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Bernie Madoff: Noir Icon?

Bernie Madoff was in the news again recently—or at least his bankruptcy case was. It seems the trustee and some of Madoff’s victims are fighting over legal fees—surprise, surprise. It was a small story, and just the latest chapter in a long saga, but it had me thinking again about Madoff, and about the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Which, given that I write crime fiction, often with Wall Street backdrops, is probably inevitable. After all, the case is a playground of crime fiction motifs, and rich in inspiration.

In the event you somehow missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell: Bernie Madoff rose from modest beginnings in Queens, New York, to become what my grandfather would’ve called a big macher on Wall Street—a big deal. He amassed huge wealth and influence as chief executive of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the firm he founded in 1960. His company was a major market-maker in stocks, and the technology he helped develop was instrumental in the creation of the NASDAQ. The firm eventually came to employ Madoff’s wife, brother, sons, and other relatives, and Bernie himself became an elder statesman in the financial services industry, serving on the boards of major industry groups and as chairman of the NASD.

In the late 1970s, Bernie added a new line of business to his company: an investment-management division, with affluent individuals as its client base. By 2001, this division had grown into one of the largest hedge funds in the world, with investors that included universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, bold-faced names in sports and entertainment, as well as banks and other hedge funds. It was this part of his business that Madoff was discussing in December 2008 when he confessed to his sons: “It’s all just one big lie…basically a giant Ponzi scheme.” And so it was: Madoff had for years been fabricating client statements so that they showed steadily growing investment account balances. If ever clients wanted to liquidate their holdings, they were paid with money from other investors. The rest of the cash apparently went to finance Bernie’s lavish lifestyle.

Madoff’s sons went to the FBI and Madoff was arrested, and the messy aftermath began. Personal fortunes—many large, but some quite modest—were wiped out. There were an unknown number of stress-induced heart attacks and strokes among Madoff investors and at least two suicides (a retired British soldier whose family fortune had evaporated and a French money manager who’d lost over $1 billion of his own and his clients’money). Several charities—also Madoff investors—closed their doors for good, and anti-Semites the world over gleefully trotted out the usual slanders about Jews and money.

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Noir Is for Losers

Noir.

Slippery little word, isn’t it? French, but applied in retrospect to American movies that were themselves informed by aspects of German Expressionism. According to Otto Penzler, when people profess to be fans of the sub-genre, they very rarely know what they’re talking about. As editor, critic, and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, Penzler obviously does.

The one thing noir isn’t, he says, is PI fiction. In fact the two sub-genres are “philosophically diametrically opposed.” Noir fiction’s “existential, nihilistic tales” represent the pitch-black flip side to PI fiction’s more optimistic slant. PI fiction displays an ethical code; noir fiction wallows in the gutter. PI fiction tends to restore order (Penzler’s connection to the sheriff cleaning up the wayward town is key); noir fiction must end in utter annihilation.

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue with here, other than the usual exceptions thrown up in response to a concrete definition written to an equally concrete word count. And indeed, there’s something about the definition that feels a little too concrete.

Let’s forget for a moment whether a sub-genre can comprise existentialism, nihilism, and some of the more basic concepts of predeterminism, and instead go right back to its roots. Penzler states that noir “has its roots in the hard-boiled private eye story that was essentially created by Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in the 1920s,” and while I think it’s safe to say that the PI archetype (as opposed to the amateur sleuth or consulting detective) originated in its most popular and credible form with Hammett, my own feeling is that the roots of noir go much further back than the early part of the 20th century. Indeed—and you’ll have to forgive me for sounding like a substitute English teacher here—I believe noir can be traced right back to a trio of bad-asses named Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the fathers of tragedy.

As evidenced in the work of the above and defined by Aristotle, the tragic hero is a man “who neither is a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” This mistake needn’t be an action on the character’s part, either—it could be and often is an inherent personality flaw, hubris, or a failure of the spirit that leads to his eventual doom. But the point is that there are no purely evil characters, that in even the worst of the tragic heroes, there is a spark of humanity that keeps him compelling to an audience. It may not be the most pleasant spark, but it’s there. And it’s that spark that makes noir characters compelling. After all, there isn’t that much separating the motives of Oedipus and Bill Rhodes, Macbeth and Jaime Figueras, or Ferdinand and J. J. Hunsecker, and Penzler’s assertion that “noir is about losers” who pretty much deserve their fates robs noir of its humanity and renders it instead a series of quickie morality plays with horny puppets double-crossing each other to death.

It is the critic and bookseller’s first instinct to categorize, of course, but the danger in this is that only the broad strokes are seen. Defining noir fiction by its lust-driven losers and doom-laden outsiders brings us perilously close to cliché, and cliché can only lead to stagnation. It’s the same thing that crippled the PI sub-genre, and while there are certainly some excellent writers working in a more traditional vein (Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, and Russel D McLean, to name but four), I still think we’re waiting for someone to shake that sub-genre up the way Pelecanos or Crumley did.

So then, with an open mind, why can’t PI fiction be noir fiction? Well, the fact is, it can.

The first novel that springs to mind is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen the sterling 1986 adaptation Angel Heart, which moved the story from New York to New Orleans and certainly made me think twice before eating another hard-boiled egg. The book opens with a quote from Aristotle, from Oedipus the King, no less— “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” —and a typically retro hard-boiled first line:

“It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.”

Although there’s a strong element of pastiche in Falling Angel is a one-off, and PI fiction by its nature tends toward the series, which is perhaps why I can think of more noir movie PIs than I can literary. But I think the first four Jack Taylor novels (ending with The Dramatist’s final bleak tableau) certainly count as a noir cycle, and the only reason I don’t include the others is that Bruen hasn’t finished the series yet, and I’d be surprised if Jack lives happily ever after. And I might as well admit that I have a dog in this particular fight myself. He’s not a particularly big dog, but he’s proven game enough to make it through four books. There does, however, seem to be a distinct lack of properly noir PIs. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to read them—comments are open.

Also, this lack of crossover reminds us of how fixated we can be as both authors and readers (yes, readers—you’re the ones dictating taste here) on the window dressing of a sub-genre as opposed to what made it compelling in the first place. And while every sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity, isn’t there also a chance that every wane may be its last?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.

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

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.

Cathartic Thrills

AirplaneA few years ago I was on a book tour in Spain, where I spent two days in a hotel being interviewed by reporters. Interestingly, nearly all of them posed a similar inquiry: What’s it like not to write serious fiction?

I admit, at first I was thrown by the question. But in the end I answered it with an inquiry of my own. How many times have seen a person reading War and Peace on an airplane? None of the reporters answered me, so I offered the answer for them. None. Then I asked a second question: How many times have you seen someone reading a thriller on an airplane? Of course, the answer was obvious. Many. I followed up these two questions with a statement: I doubt that Tolstoy could have written a popular thriller. Which is similar to my doubt that I could write like Tolstoy. That doesn’t make either one of us better than the other, it simply makes us different.

It’s true, no thriller will ever win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They rarely win anything (except of course the Thriller awards, bestowed each July by the International Thriller Writers, of which I am currently the co-president). And it could be argued that no thriller will change the face of world literature. Great analyses will not be written about them, and rarely are they favorably viewed by any of the major book review outlets.

Those things also don’t make them bad, they simply make them different.

Thrillers perform one simple task: they entertain. For a short while they allow readers to escape their own world, to forget their own troubles, and to just have a good time. Luckily, the genre is packed with a multitude of sub-genres, each geared to its particular audience, who savor those subdivisions with a zeal that has long helped to sustain publishing houses.

A few months ago I received an email from a reader. He’d gone through a difficult divorce, then was involved in a car accident. While recuperating he’d read a number of thrillers, including all of my Cotton Malone series. He wanted me to know that my stories had helped him through a difficult time. They’d allowed him time to relax, and he said that without them his recovery period would have been unbearable. And he’s not alone. Nearly every week I receive emails from servicemen and -women stationed overseas. They too want me to know that my stories were a welcome relief from the horrors they witness every day.

So what’s it like not to write serious fiction?

Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Steve Berry is the New York Times bestselling author of The Balkan Escape, The Paris Vendetta, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Venetian Betrayal, The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Third Secret, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Amber Room. His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold in fifty countries. He lives in the historic old city of St. Augustine, Florida. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have founded History Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our heritage. Visit www.steveberry.org to learn more about Berry and the foundation.

Sex and Violence, Please

The announcement of Little Brown’s new suspense line, Mullholland, is a cause for rejoicing in mystery-writer circles…and not just because an attractive new market for the craft has revealed itself.  The launch reaffirms the notion that neither the book nor the mystery is dead, and that’s always good news to a writer trying to keep the customers entertained and the bills paid.

The larger argument over the life and death of the book – especially that sub-category known as the novel – will have to wait.  I can only say that while I am unlikely to purchase an e-book reader, having grown up loving the physical object that is a book, I have no prejudice against whatever delivery system is devised to get my content out there.  My son Nathan – now translating books and video games from Japanese into English – grew up on computers, even as he was surrounded by books, and he loves both the old-fashioned physical object but is, of course, comfortable with an electronic delivery system.  He grew up with computers the way I grew up with comic books (another reviled delivery system for storytelling, before the term “graphic novel” came along).

The specific concern of the mystery writer, however, is that the genre itself – and all its subdivisions – will survive in an age where the 24-hour news cycle comes up with more sex, violence and absurdity than we could ever hope to fathom, but much less fashion.  No self-respecting editor would allow a writer to invent an embezzler named Madoff, or a self-destructing movie queen called Lohan.  Reality has outstripped us, and in our weak moments, we feel threatened by “reality” TV (quotes needed).  That I hear my Hollywood agent casually using the phrase “scripted content” as the exception to the rule of current TV series, I get understandably nervous.

But the mystery story – the thriller – isn’t going anywhere.  The human craves storytelling, and liars like me will always have a place at the campfire.  Seems likely that a lazy but creative lout like yours truly created the fictional story by staying home from the mastodon hunt, cowering somewhere, only to come up with a whopper (lie, not burger) to earn himself a prehistoric steak come dinnertime.  That story probably was at least as scary as what the hunters came up against, possibly containing twists and turns to explain why the lout wasn’t able to make the trip with the other guys who went out on the hunt.

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Thank You for Smoking

It has often been said by crime writers (this one included) that the community of mystery writers is uniquely clubbable, and, while there are one or two crime writers of whom I would use that word in the same way it is applied to baby seals, I think that, generally speaking, this description is true. It may be, of course, given that one or two crime writers are rather fond of a drink, that this reputation owes more than a little to alcohol. When a legend of the crime-writing community throws his arms around a relative newcomer and says, “I love you. I love your books. You’re my best friend!” it’s easy enough for the newcomer to believe all she has heard about what a warm and welcoming bunch mystery writers are and overlook the twelve beers and the bottle of tequila that the legend has poured down his throat.

But booze and the odd bad apple aside, I can certainly attest that, as a rule, crime writers seem to me to be a very decent bunch of men and women. There are certainly fewer crime writers who subscribe to the “in order for me to do well, you have to do badly” approach than some I have encountered in other areas I know reasonably well: television, the comedy industry, and, dare I say it, other areas of the wider literary community.

Someone — it may well have been Ian Rankin — once described crime writers as a “gang,” and that’s not a bad word to use, though admittedly we don’t have much in the way of initiation ceremonies. Well, there is the ancient and much revered Detection Club in the UK, but fear of reprisals forbids me going into that. OK, so there are skulls and candles . . . I’ve said too much already. But in the sense of camaraderie and of existing at what might be described as the periphery of the literary community, gang is a word that will do well enough. I heard an even better description while attending the Ned Kelly Awards in Australia a year or two back, when someone described crime writers as the “smokers of the literary community.” Now, whatever you think about smoking, this seemed and still seems to me to be utterly wonderful.
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From Suspense to Dread

Florin Court LondonI was idly watching the end of an old TV episode of Poirot the other day wherein the world’s third most famous Belgian had, as always, gathered the eight or so suspects together in the drawing room and began pointing the finger of suspicion at each of them in turn. It seemed to me that there were two types of suspense on offer here: the identity of the murderer, and what, if any, small changes would occur in this strictly adhered to formula of going through each suspect one by one. (No, not the sweet old lady!) As long as the audience knows all the possibilities, then quite small variations can generate suspense as we try to outguess the detective. In other words, complete familiarity offers a way out of complete boredom: as long as everyone knows the rules in detail, even small variations will generate suspense. It’s almost impossible by now to create a major surprise in this particular setup, mostly because Christie herself pretty much mined them out (they all did it in Murder on the Orient Express). This almost equal knowledge between reader (or watcher) and writer is what creates suspense but also limits it (unless the adapter, gone mad after years of writing minor variations on the same ending, has Poirot or Miss Marple being revealed as the murderer). Suspense has, I think, its limitations when it comes to engaging the emotions of the audience — it’s the emotion of a game.

Consider Seven as an alternative. The setup is grislier than a Christie and the setting, a corrupt city, as far away as you can get. But it’s still about a series of carefully planned murders by someone unknown and cool and ruthless in his execution of the crime. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, Seven takes us on certainly an original journey with a brilliant concept at its heart — a moralizing murderer sardonically reenacting the seven deadly sins. But what is alleged to have happened before Fincher took over as director is revealing. It’s said that the studio insisted that while they were prepared to finance the film, they would only do so if the writer changed the last quarter of the film, when the script completely departs from the murder thriller and creates something utterly new. It stops being a game of suspense for the insider/viewer by abandoning the game altogether. The identity of the murderer, blasphemously, is revealed not by the detached intelligence of the detectives but by the murderer himself. By rejecting the fundamental desire to get away with it, the killer takes command just at the point where we are waiting for the forces of good to squeeze him into a place of abject failure by revealing the fundamental things he does not want revealed, his motives and his guilt. Apparently the studio forced Walker to undo all this and rewrite the ending so that Christie reigns supreme.

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Once Were Mysteries

The former chairman of the Booker Prize committee said last month,

“A mystery has as much chance of winning the Booker as a donkey winning the Derby.”

I ask myself, in pretty much all honesty, Who won the Booker last year?

Um…

I can rattle off who won the Edgar, the Hammett. But you could say my interest lies solely in mystery.

My daily reading consists of an eclectic mix of biography, and books on writing, poetry, philosophy, psychology. Because I’m fascinated by all of them.

John Arden, the acclaimed playwright, activist, author, recently domiciled in Galway. On the publication of The Devil, he met me after a signing, not a literary critic on the horizon, said,

“Crime novels are the new social conscience.”

I wrote a children’s book, was assaulted on most all sides by

“What?”

“You’re selling out?”

“You can’t write a children’s book .”

And you really have to smile, move it from drama to light entertainment.

I ask my own self,

“Have you ever heard of a literary writer transcending the genre and writing a mystery novel?”

Um…yes.

But their excursions into the second grade are excused by terms, no kidding, like

“Slumming.”

Yah gotta love ’em.
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See You in the Darkness

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

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Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley

When someone asks me why I think there’s been a resurgence in dark crime, hard-boiled, and noir fiction, I tell them the story about the house across the street.
Razer

It’s a two-floor split-foyer that nowadays sort of looks like Boo Radley’s place. It’s become one of those legendary homes where kids are dared to run up to the porch on Halloween. Obviously, no one lives there anymore. The weeds are chest high. Part of the fencing has toppled. A leaf-strewn trampoline lies collapsed in the backyard, and sun-faded flyers and newspapers litter the stoop.

Eighteen months ago it looked like every other place on the block: well-tended, colorful, lively, active. There was always plenty of noise over there, but not the kind that gets on your nerves. Teenagers shot hoops in the driveway while younger kids played volleyball in the yard or drew chalk pictures and hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There was a lot of laughter.

This was before my neighbor defaulted on his third mortgage and fled in the night with his family in a box truck, without saying a word to anyone on the street.

Two weeks ago I got so tired of looking at the shabby lawn that I dragged my mower over there and spent an hour doing my best to trim back the jungle. I struggled, sweated, and failed. A third of the way through, the mower started coughing smoke and spitting sparks. Then it let out a shriek like a well-stacked scream queen and died. I haven’t been able to get it started since.

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