Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Award-winning Crime Novelist Charles Salzberg Strikes Again
I never planned on being a crime writer. And yet it probably turned out to be the best thing possible for my writing career, which began for me, as it did for so many other English majors, with a desire to write the Great American Novel. But I was self-aware enough to know I’d never write a great novel, one that came even close to my heroes, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth and Mailer. Instead, I was willing to settle for a good literary novel.
Although written as a one-off (in the original version Swann becomes so disillusioned he quits the business), to my surprise it was nominated for a Shamus award and when I lost I got pissed off enough to decide I’d keep writing them until I won something.
Instead, I decided to not only focus on character but also push the envelope in terms of what people might expect in a detective novel.
For instance, in the second in the series, Swann Dives In, not only are there no dead bodies but the reader isn’t quite sure what the crime is until more than half-way through the book and by the end of the book isn’t even sure a crime was committed.
Why? Because to me murder is overrated. On TV each week the viewer is assaulted with perhaps twenty to thirty murders—and in a show like The Following, there can be that many murders in a single episode. But in real life, how many of us are actually affected by murder? Sure, we read about them in the newspapers and hear about them on the television news, but for the most part, it’s not our reality. On the other hand most of experience or even commit other kinds of crimes every day, sometimes more than one. They might be petty crimes, like stealing supplies from where you work. Breaking a loved one’s heart. Cheating on a test. Lying. Misrepresentation. These crimes might not be punishable by a stint in prison, but they are crimes nonetheless. And they can be very personal crimes: crimes that might hurt us deeply.
These are the kinds of crimes I’m more interested in writing about and these are the crimes Swann is called on to solve.
Thinking back, I realize I was profoundly influenced by a 1960s television series called The Naked City. What would be called a police procedural today, there was, of course, a crime committed every week. But often these crimes did not involve murder. Instead, the show, which had “eight million” stories from which to draw, focused on character, deceit, unhappiness; on broken hearts as much as broken heads.
This is what I tried to capture in Swann’s Lake of Despair. In one case Swann is hired by a distraught fellow whose girlfriend has disappeared. His heart is broken, he feels betrayed. In another, Swann seeks to find a lost journal that might shed light on an eighty-year old death that might or might not have been murder or suicide. In the third, he’s hired to find a portfolio of lost photographs by a long since deceased photojournalist. The latter was inspired by a friend and former student of mine, Julia Scully, a wonderful writer whose second memoir in progress (her first was called Outside Passage and was published to wide acclaim), told about her life as an editor in the world of photography in the 1950s and ‘60s. Julia allowed me to ransack her life for this plotline.
And so, if you’re looking for dead bodies, you probably won’t find them in my Swann books. But then again, I love to break rules, even my own, and if it just “happens” organically in the plot, well, you never know, blood might just flow someday.
© 2014 Charles Salzberg