Monday, December 2, 2013

Reflections on the Crime Story

I met Mike Welch in Marion Roach Smith’s Memoir class at the Troy Arts Center. He’s well on his way to finishing his, which, I bet, will give James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan a run for the money; Mike is that good. I thought it might be refreshing to hear a ‘literary’ writer’s take on what makes good crime fiction tick.

Mike Welch lives and writes in Albany, NY. He regrets that the adjective "aspiring" must modify the word writer, for him, at this time. He grew up on Long Island, and attended SUNY schools at both Binghamton and Albany. He received a Masters in English Literature from Albany in 1997. It proved so useful that he now works for the State of NY, in a well-paying but basically soul-destroying job. Writing, he says, keeps him sane.

Robert Knightly

Consider this bit of idiocy from that French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau:

Men in a state of nature do not know good and evil, but their independence, along with "the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice", keep them from doing ill (A Discourse..., 71-73).

What a crock. Anyone who went to the Catholic School I did knows that human nature is a wildly psychedelic mural of the seven sins, both deadly and cardinal. The kids at St Francis de Sales were a collection of sociopathic misfits destined for lives as hitmen or, even worse, financial advisers, and the nuns, well the nuns were even worse. Anyone with a history of intimate contact with nuns (well, not intimate in that one sense you are thinking of, but you know what I mean) has the scars, both physical and psychological, to prove this. And when was man ever not social? I mean, even Spock had to mate every seven years, and those pyramids and Stonehenge did not get built by some solitary guy with peaceful passions and an ignorance of vice. Sure, when the ball game is on you don't really feel like talking, and unless you are a chick, you don't need company to go to the bathroom, but surely we must have always had to band together to fend off lions and tigers and bears, and that other pack animal, the wolf. Sure, now these creatures are no real threat, unless undercooked, but there are Papparazzi. Yes, we band together around the fire and peer into the darkness hoping not to see a pair of eyes staring back at us. It's like the running of the Bulls in Pamplona—you do it with a bunch of other dopes in the hopes that someone else will be the sorry bastard that gets gored.

OK, so what does this have to do with crime fiction?

Well, crime fiction, like all literature, is partly an exploration of human nature. Freud was a guy who knew about human nature. It's at odds with civilization, to be sure. We are a bunch of murderous, proud, lusful, coveting, takers of the Lord's name in vain, and he knew it. And you know it too. And most of all, crime fiction writers know it.

That's right. Crime fiction writers. We're fascinated with the guy who goes beyond the pale, who goes off the reservation, and yet we want to be protected from him, too. We experience this conflict vicariously through crime fiction. It is these two opposed desires—let's say the golden rule and the rule of fang and claw—that form the basis for the suspense in crime fiction. Will Raskalnikov get away with it. Will Macbeth? Will Tony Soprano get whacked?

And this tension exists within the characters themselves. Walter White, in Breaking Bad, tells himself he is doing it all for his family, and yet, in the last episode, he tells his wife, finally, "OK, I did it for myself. It made me feel alive." Al Pacino, in the Godfather III, says "I try to get out, but they pull me back in." Is that true, Al, or is it your own corrupt nature, or just human nature, that does this? And we form different societies that call for our allegiance, and these groups conflict with each other. The Yakuza, the Medellin Cartel, the Mob, the IRA, the Hell's Angels, all these groups call at once for strict adherence to their codes as well as flagrant transgression of the code of the larger society within which each one exists.

And what of the family? There is some Tobias Wolf story where a kid gets lost in the workings of a drawbridge. The drawbridge keeper (is there a name for a guy who raises and lowers the drawbridge, a weird name like collier, who performs a job I can never remember) can keep the drawbridge down and let the oncoming boat crash, killing all aboard, and go search for the kid, who will surely be crushed by the gears, the mill of justice grinding exceedingly fine indeed, if he does not. If you're like me, and like most people, no matter what kind of citizen you are, you're a better sibling or parent. And you let the boat crash.

So, all the cops are criminals, and all the sinners saints. And the trend in crime fiction, I think as a layperson, one who has never written a crime novel and who has read too few of them, is towards the transgressive hero. The anti-hero. No, anti-hero is too mild. Perhaps the super anti-hero. Hannibal Lecter is a cannibal, for god's sake, and eating people is the most anti-social thing you can do, worse than farting in a crowded elevator, or taking twelve items on the 10 item check out line at the supermarket. And yet he is charming, and urbane, and hates those who have bad manners, manners, which, in some sense, are the ultimate kind of consideration for others. And yes, Michael Chiklis, on The Shield, truly starts to resemble those he is supposed to be pursuing (be careful when hunting monsters, lest you become one).

And the ultimate punishment for these guys, I think, is their isolation. Even if they do not get caught. You can't rest peacefully in the bosom of society if you have violated it. No, you suffer from isolation and guilt and the fear that the other guy may be as without principle as you. At the end of the series, Tony Soprano has already killed his cousin and nephew, and has considered chopping up his best friend and throwing him over the side of a fishing boat. Walter White has let the girlfriend of his spiritual son drown in her own vomit as he stood by.

And yet both men love their families and have moments of great compassion. Both are ruthless and yet capable of kindness and generosity. EM Forster talked of flat and round characters—with the round ones being more fully developed, and capable of contradiction. Both these are certainly so. As is Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, but he sees the line and does not cross it. Surely some of his detecting methods are extra-legal, and yet, when faced with choosing between a beautiful woman and avenging the partner he never liked in the first place, he chooses the partner: "When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it." Spade, I would argue, is an old style hard-boiled detective, one who doesn't go over the line (like Michael Chiklis does in The Shield).

And so, this is what I would ask of crime fiction—give me characters that stand on the bleak and windswept borderland between society and lawlessness, right at the pale we all wish sometimes to go beyond, and make him conflicted enough about what to do to hesitate before he decides which side he or she wants to be on.

© 2013 Mike Welch


  1. That line of a well-known poet... " After all's said and after all's done, what should I be but a harlot and a nun!" I find it easier to write my horrible psychopathic villains than my goodmen heroes...! Thelma Straw in Manhattan, who looks like a nice lady!

  2. Compassion and cruelty, virtue and sin. I'm reminded of this quote from Heinrich Heine: “One must, it is true, forgive one's enemies -- but not before they have been hanged.”

  3. Nicely written.
    Show the character sane and sometimes mundane.
    Show macabre and all can relate.