Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Stories Matter. And never give a sucker an even break...

Sometimes I wonder about the point of writing stories when there are so many, and mine are unlikely to be remembered a few years from now, and much less likely to stand any test of time. That sort of thinking leads to madness. However, we can take heart in the fact that crime stories matter, for good and bad.

Lately, mostly for bad. The big wake-up call was when the idiot President blathered plot points from Sicario: Day of the Soldado as reality in his useless crusade to build a wall on the U.S. southern border, a technology that didn't work thousands of years ago when China tried it against actual invaders. Every scrap of cloth found along the border became a "jihadi prayer rug" to scare the ignorant, when his drug-war scares stop working. Migrants don't bring drugs. Semi truck trailers do. To quote Don Winslow, one crosses into the U.S. from Tijuana legally every 15 seconds. I used to work for a shipping terminal, and one of our vendors was a security firm that you can thank for the red light cameras that scan every license plate so the police state can run your license and pull you over with probable cause, fund local town coffers, and search our car for drugs or cash to seize so they can throw a big barbecue this year. That company also made gamma ray scanners to check trains, shipping containers, and trucks for people, drugs, and explosives.

Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. The sheer volume of cargo moving back and forth over our borders is too massive to scan completely. If you've watched Breaking Bad you have an idea how difficult it is to find contraband. But Sicario 2, written by Taylor Sheridan, thought it would be a wicked cool story to suggest terrorists were coming over the toughest border crossing into the U.S. instead of using their visa from our "ally" and Trump family friend Saudi Arabia to simply fly in. Now, who cares what some badly researched movie uses as a plot point?

Well, it matters when the President is watching. Now thousands think it's truth. Never mind that toddlers with unsecured handguns have killed more Americans than terrorists have after 9/11, toddlers with guns don't sell books. Scary foreigners do. But hey, you gotta pay the rent, so go for the easy villain.

Just like we embraced the myth of the "superpredator" and gave every D.A. who liked locking up young black men a book deal, after 9/11 we gobbled up thriller fiction where swarthy foreigners with accents were coming to kill the white womens. My personal favorite predates 9/11, when Dan Brown created a Middle-Eastern assassin with a rape fetish for Angels & Demons. I'm not sure if this character also dined exclusively on live puppies, but I wouldn't doubt it. That superpredator myth exploded with books like Slow Motion Riot, which undid all the humanity given to kids lured into gang life in books like Clockers.

Needless to say, lazy writers have always used mental illness, child abuse, drug use, and foster parenting to justify why their villain likes to eat puppies. Make sure they are poor and lust after the middle class protagonist's perfect home, to seal the deal. (And only working class men hit their kids or their wives, because they wear stained "wifebeater" shirts)

So remember, if a suburban white kid uses drugs or falls in "with a bad element," make sure it's the kid who got into their school on a scholarship from a working class background. As I write this, I overheard a story about a young white boy from an affluent family who supplements his allowance by selling Juul weed vape pens. He must have gotten them from his friend on the basketball team who's there on a scholarship, right? He can't be leveraging his privilege to be overlooked, like the total non-genius Ted Bundy did.

This isn't to say that crime is not often driven by desperation, or that the less affluent are saints and salt of the earth, that's another stereotype we were fed by stories.

So when you come up with that great plot twist where OMG the killer is trans or was in foster care as a child so they are angry and want to kill Sweet Polly Purebred, single white lawyer, maybe don't.

How does this tripe get published? Publishing is largely white and homogeneous, sheltered summer camp kids all growed up and easily fooled. There are exceptions who prove the rule, of course, and there are plenty of good people in the business, just like there are great cops and honorable mechanics.

If you don't believe me, read this scathing "profile" of Daniel Mallory, con man extraordinaire, who bluffed his way into an executive editorial position, and got his employer to bid seven figures for The Woman in the Window--yes, Mallory is "A.J. Finn sounds like Gillian Flynn LOL"--which seems to have been copied, not kidding, from a '90s suspense film called.... COPYCAT. I mean, brass clanging balls on this guy, but how did he get that far? Yes, he leveraged his privilege to get everything he wanted, used Tom Ripley as a model, and was the grandson of a media executive at RKO General, but have these people never smelled bullshit?

The story begs belief. I mean, we've all known a fraud or two, people who get a newsworthy chronic disease whenever they need to defend against their feckless behavior, but Mallory was particularly egregious and knew exactly how to fool people of his class. Say you have a doctorate from Oxford and talk in a faux British accent because you spent six months in London (oi, I knew one of these types, and it's not Madonna). And of course he must have an ironclad contract of some sort because he's from money, and won't have to give back a dime like the last thriller plagiarist, Q.R. Markham, aka bookseller Quentin Rowan, who used the cut & paste method to get himself a three book deal. I saw "Markham" at a book signing with two actual writers. He was a smug asshole who seriously looked like a grinning kid showing us his peepee. He made it obvious he was pulling one over, but no one noticed until after publication. He even put "mark" in his pen name!

And then there's Lee Israel, the subject of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, who forged correspondence between famous writers to pay her rent. At least she did it for the money, but there's something to be said about a community that smug con artists love to target. As the old bear joke goes, "You don't come here for the hunting, do you?"


Dana King said...

"How does this tripe get published?"

Because people buy it. We keep arguing this point like there's some vast conspiracy, but it's as simple as that.

Holly West said...

I had just had to stop in and say I love your posts, Tom.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you, Holly.