Sunday, June 26, 2011

How Do Crime Writers Get Those Wild Ideas?

by Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Someone once asked Jonathan Kellerman, "How do you get those wild ideas? You're such a nice person."

Probably our band of brothers/sisters – Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Santlofer, Lisa Gardner, Patricia Cornwell – get the same query.

My neighborhood, Carnegie Hill, bounded by 98th and 86th Streets, Lexington and Fifth Avenues, is fairly quiet and sedate. The atmosphere is friendly, a small community. Many activities center around private schools, churches and synagogues, museums and galleries, child-rearing and dog-walking.

Stores with expensive merchandise exist beside immigrant entrepreneurs. Sidewalk traffic bustles between the major subway stops.

Charming brownstones, landmarked townhouses adjoin apartment buildings, including luxurious pre-war dwellings facing the busy and well-loved oasis of Central Park. Park Avenue is home to flowering malls in summer, lighted Christmas trees in winter.

Generally, the inhabitants are viewed as beautiful, elegant, well-off! Writers, artists, celebrities share space with Who's Whos, Social Registrants, black-robed Russian Orthodox priests, pan-handlers and once-genteel octogenarians who now feed the pigeons and rummage through the trash cans for yesterday's paper.

You might hail a cab vacated by Katie Couric, gawk at Nancy Pelosi leaving the 92 Y, or glimpse the ghost of Andrew Carnegie on East 91st Street.

A few years ago you could have sat by Ira Levin at the local barber shop on Lexington. And sensed where Rosemary's Baby came from.

But things are seldom what they seem. Not all men in embroidered vestments are saints. Not all money managers augment your retirement funds.

In Carnegie Hill a simple purse snatching sometimes escalates to dark waves of murder, death and violence.

One day a well-dressed son of a prominent U.N. official entered my secure lobby and told the doorman he was there to visit his lady dentist, a well-respected buildng resident. Later we learned his purpose was to violate, attack and maul her body like a savage beast!

One block west, in a Park Avenue complex that looks like a European fortress, an old man was fatally bludgeoned in his bed by an unknown assailant.

Two blocks south, near the world-famous 92nd Street Y, a famous surgeon returned to his landmarked town house after a Y concert, and was found battered to death, lying in the gutter beside a bloodied 2 X 4 plank.

Down my block, in a building where the Marx Brothers grew up, a young woman was raped in her front doorway by an intruder.

Across the street, a passing limo caught the purse straps of a middle-aged shopper crossing Lexington Avenue and dragged the victim several blocks to her death.

I saw my first dead body in my building. A neighbor down the hall asked me to go with her to her friend's apartment when the woman did not answer her phone. The corpse lay on the bedroom floor, grey and tan, the color of wet cement. Whenever I write of death I see that body and that color.

A serious crime writer does not forget such incidents. You may blot out the details. But the fear, the horror settles in your gut and your subconscious, waiting for that hour down the pike when you, hunched over your keyboard, search for that perfect scene.

The crime scene that might put you in the line for an Edgar, or a spot on the NYT bestseller list.

P.S. Remind me to tell you how I almost shot the sheriff with my rifle!! But that's another town, another time...

1 comment:

  1. We crime novelists just regurgitate our nightmares.