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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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Right now, thousands are gathering in St. Petersburg, Florida, also known as the Venice of Central Gulf Coast Florida, for Bouchercon, the biggest mystery conference in the United States (named after critic and crime writer Anthony Boucher, who helped found the Mystery Writers of America). As the conference approaches, we asked the nominees for the Anthony Awards, for their thoughts on the state of the genre, including nominees for the newly introduced Bill Crider Award for Best Novel in a Series, named for a beloved figure in the mystery community who died late last year. What follows is a wide-ranging conversation on the past, crime writing and mystery fiction today
For this conversation, we assembled interview answers from the following nominees for the Anthony Awards:
Susanna Calkins—Nominated for Best Short Story
Joe Clifford—Nominated for Best Novel in a Series and Best Anthology
Martin Edwards—Best Critical/Nonfiction Work
Jane Harper—Nominated for Best First Novel
Kellye Garrett—Nominated for Best First Novel
Barb Goffman—Nominated for Best Short Story
Debra A. Goldstein—Nominated for best Short Story
Attica Locke—Nominated for Best Novel
Jess Lourey—Best Critical/Nonfiction Work
Nadine Nettmann—Nominated for Best Paperback Original
Louise Penny—Nominated for Best Novel
Thomas Pluck—Nominated for Best Paperback Original
Alex Segura—Nominated for the Bill Crider Award for Best Novel in a Series
Art Taylor—Nominated for Best Short Story
James W. Ziskin—Nominated for Best Paperback Original
CrimeReads: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the crime fiction world today?
Jess Lourey: Bringing in more diverse voices to enrich this community that I love.
Alex Segura: I don’t think it’s an issue, per se, but I do think it’s something we should all be mindful of—crime fiction is, in my opinion, the purest form of fiction. At its best, crime fiction reflects the world as it is—warts and all. It shows us the dark corners of our world and the glimmers of hope that keep us going. The goal is to do that while still telling a rip-roaring story that keeps readers engaged and excited. But we have to make sure people eat their vegetables, you know? Not every writer should feel a weighty responsibility to give a lengthy social dissertation when they’re just trying to tell a fun story, but we should strive to show the world in an honest way, because for my money, the best crime fiction is also the best kind of social, cultural commentary—it gives readers a peek at the world beyond their window, and the problems we’re all facing together. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.
“It’s important that authors of color writing mystery feel truly embraced by the mystery community and that it is a truly inclusive space. Because it’s not enough to just publish diverse authors, it’s just as important to keep publishing them so we have careers as long and as fruitful as our peers.”—Kellye Garrett
Thomas Pluck: Lack of diversity in voices, race first then classwise. There’s a white middle class aesthetic in the genre, where criminals must be punished. It’s a fetish in that demographic. I read one well-regarded book set in New Orleans where the “happy ending” was sending a black teen to prison for killing a pedophile who molested him, because a cop says they will “watch out for him.” What ridiculous privilege it takes to think that that kid would be “okay”. Louisiana is still a notoriously corrupt and systemically racist institution of law enforcement that doesn’t even fund its public defenders office, and skims 30% of fines to fund law enforcement operations. I threw the book across the room. Is the Hayes Code still being enforced? If you read the news, we have a crisis within law enforcement. Prosecutors withholding evidence. Unarmed black people shot for daring to live in neighborhoods where panicky white gentrifiers moved in. A police chief in New Jersey, head of the Palisades Parkway patrol, who rewarded his officers for hitting ticket quotas, was stung by the FBI for buying cocaine over the internet. Cities fund their coffers with fines on people too poor to afford legal counsel or call a politician with the juice to get it fixed. If we’re not acknowledging that, if we ignore it and pretend we live in an episode of Law and Order, we are complicit. If you want to write about the clean hero or heroine, they better be Serpico or they are perpetuating this. For every good cop who says they hate bad cops—and my father was a cop fired for stealing—who did you turn in to Internal Affairs? If you’re retired, write about it honestly. Tell us how to fix it.
CrimeReads: How do you think crime fiction has changed since the time you started writing it?
Attica Locke: There is an acknowledgment that women are ruling the genre.
Louise Penny: I’m not really sure it’s changed, but what I think has evolved (but has much further to go) is the perception that crime fiction can be both entertaining and literary. That while a genre it is not a ghetto.
“There is an acknowledgment that women are ruling the genre.”—Attica Locke
Barb Goffman: When I started writing crime fiction nearly twenty years ago, self-publishing had a stigma, so most authors I knew aimed for traditional publication. Now with the stigma gone, a lot of authors are choosing to self-publish their new books (or republish their old books). You don’t have to follow the rigid path of find an agent, then have the agent find a publisher, and then get your book published. You can hire your own editor and cover designer and get your book out there to readers yourself without having to prove yourself to a middleman. That’s wonderful because it opens the door to the public being able to access some stories that otherwise wouldn’t be published. But the other side of the coin is that there are so many books being published these days, it can be hard for any book to get noticed in the marketplace, especially a book by a new author (which is one reason why traditional publication still has merit; publishers can get you into bookstores.) Overall, as an author, I’d rather have more avenues open than fewer. And as a reader, I’d rather have the problem of too many books to choose from than too few.
Jane Harper: My first novel, The Dry, was only published in 2017 in the US, so fairly recently. But since then, I have been delighted to see a growing appetite around the world for Australian fiction. I hope this continues and many more international readers discover the many wonderful stories being told by Australian authors.
CrimeReads: Are there any essential elements that a crime novel must have? Or no rules?
Jess Lourey: When I was discussing genre and tropes with my friend, the writer Mathew Clemens, he said something that’s really stuck with me. “There are two kinds of books,” he said. “Good books and bad books. The rest is marketing.” While I agree 100% with his point, I look for both mystery and momentum in my crime fiction.
Art Taylor: Part of the beauty of crime fiction is how wide a territory it covers. We may think of certain subgenres as having rules—go back to the rules of the fair play mystery as laid out (a little tongue in cheek) by the Detection Club or S.S. Van Dine or Monsignor Ronal A. Knox—but the crime novel in general seems to be boundless in the opportunities it offers writers to experiment with plot and structure and style. On a panel once where we were talking about rules, someone said that the only rule is that you must have a crime, but there are exceptions even to that rule! Going back to Stanley Ellin above, my favorite story by him—“The Moment of Decision”—stops right before the point at which any crime might take place, and even then there’s no certainty about what might happen after the story’s final words.
Barb Goffman: What I think is essential for all novels, not just crime novels, is to entertain the reader. Keep the reader invested in the story. You want the reader to enjoy the book or story so much that he doesn’t realize he’s turning pages. You don’t want the reader to find something that is not believable or is distracting so she’s pulled out of the story, be it sloppy police procedure or too many coincidences or things that don’t make sense. You want to create characters the reader will want to stick with. I don’t think a main character has to be someone the reader loves, but the character should be interesting enough that the reader will want to hang out with him or her for 300 pages. And endings: I think they need to be satisfying. In crime fiction, often that involves justice being served, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to live happily ever after. Overall, write a book you as a reader would enjoy. Writers foremost are readers, so we should know what works and what doesn’t.
Louise Penny: No rules. The readers will decide what works, but let’s not limit ourselves or others. This is a dynamic, vibrant, growing literary field, and experimentation must be allowed. We must try and fail, and learn and grow. And be open to new things.
James W. Ziskin: I think traditional mysteries need some rules. Playing fair with the reader, for instance. But crime fiction that doesn’t fit the whodunnit category should be wide open. A free-for-all with no holds barred.
CrimeReads: If crime novels get a bad rap for one thing, it’s ________________. What’s the truth?
Louise Penny: If crime novels get a bad rap for one things, it’s that they are formulaic. What’s the truth? The truth is most crime novels are anything but. The key, the challenge, is to understand the structure and then transcend it. Great crime novels are no more formulaic than haiku. No one would dare say to a haiku master that one day, if they’re very good, they’ll be able to write a real poem? Or say to Shakespeare that if he were really any good he’d break free of that silly sonnet format and write free form. No. The structure of a crime novel, if there even is one, is the starting point – a launch pad not a prison.
James W. Ziskin: If crime novels get a bad rap for one thing, it’s for being crime novels in the first place. I have no patience for snobs who don’t recognize the most basic and essential elements of the human condition in our genre. What’s more compelling than life and death? Crime and punishment? What’s the truth? The truth is that crime fiction is the most nimble and ever-evolving genre there is.
Art Taylor: …that plot trumps prose. But the truth is that the best crime fiction can hold its own beside the best of what others might call literary fiction in terms of stylish and elegant prose, and some of the best crime novels today boast not only sharp plotting but even sharper writing: think Megan Abbott, Tana French, Laura Lippman, Louise Penny, and…. well, the list could go on and on.
Barb Goffman: If crime novels get a bad rap for one things, it’s that they are trite/not real literature. What’s the truth? Some of the very best books published these days are crime novels. They have well thought-out plots, three-dimensional characters, and address important themes and issues. One annoying thing you sometimes hear is that a certain author has “descended the genre” by writing a great book. These days, I think most crime novels are great books. That IS the genre.
CrimeReads: When a casual acquaintance tells you they have a great idea for a crime novel, you _________.
Louise Penny: When a casual acquaintance tells you they have a great idea for a crime novel, you try not to dismiss it out of hand, but actually listen. In case. You never know where great ideas come from. And sometimes it’s not so much the plot that they describe, but one of the people involved that grabs me.
Jane Harper: Encourage them to write it! There is always room in the world for a great book and you never know what story is going to capture the imagination of readers and booksellers.
“When a casual acquaintance tells you they have a great idea for a crime novel, you try not to dismiss it out of hand, but actually listen. In case. You never know where great ideas come from.”—Louise Penny
Susanna Calkins: Immediately say “Tell me all about your idea! How about I write it and then we’ll split the profits, because it will surely be a bestseller!” Ha, I kid. I listen politely and say, “You should write that book!” And then if they really are interested in writing, I’ll say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about it!” I love talking to aspiring writers about their dreams and ambitions.
Attica Locke: …Think to myself, “I can’t wait for you to write it.”
Alex Segura: I know the instinct is to groan about stuff like this, but I try to think back to my own behavior before I became an actual, published author. You almost have to convince yourself you can do it, so you talk to people about it. At least that’s what I did, until I was ready to put pen to paper. So, when the question or comment comes up, I do my best to humor the conversation and emphasize that the idea is but just the first step of a long, marathon-like path with lots and lots of detours. If they’re up for that kind of journey, great. If not—then maybe try something else?
Debra A. Goldstein: Contemplate committing murder, look over the person’s shoulder and say “hello” to someone behind the individual, consider accidentally spilling the drink in my hand, talk over the person, or pivot and run.
Art Taylor: ….steal the idea and then plot the acquaintance’s demise. (We are crime writers after all….)
Joe Clifford: Cringe. It’s awful, I know. But the more I write, the more jaded I get. And it’s not that I have no faith in the average person’s ability to write. I do have faith. I just know, from experience, chances are they are going to make the same mistakes we all make. Most people, for whatever reason, think writing a book is easy. It’s on a bucket list. “I’m going to hike a mountain!” “I’m going to take cooking classes!” “I’m going to write a novel!” Not saying writing a book is like surgery. But it is a craft, and like anything worthwhile, you have to put in the time if you hope to do it well. Rarely do we stick the landing the first time.
James W. Ziskin: I stare unblinkingly with a pasted-on, frozen smile worthy of a synchronized swimmer and say, “Oh, wow. That’s nice. You should definitely write that.”
Nadine Nettmann: I tell them to write it. If they do a page a day, in a year they’ll have a book. If they suggest I should write it for them, I say the truth, that I have my own ideas, but again encourage them to write it themselves.
CrimeReads: Is there a book you wish you had written?
Joe Clifford: Besides Catcher in the Rye? Anything by those authors I mentioned above. If I have to pick one (or two): Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are, to me, flawless.
Art Taylor: Tana French’s In the Woods—even more impressive each time I reread it.
Martin Edwards: Quite a few! But if I have to choose one, it would be A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine.
Debra A. Goldstein: As a child, I borrowed books from my aunt’s personal library. When I came across one called Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don’t (Marjorie K. Osterman), I had to read it because of its title—it had words in it that I wasn’t allowed to say. The book, which tells the story of a Jewish merchant dynasty spanning from the Civil War until World War II, intrigued me. Maybe it was the title, but I like to think even the first time I read it, it was Osterman’s use of dialogue, excellent characterizations, and the ability to realistically capture the emotions and behavior of a family that engaged me. Over the years, I’ve reread the book often. Each time, I’ve wished I could write with her clarity and beauty.
Jane Harper: Lots of them! Most recently, AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window. I’ve read it several times now, and can’t help but shake my head in admiration at the novel’s watertight structure, and the way he delivers the story with such painstaking elegance.
Nadine Nettmann: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. I was grabbed by the first page with the hook and the tension, and then the story went seamlessly back and forth between past and present as it slowly unraveled the details. I thought it was brilliant and read it again shortly after finishing it.
Thomas Pluck: The latest is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. Before that, Blood Always Tells by Hilary Davidson. Both excellent examples of outlaw fiction, where the character operates in reality and not the fantasy we agree upon. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott is so great that I can’t even imagine myself having written it. She captures the struggle of being a smart child born into a desperate family perfectly.