Don’t do it, we say. Don’t walk into the dark house with the busted windows. Don’t accept the ride from the cute but seedy stranger. Don’t open the door with the growling behind it. As readers, we can smell a bad decision a mile away, and yet, secretly or otherwise, we’re usually rooting for it. Why? It makes for a better story. The path with the signpost reading SELF-DESTRUCTION, THIS WAY is always more thrilling because it better allows the protagonist to show off their smarts and perseverance. There’s a catch, though: the writer must convince even the most cynical bastard of a reader (me) that the reward of making the bad decision trumps the risk. Here are some of my favorite books where characters make terrible yet totally believable decisions.
Untamed Shore, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia
There’s not much going on in the sunbaked Baja California town of Desengaño except shark-hunting and gossip. When a group of mysterious U.S. tourists drifts into town, the smart, lonely Viridiana senses danger, especially after an “accidental” death and mounting evidence that the strangers aren’t who they say they are. Still, Viridiana can’t stay away from the chilly, glamorous Daisy and the charming Gregory, a dead-ringer for the matinee idols of her dreams. Deadly and false as they are, the visitors are Viridiana’s best ticket out of her dead-end town.
The heart of the book is Viridiana’s cool, propulsive voice, a thrilling combination of knowing cynicism and youthful longing for escape. It’s impossible not to root for her as she willingly moves into the strangers’ web and eventually cuts her way out. This gorgeous noir unrolls against its menacing, sun-bleached landscape like a dream, evoking images of predation and eternity. Look for a rerelease this year.
One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
No list of bad-decision crime fiction is complete without a nod to the great-grandma of all loser amateur sleuths, Stephanie Plum. In this opening installment of the long-running series, Stephanie – jobless, carless, recently divorced and without a lick of law enforcement experience – sets out to apprehend a rogue cop accused of murder… who also happens to be an old flame. Say it with me: what could possibly go wrong?
There’s a bad decision a minute here as Stephanie trails her target through her scruffy hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, where everyone knows everyone’s business and old alliances and rivalries pop up on every street corner. It all dances right up to the line between characterization and caricature, but stands firm on the sheer strength of Evanovich’s pitch-perfect, impeccably timed voice – often imitated (by me), rarely equaled (same). A story is only as familiar as the way it’s told, and this sparkler of a novel is still fresh and hilarious thirty years later.
Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez
Warning: if you’ve read Martinez’ delightfully weird short story collection Best Worst American, you will not be adequately prepared for this bleak, gore-soaked left turn into body horror, in which Alvaro and his sister Carmen, fleeing tragedy in their native Colombia, take refuge at the run-down, malevolent Hotel Alicia in Las Vegas.
This deeply weird book is not for the faint of heart, but its most fascinating payoff comes from its subversive deadpan irony. Diligently, Alvaro brings each new problem to management. Sure, they tell him, we’ll get right on those floods of cockroaches streaming from the walls. We’ll totally help you find that housekeeper who disappeared without a trace. Pay no attention to the ghostly old man and his creepy oracular pronouncements. What emerges is a brutal satire of how corporations devour individuals, particularly those from vulnerable, traumatized populations. Even as horrors mount, Alvaro misses chance after chance to grab his sister and run. There’s always someone to rescue, something to fix, a final paycheck to collect. By the time it’s too late to leave, he understands he never really had a choice.
Out of Sight, Elmore Leonard
As a rule, Elmore Leonard’s heroes – even the criminal ones – don’t make bad decisions. They’re heroes in the classic sense: confident, quick with a gun or a quip, damn-near invincible.
This is why Out of Sight is such a delight. The worst possible thing deadly-cool federal marshal Karen Sisco and fugitive bank robber Jack Foley can do is fall for each other, considering she’s trying to haul his ass back to prison. Leonard is the undisputed master of setting up shop in his characters’ heads, compelling our full-buy-in into their most harebrained choices. It’s tremendously appealing for strong characters to show vulnerability, and the conversation in which Sisco and Foley, alone in a cocktail bar at the top of a Detroit skyscraper, admit they’re powerless to stop what’s going on between them – is heart-stopping.
The Long and Faraway Gone, Lou Berney
I’m a sucker for stories set in places most people find uninteresting (probably because I’m from such a place myself) and this haunting story of time and memory is sharpened by the shabby, open-sky grandeur of Oklahoma City. Wyatt, a private investigator, and Julianna, a nurse, are tormented by unsolved mysteries: Wyatt by his inexplicable survival of a mass shooting, and Julianna by the disappearance of her sister. When each comes across the chance for new answers to old questions, neither can turn away, even as the past grinds up their present happiness.
This is a perfect book: fast-paced and tightly-plotted, yet lyrical and sensitive. It manages my favorite feat of tonal tight-rope walking by taking its subject matter seriously, but not itself; for a book about the self-destructive pull of memory, it’s surprisingly funny. As expertly as Berney convinces us to root for Wyatt and Julianna’s parallel investigations, he also plants the nagging suspicion that they can never truly succeed; that the past, by definition, is never truly accessible.
Love and Other Criminal Behavior, Nikki Dolson
It’s right in the title: love is the engine driving the bad decisions in this collection of short, tough stories – or their victim. A jilted mistress finds an unlikely ally to her violent revenge. An exhausted boxer drags herself back into the ring so she can afford to become a mother. A dying has-been actor takes on a final, dangerous role in order to provide for his daughters. Dolson’s stories are tight and vivid, so lifelike they hurt, and her sharp, true voice weaves an interconnected landscape of loss, violence and regret stretching from the deserts of Las Vegas to the neighborhoods of Chicago. The stories rarely offer any resolution or release, but make you sit with love’s loss, and savor its bittersweet flavor.
Come Closer, by Sara Gran
Sara Gran’s crime fiction elevates bad decision-making to an art (check the amazing Claire DeWitt novels) but I’m choosing instead this short, unsettling puzzle box of a horror novel because it questions the very idea of the bad decision. What makes a decision “bad?” Who decides?
Amanda is being possessed by a demon. The signs start small: she’s smoking again; she wears lipstick a shade too bold; she tells her crappy boss exactly where to stick it. Tiny rebellions, and oddly alluring after a lifetime of doing all the “right” things. Even as the demon’s control ratchets up into violence and self-destruction and Amanda’s carefully curated life unravels, Gran dangles the uneasy question of who, exactly, is driving the bus: the demon or Amanda? Is it bondage the demon offers, or freedom? This is an exhilarating, transgressive book that faces our own dark impulses to burn it all down and start over.