Hardboiled Academics

Sometime in 1995 or thereabouts, I reached that state achieved by so many doctoral students: the state of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. What was I doing? Why? And why hadn’t my wife murdered me yet?

Naturally, instead of addressing these questions head on—or focusing on my research—I discovered a sublime form of evasion. I read crime novels: Hammett, Chandler, Willeford, Richard Stark, Jonathan Latimer, and many others.

Needless to say, I was pretty impressed by these novels: sharp language, evocative characters, occasionally odd humor, and a cultural resonance of sorts. I thought it would be cool to write crime fiction rather than a treatise on early American fiction.

But even as a delusional grad student, I couldn’t quite fool myself into thinking that I could write gritty novels like my hard-living author-heroes. Real crime-fiction writers were ex-Pinkertons (Hammett), former cops (Wambaugh), lawyers (Higgins), journalists (Cain), criminals (E. Richard Johnson), or down-and-out, hard-drinking, washed-up businessmen (Chandler).

But then I had this other idea: I could be the lone academic among crime fiction writers, the oddball in Ivy among real men. (And it was mostly men that I was reading—this was before my love affair with Patricia Highsmith.) Boy was I wrong.

It turns out—recently, but going back, too—that there is a sordid underbelly of crime fiction crawling with card-carrying PhDs. If I had thrown a rock into the crowd at the Bouchercon mystery writers convention last October, I probably would’ve hit someone with a fancy graduate degree.

repetitionRoss Macdonald—fedora-wearing heir to Hammett and Chandler—earned his PhD at the University of Michigan, writing on the poetry of Robert Browning. Robert B. Parker received his PhD from Boston University, writing on—surprise, surprise—the PIs of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald. Sara Paretsky—PhD from the University of Chicago in History. The list goes on.

I have some high, mighty, and self-justifying ideas about how all of those years in academia influenced my crime-fiction writing. But I thought it might be more fun to hear from some of the bigger guns in the field. And so, at the risk of exposing these (gasp!) once overachieving professional students, I asked a handful of writers to answer this question:

What is the influence (for good, bad, or both) of your academic research and former (or present) academic life on your crime-fiction writing?

Here are some of the responses I got…

Kenneth Wishnia, PhD in Comparative Literature, State University of New York, Stony Brook; doctoral research on 20th-century Ecuadorian narrative

The short answer is that my full-time job teaching college pays the rent, which allows me the freedom to write whatever I want and a fair amount of time off in which to do it. (A friend in grad school once joked, there are three reasons to be a college professor: June, July, and August.)

And yes, the research methods I cultivated in grad school helped me recreate 16th-century Europe forStacks of Folios - University of Chicago my latest novel, The Fifth Servant, a Jewish-themed historical thriller set in Prague in 1592: I read a couple of hundred books and articles and took more than 1,200 pages of single-spaced notes (there’s a photo of me with the 42-inch-high pile of drafts on my website). Another writer would have read three books and faked it.

But the most important role that academia has played in the evolution of my writing style is as follows: With all my obligations (full-time job, autistic child, and a teetering pile of must-reads by my colleagues in the mystery world), I don’t have a lot of time to read much contemporary literature. So teaching two sections of “ENG 102: Introduction to Literature” every spring has been my opportunity to read many respected contemporary writers that I would never have had time for otherwise, including such greats as Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, T. C. Boyle, Junot Díaz, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Louise Erdrich, etc.

In its simplest form, popular genre literature often depicts two-dimensional characters who are clearly delineated as good or evil, with thoroughly unequivocal endings in which good soundly defeats evil. By contrast, literary writers often specialize in depicting flawed characters with ambiguous motives (and endings). Combining the two (a page-turning plot with literary depth and complexity) has taught me as much about good writing as anything else I’ve ever learned, and I owe it all to the day job.

Denise Mina, PhD (ABD) in Criminology, University of Strathclyde; doctoral research on mental illness among female penal inmates

It [academic research] was fundamental. I was researching mental illness in the ascription of female offenders and thinking about the dissemination of the idea I had formed in my half-assed academic work. I realized that if I took the ideas and put them in a populist medium like crime fiction they might filter into the popular consciousness, but if I put them in a thesis six people would read it and I’d spend the rest of my life trying to make people listen to me, writing articles, furthering the ideas, etc. Also I was reading a lot of very right-wing crime fiction—the police are right, the guy gets shot at the end without a trial because they have overwhelming evidence, etc. It occurred to me that crime fiction was the perfect form for dissemination because even I was reading it to find out what happened and I hated everyone in those books. Also, I think, academia is a hotbed of status games and crime fiction is somehow a dropout from them. Disappointingly, slightly less than I had supposed but still, not quite as bad.

Bill Crider, PhD in English, University of Texas, Austin; doctoral research on the private-eye hero

Like Doug Levin, I was taking courses on the Victorian novel in the mornings, then going home and reading crime novels in the afternoon. My favorite activity aside from reading was to go to the library stacks, pull down the big bound volumes of the New York Times Book Review , and read through every “Criminals at Large” column that Anthony Boucher wrote. Like any good grad student, I had a pad and pen with me, and I wrote down all the titles and authors that Boucher recommended.

I was particularly interested in the paperback originals that Boucher reviewed, so I soon found myself haunting the used-book stores in Austin. Before long I’d branched out to San Antonio and beyond. If you were looking for the good stuff, those were the days. You could still pick up a copy of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me for half the original 25-cent cover price. I only wish I’d picked up duplicate copies.

When it came time for me to write a dissertation, I figured I’d see what I could do about combining my preferred reading with a legitimate academic topic. I picked three writers [Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald] whom I considered top of the line, found some sympathetic professors to sit on my committee, and went for it.

About the time I got started on the writing, I somehow got wind of the fact that a guy named Robert B. Parker was doing his dissertation on the same topic. I didn’t mention this to anyone. I figured that we’d have different approaches anyway. I’ve never read his dissertation, and I’m sure he never read mine.

It turns out that my own novels are nothing like those of the men I most admired. And my career turned out nothing like Parker’s. As my wife likes to point out now and then, “Look where his career went and look where yours did.” Oh, well.

Unlike Doug, I have no high-and-mighty ideas. I just know I had a great time. I wouldn’t trade it.

Megan Abbott, PhD in English and American Literature, New York University; doctoral research on white masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir

The influence is mostly the excuse it gave me to read crime fiction exhaustively, and that proved my main motivation to try to write my way into those books I loved so dearly. I can see how it could become a dangerous influence for me. When I read, I dissect, as was my training. And that doesn’t ruin books for me but in fact makes them larger, bigger, more wondrous. But if I applied that critical eye to my own writing, I think it would be a fatal error. My fiction comes from a very different part of my brain than my academic writing. And I hope those two sides of my brain never come together, or I might never write again. It’d be like operating on oneself. The patient would surely die!

Are you still reeling from the shocking revelation of the terrible double life led by these varied perpetrators of crime fiction? Well, there’s an even more terrifying parallel to consider: crime-writing poets! British Poet Laureate C. Day-Lewis, Richard Hugo, James Sallis, Edgar Allan Poe (of course), and others. One day, you’re happily writing sensitive, evocative verse and suddenly, your mind turns to murder.

Doug Levin’s most recent noir story, “The Docile Shark,” can be found in the December 2010 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His fiction also appeared alongside works by George P. Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Scott Phillips, Charles Willeford, and other notables in the anthology Measures of Poison. His first novel, provisionally titled Jailhouse Pale, is now making its rounds with publishers. In the previous millennium, he received his PhD in English from Yale University. His irregular musings about crime fiction and film can be found at http://douglevin.blogspot.com.