Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Approaching the Material

John McFetridge

A long time ago I read a true crime book about some kids who killed one of their group and the “brilliant” detective who tracked down them and brought them to justice.

But as I read the book I couldn’t help but feel there was a much bigger story here not being told – these kids had been abandonded by their poor, uneducated parents, they’d been living pretty much on their own in squats and on the street and then an older version of themselves showed up with drugs and some vague ideas about Satanism. He got them into prostitution, the paranoia increased and eventually they killed one of their group.

Frankly it didn’t seem like it took much detecting to catch the kids and then dumping them in prison didn’t seem like much justice. But the book was written as though the detective was tracking Ted Bundy or Pablo Escobar.

I think it was reading crime fiction that tipped me to this idea that there was more going on, that the characters weren’t simply “brilliant cop” and “evil murderer.”

And it made me think about the way crime fiction approaches the material, the context and the effects we’re after as writers. Different writers would look at that material and see entirely different stories. We can write about the cops, we can write about the bad guys, we can write about innocent people caught in the middle and about innocent people who take up one side or the other.

Maybe it was Elmore Leonard’s Swag that first got me thinking past the first paragraph of those newspaper stories that said things like, “Grocery Store Robbed, Shots Fired,” and got me wondering who would rob a grocery store? Where they go after that? How would they get caught?

And that was probably the book that first showed me that crime fiction didn't have to have a detectibve (cop or private eye) as the main character.

So, which crime fictions writers have influenced the way you see crime and justice?


Paul D Brazill said...

I read Swag & Stick after reading a New Musical Express interview with Mr L in the 80's. I'd never really bothered with crime fiction but the interview -by Charlie Murray- was great.

What grabbed me in was that I 'recognised' the people in the books . The way they acted seemed familiar.

Now, these were stories set in a part of the world that I only knew of from films & TV but there was so much going on with the people- the way they spoke, the jokes that THEY made -not the writer.

There was a world bigger than the plots...

I usually find True Crime stories depressing, maybe because they don't always give us a world bigger than the plots?

John McFetridge said...

Yes, I think you may be right, Paul, a world bigger than the plots is what's often missing.

I've always liked the, "life and times," approach, the ones with context.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Daniel Woodrell for the depth of character and atmosphere. Charles Willeford for the humor in the Hoke Mosley books. The ability to make a book truly funny is so rare, especially coupled with crime. Margaret Millar for her psychological depth. Just a few.

Dana King said...

Like many, Elmore Leonard for providing a criminal's point of view. Also Ed McBain, for showing so well that they aren't "brilliant" detectives, mostly just guys doing a relatively thankless job well.

The only true crime books I read are those--like Connie Fletcher's--that cover a broad range of crime and enforcement experiences. As Paul said so well, focusing the whole book on a single crime leaves out the rest of the world.

Scott D. Parker said...

The irony of crime fiction for me is that it sometimes makes me long for something I never knew. Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos were the two authors who opened my eyes to what crime fiction can be. But I never lived the lives of their characters. I have a nice, suburban life here in Houston, away from the bulk of the bad stuff.

As to Paul's point about "a world bigger than plots," I'm okay with both kinds of stories. I like the thriller plot that only shows us what we need to solve the puzzle. I also like the smaller stories that give breath to a wider world. One of the neat little scenes in Pelecanos's Drama City was when the protagonist (forgot his name) walks past Derek Strange's (protag from another set of stories) office. Made you realize it was all the same world, bumping into each other.

Dana King said...

I haven't read DRAMA CITY, but I know what you mean. I've seen that happen in other books and I love the connectedness it brings. I'd love a chance to write a series that doesn't look like a series, but bumps into the author's previous worlds, maybe has some crossover.

Mike Dennis said...

Jim Thompson did it for me. By getting deep inside the criminal mind, he showed crime fiction from an entirely different, and terrifying, angle.

James Ellroy's LA Quartet was a milestone for me, also. The cops were more or less the central characters, but of course, they were really no different than the so-called "bad guys".

And by the way, John, SWAG is a great novel. I wrote a review on it a couple of weeks ago that appeared on the Rap Sheet (