how they were ranked by each of the judges. The top five were on every judge’s list and those lists were compiled without the judges communicating as they made their lists. So it was as fair as fair in this life gets.

That said, I firmly believe that contests that have different kinds of books crammed in the same category (say Best Novel) is unfair from the start. Cozies, private eye mysteries, noir mysteries, romance thrillers, Western mysteries, romantic mysteries, comedy mysteries, thriller-thrillers, police procedurals, kung fu romance thrillers, and murders solved by animals, and investigators who are one-legged chiefs who, due to childhood trauma, speak only in wild-game recipes come in the same boxes. The submissions are a grand cluster-funk hodgepodge of literary shrapnel so how can any reader, or five readers, be expected to pick out a BEST novel and be fair to all of the types of books submitted? When you are opening books you get one with a cat on the cover, then one whose cover shows a man nailed to a fencepost that is on fire. Clearly they are not created to be judged in the same contest. Mystery Genre, and the piles are subgenre warfare. Unfortunately politics will keep changes from being made. That and a shortage of judges, and the tendency to cut out more categories instead of adding a few more. Can’t fix that one. One of the judges suggested that in the future and in the name of fairness the submissions might be electronic so the author’s names and even the titles could be replaced with numbers to ensure the identities would be unknown to the judges. We’ll see.

The plain truth is that judges are human. I’ll never be a cozy or mystery reader by choice, so it is unlikely that I will enjoy a cozy as much as I will a thriller. Thrillers VS cozies aren’t apples VS oranges, but more like grapefruits VS gorillas. (But there are awards out there for best cozies, just as there are for mysteries and for thrillers). MC Beaton (Marion Chesney) should not be in the same contest with Lee Child, both of whom I like as people and respect and admire as authors. Judges do the best they can. We (male and female authors) honestly didn’t care whether a book was written by a man or a woman. One of the judges (a woman author) put it this way: “It’s what’s between the covers, not between the legs.” Some of my favorite authors are females, and I think their books are every bit as well written as any by male authors. Of my favorite authors (those I read by choice) about a third are women. But this time the nominees were all men because in our subjective minds their books were the five best novels. All of them are storytelling masters whose books clearly rose to the tops of all five of the judges’ piles.

It would be great to win a prestigious award for just doing what we’re doing anyway. Most of us write for the reader’s entertainment (as well as our own) and in order to make a living doing what we love. Whether or not we win awards has no bearing on our abilities or our or our readers enjoyment and appreciation of what we give them. Most of us work knowing that we probably will not win an Edgar, ITW, or a Barry, and that’s okay. I don’t know any author who writes books with one eye looking toward winning a literary award, but I’ve never known an author to turn one down either.

A Crash Course in Empathy

by John Gilstrap

Write what you know. Good God, how many times have we heard that over the years? As if Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s pseudonym, or Lincoln Rhyme Jeffery Deaver’s. For way too many years, that write-what-you-know counsel was a real problem for me. I grew up in suburban DC, a middle class white kid with no respectable non-academic. What the hell was I supposed to write about that was, you know, interesting?

As I got a little older, I came to realize what my writing instructors really meant with that cryptic advice: you have to be convincing. Unless you’ve loved, you’ll never be able to write about it convincingly. Until you’ve had a child and you’ve surrendered that part of your soul to another human being, I don’t think you can write parental angst in a way that will convince parents who are living it. It’s not about relaying events that you know; it’s about conveying emotions that you’ve experienced.

For me empathy came early, when I joined the fire service at age 22. A recent college grad with spare time on my hands, I couldn’t think of a more engaging, exciting way to spend my time—especially since I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. (I would claim that I never hit on an ambulance patient in her weakest moment while I was there making her feel better, but that would be less than true. Hey, I was 22 and I was a pig. What can I say? I was also thin and had hair. Everybody changes with time.)

The first time I met Jason Bryant, he was sitting Indian-style in the dusty driveway of his home in that part of the Washington ’burbs that hadn’t yet shed its rural past. My most vivid memory from that summer night in 1981 is the sound of pure anguish, the guttural wail that poured from Jason’s mom, whose cigarette had triggered the fireball that consumed her little boy. He’d been siphoning gas to feed the slightly-used trail bike that had been his birthday present. Clearly afraid to touch him, she squatted at his side wailing, “I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry.” Over and over again.

When she saw me approaching with my ambulance crew, she ran to meet us, grabbing the sleeve of my uniform and pulling me along, the story of the cigarette and the fire spilling out of her as if confessing to a crime.

Jason himself was surprisingly stoic. Fully conscious, he sat with his arms out to his sides, his elbows bent. His scorched flesh hung like rotted draperies from his arms, his chest, his belly and his back. Where the meat below had not been charred black, it had been cooked to a lifeless mottled red and blue. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts when the fireball erupted. What was exposed was consumed.

His hair was gone, incinerated to a curly mat of carbon. And the stench. Oh, my God, the stench.

“You’re okay now, baby,” Mrs. Bryant said. “The ambulance is here. They’re going to make you better.” She looked straight into my brain. “You can make him better, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said; but my hesitation betrayed the lie. The truth was that I was only a kid myself and I was terrified by the horror of Jason’s injury. At that particular moment, I was as concerned about not vomiting up my dinner as I was about caring for her child. I lied because it seemed easiest. And then I went to work.

Actually, there was precious little to do. Those were the days before mobile intensive care units and medevac helicopters—when your only viable option with a critical patient was to load him into the ambulance and run like hell to the hospital. We called it “scoop and swoop.”

The only time Jason screamed was when I grabbed him under the arms, across his chest, and lifted him onto the ambulance cot. Raw agony from a teenager sounds a lot like raw agony from any other wounded animal.

A half hour later, we were done with him. We handed Jason off to the hospital staff, where for the next year or more he would endure daily tortures of a breed that only burn victims can adequately describe. Suffice to say that it involves the routine scouring of raw flesh and the stretching of fused, contracted tissue.

I went back to the firehouse, took a long shower and threw my uniform into the trash. I spent the rest of the shift in a pair of borrowed coveralls.

Two years later, we were called back to the Bryant home. We parked our ambulance among the police cars in the yard. A much older Mrs. Bryant met us at the front door, and her eyes zeroed in on me. “You were here for Jason’s accident,” she said.

I nodded, embarrassed to be recognized. The dispatcher had made it clear what we were here for, and frankly, I didn’t know what to say. As Mrs. Bryant led us through the house toward the bedrooms, I noted the pictorial shrine to a Jason I had never met: a normal, healthy, athletic teenager whose flesh was whole and flexible. I looked away.

Mrs. Bryant took us as far as the back hall, and stopped abruptly. “He’s in there,” she said, pointing. The police were finishing up the last of their pictures. In Virginia, suicide is considered a form of homicide and it is investigated accordingly.

“We can take it from here,” I said. From where I stood, I could see a revolver in a plastic evidence bag and a trace of blood spatter on the wall.

“Thank you for your kindness,” Mrs. Bryant said, gently squeezing my arm.
I gaped back at her, not trusting my voice. “He just couldn’t take it anymore,” she explained. “He used to be such a happy boy.”

I first met Jason Bryant on his sixteenth birthday. On his eighteenth, I zipped him into a body bag.

“The envelope, please…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Congrats to Ann Littlewood, commenter extraordinaire and winner of our $50 gas card prize! And now, on to today’s controversial subject…

PBO Award, we hardly knew ye…

There’s been an interesting debate recently regarding changes to next year’s Thriller Awards.

Basically, here’s the scoop: the ITW (International Thriller Writers) organization has eliminated the Paperback Original (PBO) category. Now everyone (aside from debut authors) will pit their books against each other for the Best Novel award.

I’m actually surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry. PBO is a treasured category, in that it gives writers who aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot on the bestsellers’ lists an opportunity for some recognition.

Writers and reviewers weighed in on both sides. Some claimed this was a fantastic decision, that a “Best Novel” category where only hardcovers are eligible makes the “Best PBO” look like a red-headed stepchild. It should be the content that matters, not the format, the argument goes. Which is a valid point, and one I always wondered about: why isn’t it simply, “Best Hardcover,” since nearly every other awards category is defined by format?

And many who chimed in said they trusted their fellow writers to treat the binding on submissions with a blind eye.

But just to play devil’s advocate, here are some things to consider:

  1. Bias

Allison Brennan made an interesting analogy based on her previous work in the legislature. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that when you wanted to talk to voters about the economy, you used a man as your spokesman; if you were discussing education, a woman. Because even when people think they’re completely fair-minded, there are inevitably some biases lurking in our subconscious.

There’s a chance that authors might prove to be more, not less, biased when it comes to formatting. After all, we understand how the publishing industry works. Sure, we acknowledge that there’s an arbitrary element to what kind of cover ends up on a book, and some publishers tend to favor one format over another. But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal. It’s easier to get reviews, and collectors value them more highly. Also, since the production costs are higher, there’s a chance the publisher might throw some marketing money behind the book. These are all things someone who’s spent some time in the publishing trenches knows.

The average layperson, on the other hand, has no idea what the different formats mean, they just know that certain books are more expensive. But while they wouldn’t necessarily assume that a hardcover is superior to a paperback, an author just might. Even if they don’t think they’re biased.

  1. History

I asked during the discussion if anyone could remember the last time a paperback has been nominated for a Best First Edgar (since that category traditionally pits hardcovers against paperbacks, it’s a good reference point). I was curious, having submitted my debut thriller for consideration despite the fact that in recent memory I couldn’t recall a PBO garnering a nomination (if you know of one, drop me a line). Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I ended up going through the winners of Best First Novel Edgars (and believe me, I have discovered the cure for sleeplessness—this exercise could put Ambien out of business for good).

I got all the way back to 1971 before finally drifting off. For at least the past 37 years, no paperback has ever won an Edgar for Best First Novel. Next time I can’t sleep I’ll trudge through every nominee in that category, but I suspect the story will be the same. We all want to believe our books are being judged on a level playing field. But if that’s the case, then is it really true that for the past thirty-seven years, a hardcover was always superior to every paperback submitted?

  1. Why awards matter

When I’m writing a book, the last thing on my mind is whether or not it’ll end up being nominated for an award. I doubt any author is envisioning that as they tap away at their keyboards (although I have been known on occasion to accept imaginary Grammy awards in the shower. But you should hear my singing voice in there, it’s pure Mariah Carey.)

But we can’t pretend that awards don’t matter. Even my local bookstore (which has on occasion been downright hostile to genre fiction) mounts an Edgar display every spring. Harlan Coben has credited his 1997 Best PBO Edgar Award with keeping his career afloat, in that it persuaded his publisher to stick with him in the face of declining sales.

And again, I believe that a layperson couldn’t tell you the difference between an Edgar and a Barry if their life depended on it. But if they see, “____ Award Winning Novel” on the cover, they’re more likely to select that book over another one. Hey, it won an award, it must be a good read. So eliminating a category reduces the chance that five other books might garner some attention. IMHO, that is not a good thing.

  1. Apples and Oranges

There is inevitably some randomness to award distribution. Books on the whole are subjective little beasties, after all. And depending on the composition of the judging committee, some years noir may be favored over cozies, or vice versa. And really, how do you compare the two? Does the best romantic suspense novel trump the best paranormal? How do you weigh books written in only loosely related genres against each other? There are great books produced every year, across the board, in all formats. Yet it does seem that the more “serious” books (which tend to be hardcovers) have an edge. This is precisely why the Golden Globes feature separate categories for comedy and drama; it gives the comedies a shot, when traditionally they’re overlooked.

The RWA’s RITA Awards acknowledge this issue by having separate categories for Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense, among other subgenres. And these awards are generally acknowledged to be the romance publishing industry’s highest distinction.

  1. Multiple categories dilute the significance (or “Brand,” if you will) of the award

This claim I really don’t agree with. If anything, changing which books are eligible for an award on an annual basis would seem to threaten its legitimacy far more than keeping or adding categories (not to mention being incredibly confusing for authors and publishers). For example, last year my debut thriller was not eligible in the Best First category since it was a mass market paperback. The year before (2006) it would have been in the running, and it would again this year (2008). But in 2007 it was thrown into the mix with every other paperback author, regardless of whether they were on book one or twenty. Random? Absolutely. I’m glad they reverted to a true “Best First” category, with every debut eligible regardless of format. You only get one first novel, after all.

  1. “The Thrillies”

Personally, I’m all for having your more serious “Thriller Awards,” with gravitas, pomp, and circumstance. But after handing those out, why not have a little fun? Present an alternate set of awards and call them the “Thrillies.” Give a “Best Psycho” trophy (a knife, perhaps?) for the most terrifying villain, or a “Best Sex” prize for the best sex scene (I’ll let you use your imagination when picturing the prize for that one.)
I realize that will probably never happen, but it’s fun to consider. I’ve always thought that the Thriller Awards should be to the Edgars what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars: more entertaining and light-hearted, with someone throwing up in the bathroom by the end of the show. The Golden Globes achieve that by passing out more awards, not less (and by serving copious amounts of liquor). And I
don’t think an actor has ever turned one down because they felt having more categories diminished the significance.

I love the ITW organization, and have volunteered for it because I’m such a believer in their mission and goals. But in this instance I believe they’ve made a mistake.

There are many strong and legitimate opinions on both sides of this debate, and I’d love to hear them. Plus, if anyone has a spare Grammy hanging around, I’m in the market for one…

(my imaginary Grammy)

She Spied

By Joe Moore

One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea Of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.

If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.

Or if they want to get a little X-File-ish, I send them over to Above Top Secret for some out-of-the-ordinary research. If their writing a period piece, say a western or Civil War drama, there’s always Research Unlimited.

child-julia But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book.

Then there are the times when ideas fall out of the sky and hit us on the head. That happened recently when I opened the paper and saw the headline, “Julia Child revealed as member of spy ring”. Folks, it oss don’t get much better than this. Just in case you didn’t catch it on the news, it seems that back in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created an organization called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which would become the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The job of the OSS was to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies.

So who made up the OSS? It turns out from recently revealed government documents that the 24,000 members of the OSS were one of the most eclectic group of people ever organized for intelligence gathering. Future famous members included Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, movie director John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, U.N. ambassador Author Goldberg, actress Marlene Dietrich, and the one that made me smile—TV cooking personality, Julia Child. Of course, these “spies” were OSS members long before their more famous occupations developed in later years.

child-julia1 (Small) And what did Ms. Child do as a spook? She was hired in the summer of 1942 for clerical work with the intelligence agency and later worked directly for OSS Director William Donovan. She also helped in the development of a shark repellent to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. Not quite a female James Bond, but impressive, none the less. I wonder if she ever cooked dinner for director Donovan. There’s definitely a story there somewhere.

So where can you find ideas for a story? Sometimes you just have to open the newspaper. My hat’s off to Julia Child. She did more than most of us will ever do. She spied.

Note: Join us on Sunday, August 31, when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.

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Confessions of a true-crime TV junkie

Note: Leave a comment on the blog through Wednesday to qualify for our $50 gas card prize! We’ll draw the winning name out of the hat!

I’ll admit something straight away: I’m addicted to true-crime TV shows.

My TiVo never misses a taping of America’s Most Wanted. I get a rush of adrenalin whenever host John Walsh announces the capture of another “dirt bag.” When he profiles the nasty dudes who are still at large, I study their pictures and video, trying to memorize their features. My only problem is that I actually have a lousy memory for both names and faces, so if I ever spot anyone on the lam in my hometown, which is known for its beach volleyball and beer bars, it’s possible I’ll be fingering, not an America’s Most Wanted, but an America’s Most Wasted Party Animal.

Another one of my absolute favorite shows is The First 48. The show follows homicide detectives during the critical first 48 hours of an investigation. It shows the gritty reality of their routines, and their race against time to find the suspect. The best part of the show is the interrogations. I have to admit I’m always amazed by how easily some of the bad guys confess. If I were a killer (and don’t worry, it’s not in my game plan), I’d be one of those who “lawyer up” and never say a word to the cops.

These true-crime shows fascinate me because as a mystery author, I needto know what makes both sides tick—the criminals and the crime fighters. And I’m always fascinated to learn how real homicide detectives work. What is it, exactly, that makes them able to crack a complicated case with few clues to go on?

In an attempt to find the answer, I once made a pilgrimage to Hollywood, where LAPD Chief William J. Bratton was signing a book of photos for which he had written the foreword. I bought the book, got his signature, and then waited patiently for the Q&A.

Then, I raised my hand.

“What is the major quality that distinguishes a great homicide detective?” I asked. “How are they special?”

The Chief spent a moment considering. Then he said, “The really good ones look at a room differently than you and I do. They can simply see more—the crime, the layout, and how it must have happened.”

Ah, that’s it. A different type of sight—that’s the key, according to Chief Bratton. I wonder how that special vision affects the everyday life of homicide cops. They must see less of a safety zone around the average person’s life than we do. They’re too used to seeing that zone violently assaulted. They’ve got cop’s eyes.

I’ll never be able to “see” the world exactly the way a homicide cop does. But I’ll keep trying. And that’s just one of the reasons I’m a crime show junkie.

How about you—as writers, how do you study real crimes to inform your fictional ones? Have you found any shows or sources to be particularly useful? Anything you can share with me? I’m on the prowl for my next true crime fix.

Where Evil Lurks Beneath the Sun or Picnic at Hanging Rock

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As I’m in Australia at the moment, visiting relatives and friends, I thought it was about time I discussed some home-grown Aussie mystery. If you’re thinking I’m sunning myself on the beach somewhere you’d be wrong – Melbourne is in the depths of winter so think rain and lots of it! Since I’m in the cultural capital of Australia (sucks to Sydney – you can see where my allegiances lie!) I have to talk about one of my all time favorite mysteries – Picnic at Hanging Rock.

I read the book by Joan Lindsay when I was about twelve and I was convinced it was based on a true story – the eerie mystery surrounding the fate of a party of schoolgirls who visit Hanging Rock was deliciously fraught. Then along came Peter Weir’s film and the whole ambience and sexually charged atmosphere came to the fore. There are even hints that the events in the book may have been based on events in Joan Lindsay’s own life but there has never been any record found of anything similar happening. Yet the mystery endures today, probably because it remains unsolved (although there is a missing final chapter which Lindsay wrote that apparently solves the mystery. It was excluded in the original book and, to be honest, I don’t want to even know what it says).

I’ve visited hanging rock (Mt. Diogenes) and each time I was struck by the strange energy of the place. It is located just outside Melbourne, where I grew up, and is now forever associated with those haunting few words :
“On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of schoolgirls went on a picnic to Hanging Rock. Some were never to return…”

Hanging rock is a place where anything is possible and there is a distinct evil vibe that is hard to ignore. When you climb the rock, your sense of perspective and time becomes confused. I think that’s what makes Peter Weir’s film so incredible. He captures the essence of a summer day at the turn of the last century, its drowsy, erotic overtones as well as the heady sense of foreboding – that evil of an unknown nature might have taken the girls forever.

The place itself was the most important character in the book as well as the movie. What places have inspired the same fear within you?

The Killer Inside You

Folks, we have a special treat for you today. The extremely talented and charming thriller writer Tim Maleeny has graciously joined us. Read on to discover what villainy lurks beneath his seemingly cheerful demeanor…and remember, comment to be entered in a drawing for a $50 gas card!

This past week has been dedicated to villains we love:

Con men who seduce us into parting with our life’s savings, charismatic academics who persuade us to invite them over for dinner and then eat our livers. Smiling politicians who pretend to be our neighbors and then turn out to be, well, politicians.

All variations on a theme, all creatures with an innate magnetism that draws us towards them when every rational instinct is telling us to run away. It’s no wonder the consensus among writers is that you can’t have a great story without a great villain.

So here, for your consideration, are some rules of thumb for keeping your villains suitably loathsome over time.

OK, this guy gives me the creeps, but he is kinda cool…

A lot of first-time novelists — and many bad Hollywood films — make the mistake of painting villains in two dimensions, with no redeeming or aspirational qualities. But if you think about your favorite bad guys, many of whom have already been mentioned in this killer blog by other authors, the villains are pretty damn interesting.

Often it’s their power. Darth Vader might be evil, but he sounds like James Earl Jones and can choke a guy from across the room, just by bringing his fingers together. Who doesn’t want that power the next time their boss (or spouse) berates them?

Sometimes it’s their charm. Think of Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie. Smart, funny, even likable — but still a convincing villain willing to kill scores of people just to steal some money. Now try to remember the bad guy in the second Die Hard movie, then give up immediately because it sucked. The series didn’t get back on track until they brought some personality back to the villains.

Bigger and better

It’s not only OK, it’s essential that the villain be better than your protagonist in some way — smarter, stronger, perhaps more money or charm. Or perhaps just more determined.

Lex Luthor is a lot smarter than Superman. The Joker less conflicted than Batman. Hannibal Lecter is less prone to acid reflux than Special Agent Starling.

But it’s the contrast that’s important, the juxtaposition of qualities you loathe with characteristics you wish you had. A great villain makes you hate them at a visceral level because, deep down, part of you envies them as well.

Don’t fall in love

Your antagonist is not your protagonist. Say this again like a mantra before you write another chapter.

Caveat — this isn’t about all the superb novels and films in which a flawed character follows an arc of redemption — recognizing that most great stories since The Odyssey have been about that inner quest. This is about writers who fall in love with their villains to the point that they sacrifice some of the moral repugnance needed as an essential ingredient for a memorable bad guy.

(Easy example is Hannibal Lecter in any of the titles written after Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. If those books had been written first, he wouldn’t be the icon of evil he is today.)

I want to be intrigued by your villain, but I also want to feel some self-loathing or fear at my own attraction to him.

The killer inside me is also inside you

I believe reading or writing crime fiction is cathartic. It is the literary genre driven by a moral compass that finds true North in the heart of the characters. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances making impossible choices.

Crime fiction can also reinforce a set of values shared by most people but which often aren’t politically correct. Reading Lee Child might satisfy your own personal sense of justice that’s frustrated by the countless slights and indignities of everyday life. Reacher can do the things you only imagine doing but which you know are right. Rules or no rules, he’ll see that the right thing gets done.

But another great aspect of crime fiction is that it lets you work out your inner demons, especially the ones you didn’t know were there. It’s a sidelong glance in the mirror for those of us who don’t always want to look ourselves in the eye when shaving. That’s where the villains come in.

The brilliant Patricia Highsmith demonstrated with The Talented Mr. Ripley that every character believes he or she is in the right. They might be acting out of necessity, ambition, or some twisted sense of honor, but most villains don’t see themselves as being in the wrong, not in the absolute sense. I’m protecting my family has been a great defense for everything from bank fraud to suicide bombing.

Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us is capable of doing horrible things. Great villains give you goosebumps not for what they do, but because something about them sends a frisson of recognition up your spine.

For one terrifying moment you saw yourself in them, and you felt the blood on your hands. And much to your horror and secret delight, it felt damn good.

Happy reading. See you in hell.

Special Note: Join us next Sunday, August 31 when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.

Person David Hewson
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Real-Life Villains Translate Into Great Fictional Characters

The conflict between good and evil never fails to fascinate and thrill.

I love to write villains because they’re a lot more challenging and more fun to write than good guys. Making a villain frightening is easy, but making them somehow sympathetic is always a challenge. The bad guys may or may not see themselves as evil individuals, but they all somehow justify their behavior . If I write effective villains it’s because I’ve met a few in my life and they made one heck of an impression of me.

I think you have to have tasted evil, been laid open by it to write a good villain. I first encountered evil as an impressionable youngster, and it made its impression. As with the majority of young boys my father was the ultimate good guy–a liberal Methodist minister during the Civil Rights era. No big deal except for the fact that he was a preacher in the great state of Mississippi during that time. He made a moral stand and could not be moved by outside forces. He opened his church to blacks, and even sent ushers home who couldn’t go along. “This is God’s church,“ he said. “And it is open to all of His children.“ To me, and a lot of others, he was a flesh-and-blood Atticus Finch.

Ah, Mississippi in the sixties. I have always loved Mississippi. It was my first home, but it was in those days it was a paranoid schizophrenic setting. A lot of the people in Mississippi during that time were being robbed of their long-held convictions that white people were the bomb, and black people were subhuman. The other people throughout the state knew this was a flawed theory, but the prevalent historical viewpoint, passed down by their forefathers, and largely accepted. As a small child I thought Mississippi was an idyllic world. Small towns were great places to grow up. We children wondered the neighborhoods pretty much unmolested and unaware of the evils that surrounded us due to the fact that the media hadn’t yet discovered the value of scaring the cold crap out of the populace so kids weren’t encouraged to stay in their houses and grow sedentary and fat watching TV because parents weren’t under the impression that their homes were under siege by child-abducting pedophiles.

I ran across two pedophiles before I was a teenager. One of them was a man with limited intelligence who pushed his lawnmower all over Starkville, Mississippi. He wore a yacht captain’s cap and was cross-eyed and dentally challenged. Instead of calling this man “cross-eyes,” or “Captain Briggs and Straton,” we kids called him “Goober Puller” due to the way he was always straightening his equipment with his hand as he walked about searching for tall grass. One day he stopped and asked a group of us kids if any of us might be interested in being corn-holed. According to Mr. Puller it paid a quarter. We didn’t know what he was inviting us to do, so we laughed and ran off hollering “Goober Puller! Corn Hole! Corn Hole!” That night I related the story to my father, who had me retell the story to the police. Mysteriously, after that night anytime Mr. Puller saw any of us he would turn and rush off, pushing his mower down the street at amazing speeds. The second pedophile was a man who was the music director at my father’s church. He gave several of the male boys choir members masturbation instruction in his music room. His tenure was short, he was invited to leave the state, and I suppose he modified lots of young boys in Southern California for many years afterward. These men were certainly both villains. If they weren’t truly evil men, they were certainly evil doers.

At Boy Scout camp one year, carved into an upright post along with scores of other names, I read the name of a boy along with his troop number and home town. Other scouts had pointed out the name as it was one immediately recognizable. I had heard of the young man, John Mattox, from Columbus, Mississippi, who a few years earlier had been convicted of murdering a female socialite using a coat hanger. I remember feeling chilled to think that this young boy grew up to become a murderer and he had stood in that very spot years earlier and used a pen knife to leave his signature. I doubt at that point in his life if he imagined he’d be famous and be electrocuted at Parchman.

I was in middle school the year John Kennedy was assassinated. That year things were heating up in Mississippi, and people from the north were descending on the state in droves to change the way things had worked in the state for hundreds of years. The air was crisp with racial tension, and people were choosing sides. It was about changing one very complex, but large social evil against one larger good. My father chose easily–to behave as a Christian, and his public stance put him at odds with a lot of people, some of them very dangerous individuals.
One day in 1963, I walked the few blocks to middle school, and I was in a store across the street from the school, and I was buying candy. The owner was in the back of the small store and I was at the counter. A tall, skinny man entered the store and walked straight to the counter. He asked me if my father was “Red” Miller, and I said yes. My father had red hair, so I assumed he was referring to that. At this point the man grabbed my shirt and twisted the material in has right hand and lifted me off the ground so that we were literally nose-to-nose. I can remember the smell of liquor on his breath and the hate in his eyes. “Your daddy is a nigger lover,” he told me, adding something on the order of, “Tell him we know where you Millers live and if he doesn’t shut his communist mouth we’ll be visiting your house late one night real soon.”

I remember the store’s owner rushing up and yelling at the Klansman, who set me back on the floor, left the store and got into a car with several other people. The store owner called my father, who came to the store and took me home. The store owner told the police who the man was–a known lowlife Klansman–and some time later my father told me that the man who’d assailed me had passed out with a lit cigarette in his hand and burned up in his plaid recliner. So, not only had I seen the face of evil–and smelled its breath–but I got the distinct impression that God had punished him for his evilness, which also gave me a sense of divine justice.

In 1982 I spent a day on Death Row at Angola, Louisiana photographing Death Row inmates who were in lined-up cells waiting for the executions to start up again after years of them having been stopped cold. After over a year lining up permissions from inmates, attorneys, and prison officials, I set up a formal studio with a backdrop and lights in the main hallway on “The Row.” I photographed those men wearing street clothes, and there is nothing in the pictures that lets the viewer know these men are anything but normal individuals in average circumstance, not men awaiting their scheduled deaths. There is nothing at all frightening or threatening in their eyes or their expressions that would telegraph the horrific acts that put them on Death Row. I always look at the pictures and wonder why murderous history doesn’t show through. All of the men–now long executed–looked like anybody you’d see anywhere. Normal. Not at all evil. Not at all. Killers, once in captivity seem to be extremely personable individuals.

Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers.

I Like Complex, Competent Villains

By John Gilstrap

There comes a point in most stories where the villain and the hero face off and have a Dramatic Moment with each other. As many times as not, I find that beat of the story to be the nadir of the dramatic arc. In that moment resides definitive evidence of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read some version of this: “Well, Detective Huffnagle, since I’m going to kill you anyway, there’s no reason for me not to explain all of the things that the author who created me couldn’t figure out a way to clarify more elegantly. . .”

I spent fifteen years of my life as a firefighter and EMT, cleaning up after the handiwork of killers. Figure a couple, three murders a year, and they add up over time. Never once did I process a witness report of a dramatic speech preceding the fatal blow, shot or stab wound. Real bad guys pretty much just step out of the shadows and do what they’re out to do in as lop-sided a manner as they can. They point the gun, pull the trigger, and the rest plays out at 9,000 feet per second.

In my own writing, I find that the most vexing challenge can be to find the motivation for my bad guy not to pop the good guy on sight and get it over with. Motivating him to take the shot is easy; explaining his last-minute collapse in marksmanship skill is tough. Remember that scene in Behind Enemy Lines when Lt. Burnett is sitting on the rock taking a break? Our enemy sniper has for freaking ever to zero in on his shot . . . and then he misses! WTF?! How am I supposed to respect a bad guy who’s so ridiculously incompetent?

Not to run counter to the opinions of my colleagues here on The Kill Zone, but in the creepy worlds created by Thomas Harris (one of the two greatest thriller writers of all time, in my opinion), Hannibal Lecter is a lightweight compared to Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon) or Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Those guys are ninth-degree nut jobs who don’t even realize that they’re being evil. Man, that’s scary.

The other best thriller writer of all time on my list is Frederick Forsythe, whose book, The Day of the Jackal, is The Perfect Thriller. In it, the whole villain thing becomes a bit murky–just the way I like it. On the one hand we’ve got an assassin out to murder the French president, while on the other we have state security forces who torture citizens to death in their zeal to prevent the murder from occurring. I defy you to point with one finger at the bad guy in that story.

As I write this, I think I’m deciding that maybe bad guys are over-rated, and serial killers are overdone. In the wrong hands, it becomes too easy to create a character who’s bad simply because he’s crazy. There’s no moral complexity. All else being equal, I’ll take a Dennis Lehane character any day over a serial killer: a morally-centered cop, for example, who shoots a child molester simply because he has the opportunity.

Maybe morality matters less when it feels so good.