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Why does an Englishman write American crime?

Nov 23, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

This is a question I have been asked so many times.  Enough times for me to take a long look at it, if for no other reason than to have an answer next time I am asked.

Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a “career decision” like becoming a doctor or a policeman.  You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.

I feel the same way about genres.  I think the genre chose me, as opposed to my choosing the genre.

The thing that has always fascinated me, and the thing that I believe is the only thing that fascinates authors really, is people.  It’s that simple.

Life is people.  People are life.  Without people there is nothing to talk about, nothing worth saying.

And why American crime?  Because such a genre presents me with a broad canvas, and upon that canvas I can write conspiracy, thriller, romance, history, politics, social commentary.  I think US crime holds a mirror up to society better than any other genre.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for me, crime gives me an opportunity to present my “people” with situations that they would never experience in ordinary life.  This then gives me possibility of putting those people through the mill emotionally, and that is where my true interest lies.

So that is where my selection of genre and subject matter comes from, and right from the first book – Candlemoth – I have tried to create real and believable characters and storylines that have this American cultural and political background.  Candlemoth is the story of two boys, one black, one white, who grow up together from the early 50′s in North Carolina.  It tracks through that time period – up through the death of JFK and Martin Luther King, through Nixon and Watergate, all the significant political and social events of that time.  The story is told in flashback from the perspective of the main protagonist, the white boy now in his 30s, who is on Death Row for the murder of his black friend.  The events are recounted to a Catholic priest sent to reconcile the man to his execution, and it deals with the events that brought him there and how he was consigned to such a fate.

Ghostheart is told from the perspective of the central female character, a young woman who – by the discoveries she makes in the pages of a book – learns the history of New York gangland and underworld figures in the 50s and 60s, and ultimately how this history relates to herself and her own life.  A Quiet Vendetta is a five hundred-page epic that deals with seventy years of accurate Mafia history throughout New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, Havana, and numerous other cities, and is a story told through the eyes of a young man who becomes a hit man for organized crime.  City of Lies is a fast-paced thriller that deals with the lives and crimes of a group of elderly gangsters in Manhattan, and how they use their influence to seduce a younger man into a criminal lifestyle.  It concludes with four violent high-powered armed robberies in four different banks in New York City on Christmas Eve.

A Quiet Belief in Angels is the biography of a young boy growing up in Georgia in the 1930 and 40s, and how his entire life is affected by the killing of a number of young girls in his hometown.  A Simple Act of Violence is essentially two stories – a series of contemporary killings in Washington DC and how these killings are linked to the undercover actions of the CIA in Nicaragua in the 1980s.  The Anniversary Man, is the story of a serial killing survivor who works with the Police to uncover the identity of someone perpetrating killings in New York who is copying famous serial killings of the past and carrying them out of the anniversary of their original occurrence.  Lastly, Saints of New York, deals with corruption within the Organized Crime Control Bureau, child prostitution, the burdens of one policeman against a system that does anything but acknowledge and reward honesty.

I believe that crime fiction is the most widely-read genre fiction in the world currently.  I hope that it will stay that way.  I think – as a genre – it excites, evokes emotion, stimulates mentally, engages, mystifies, perplexes, and pleases readers greatly.  We love puzzles.  We love the dilemmas of ordinary people presented with extraordinary situations.  We love to be challenged.  Is that not the index of a healthy and inquisitive mind, and thus a healthily inquisitive society?  We want to know more.  We want to find out.  We want truth and justice.  And – if we cannot find it within our culture – we have to be reassured that it is still possible within the pages of a book.

R.J. Ellory is the author of eight novels including the bestselling A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, which was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Barry Award, the 813 Trophy, the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize and was winner of the Nouvel Observateur Crime Fiction Prize. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages. R.J. Ellory currently lives in England. www.rjellory.com.

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3 Responses »

  1. Well, we probably do have more crime than anyone else in the world, I’m sad to say.

  2. I wonder how RJ Ellory wonder tackle a Birmingham crime novel?

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