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Do You Have to Be a Murderer to Write Killer Fiction?

Sep 29, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Everyone reading this column has one thing in common: we all love crime novels. The question I’d like to pose is, are the best crime novels written by those experienced in crime, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it?

Crime fiction is about murder. Do crime writers who have experienced violence write different kinds of murder mysteries than people who never have? I think so. Just like the best war novels are almost most often written by men who’ve experienced war (From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Naked and the Dead). In American fiction, as far as I know, the only great war novel ever written by a guy who had no experience in war was Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage.

My favorite crime novel, The Hoods by Harry Grey, was written by a man who was serving time for manslaughter in Sing Sing. While it is true one of the most successful books, The Godfather, was written by a man with no known ties to the Mafia, Mario Puzo was smart enough to pick up a great deal of street gossip and anecdotes from his Mafia-infused neighborhood. In addition to this, as a veteran of World War II, he witnessed much violence and corruption in postwar Berlin. Out of this came his wonderful novel The Dark Arena. Perhaps the greatest crime trilogy of the 20th century, the Studs Lonigan books, was written by James T Farrell, a guy who knew many Studs Lonigans in the poor and violent Chicago neighborhood he grew up in. And of course, we also have Nelson Algren.

Perhaps a writer can compensate for not personally taking part in violence by being an acute observer. Therefore we have people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and James Ellroy, who may not have participated in violence themselves, but avidly follow and report on it. Of course, there are many criminals who have published successful crime books, but these are usually ghosted. I know in my case, my fiction comes out of the eighteen and a half years I spent growing up in East New York, the toughest slum in the country. Since I was not tough, I had to be extremely brutal in order to win my streetfights. A writer who had to decide whether or not to murder people writes different crime fiction than someone who hasn’t. Now I’m not saying I killed anyone, but out of the ninety or so street fights and fistfights I was in, there were a number of times I made decisions to try. As Mike Tyson, a guy who grew up in Brownsville–East New York, said in the documentary that bears his name, street fights were different from his fights in the ring. While street fighting, he had to beat his opponent so badly he would not be able to return to his block and bring back reinforcements or a gun. In my fiction, when I’m writing a violent scene, all I have to do is remember my past. There are certain things that writers who have engaged in violence know that writers who’ve never witnessed or participated in any can never know. A former editor of mine, Brando Skyhorse, once happened to ask me questions about the authenticity of a scene I wrote in which one character was pleading for his life. Without even thinking, I responded that I’d had a number of people plead with me to let them live, and this is what they said. Brando kept the scene. I am not proud of how I grew up, but by writing fiction I have managed to constructively use the violence I witnessed and participated in. This violence came from both warring street gangs and the young hoodlums who grew up to be portrayed in movies like Goodfellas.

There are other crime writers, including ex-cops and criminals, who, like me, participated in and witnessed tremendous amounts of violence. People who experienced violence in the past and have the talent to write about it will probably write more realistic crime scenes than people who have to fall back on their imaginations. If realism is your standard, it makes sense to first read writers who in their pasts and possibly present are actually involved in crime. A person who has fired a gun or investigated a murder will write a different book than someone who hasn’t.

Joseph Trigoboff lives in New York City with his wife and two children. He is the author of The Shooting Gallery and The Bone Orchard. For his novels, Joe draws much on his childhood in the violent neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville where street and fist-fights were commonplace and packs of wild dogs roamed the streets, he is currently working on a memoir about this period in his life.

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8 Responses »

  1. With all respect, Joe, you need to remove Ellroy from your list of keen observers and put him in the ranks of those who’ve experienced it. While his personal dalliances with crime lean more towards the petty and depraved, I think the murder of his mother and his subsequent obsession with that crime makes him as keenly aware of violence as someone who has felt their fist crack across the bridge of someone’s nose.

    He’s spent his life writing about it, both in fiction and non-fiction, and deserves more than “observer” status.

  2. The question I’d like to pose is, are the best crime novels written by those experienced in crime, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it?

    No. It just means it’s more authentic.

    As a crime fiction reader, I have to say that violence is my least favorite part of the reading experience. I care more about characters, police procedure, investigative techniques, forensics and that sort of thing. Do I care how accurate a writer portrays streetfighting or the criminal life? No. It’s always a plus whenever a writer can draw upon their experiences in their writing but it’s not needed or necessary in order to write a great crime fiction novel. Other readers may want that added “realism” but it’s not required for me. Why is it assumed that just because someone has experience in whatever that automatically makes it better? It doesn’t.

    I love this blog . Keep up the good work. Thanks for another entertaining post.

  3. At the end of the day, all the jail time and violence in the world won’t be worth a cig and a cup of joe unless the person can write. All those you mentioned are terrific writers who HAPPENED to experience war or were criminals. Those in the same spot who can’t rub two words together–and shouldn’t try- are too numerous to count. It’s about the writing, folks.

  4. I don’t know…this seems to abandon the question in favor of “Hey, my life proves my point”. Lots of writers pull the “this really happened!” card, but on the page it doesn’t ring true, while some writers invent it and we buy it hook, lin…e, and sinker.

    He says the frontline folks like Pelecanos and Lehane “compensate” by following crime closely (does he know a bit about Pelecanos’ early brush with gun violence?), but that just disproves the “write what you know” advice in favor of “write what your interested in”.

    I don’t care if the author lived a criminal life, really, and therefore makes the story feel more “authentic”. I care if the author is able to empathize with criminals and victims alike, rendering their stories in a way that really gets to us because we’re cringing along with every act of violence, every bad decision, and every drop of blood.

  5. Wow, what a story Joe has – he needs to write a memoir. I do think those who have experienced violence can write a more authentic crime novel because they don’t feature unrealistic fights and super-hero like protagonists.

  6. I agree that James Ellroy experienced a crime which affected him deeply, and this has had a great effect on his writing.

    But I notice no crime fiction writers listed are women. How could the writer conspicuously leave out a reference to Anne Perry? Frankly, I would have thought she’d be in the headline.


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