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Why Crime?

The Burning of BooksWhy crime? This is the question most crime writers get asked more than any other. For a long while I couldn’t answer it. Honestly, I had no idea. To start with I didn’t read crime, which is a weird confession to make and one that could see me strung up by my thumbs above a bonfire of copies of The Wreckage, a very combustible read.

In my very first newspaper interview I was famously misquoted as having read only one crime book— which became the headline for the entire piece. The mistake has haunted me ever since with people desperate to know “which one.” Either it was the very best crime novel ever written, or the worst one—why else would I have stopped?

What I tried to tell the journalist (and obviously failed) was that I tried to read one of each because there are so many new crime writers emerging every year. We live in a golden age of mystery and crime fiction, with some truly brilliant practitioners of the craft. We all have our favorites. We all find our level.

But I go back to the original question: Why crime?

I can answer the question now. I know why I write crime novels. I can even pinpoint the day when the seed was planted (although it took more than twenty years to germinate).

On April 2, 1980, a young man called Raymond John Denning hid amid prison garbage and became the first inmate in eighty years to escape from Grafton Jail, 400 miles north of Sydney, Australia.

I was nineteen at the time, a cadet journalist on the old Sydney Sun, working the graveyard shift, midnight to eight.

Denning was serving a life sentence for the savage bashing of a prison warder during an earlier attempted escape. The warder later died. Although only in his early twenties, Ray was already a hardened criminal who had been in and out of prison since he was fifteen, and was notorious for his many escape attempts.

Denning was immediately classified as the second-most-wanted man in Australia (behind Russell “Mad Dog” Cox, who comes into the story later). He was almost caught within days in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, when police stopped a car being driven by a girlfriend. Denning fled into dense bushland and evaded police roadblocks and helicopters.

He spent the next twenty months on the run, not just avoiding the police, but taunting them. He managed to turn himself into a modern day folk hero by pulling publicity stunts designed to embarrass the police.

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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.

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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Batman Is My Mr. Miyagi

I write mysteries. I love writing mysteries. And I also write comic books. So when I was recently at Comi-Con, someone at one of the panels asked me how comics have influenced and/or seeped into my mystery and novel writing. Indeed, one of the editors at Mulholland Books asked if the action-packed nature of comics helped develop the action and pacing I use in the novels.

So let me tell you the answer.



And the best part? I had no idea I was doing it.

You see, when you do your first novel, it goes out, and you hope people read it. Same with your second. But by the time you hit your third, people start looking at all the books together. It was then that the smart readers stepped forward. One e-mailed me through my website and said, “I’ve now read three of your novels. What are your issues with your father?” And later, someone else wrote about how reading my novels was like seeing the underbelly of the pacing in a comic book: short chapters and a cliff-hanger, short chapters and a cliff-hanger.

To be honest, I was surprised. But the moment I heard it, I knew it was true.
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