One question mystery and suspense writers are used to hearing is, “Why do you want to write about such awful things?”
The unspoken message is that something must be wrong with a person who sits alone in a room all day, dreaming up ways to commit murder and other varieties of mayhem. But most of the mystery writers I know are perfectly normal. A couple are a bit odd, but that’s just the law of averages playing out. Most are normal people who enjoy laughing and having a good time. I think I fit that description myself. So why did I choose a life of crime?
Although my grandfather was a smalltown police chief, my interest in crime writing took a long time to develop. I didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew. (I still haven’t read any of the Nancy Drew stories.) I didn’t read Agatha Christie until I was in my thirties, and I thought they were entertaining but shallow and formulaic. I admit it: I was a writing snob. My ambition was to write deathless prose, not prose that revolved around death.
But somehow, from the beginning, almost everything I wrote turned out to have a crime in it. When I was in the seventh grade, I was assigned to write a short play for the class to perform. The teacher was seriously startled when I came back with a story about a boy who had to choose whether to turn his father in for murder or stay quiet for the sake of the family. (I was 13 at the time. The teacher asked some pointed questions about my family background after she read my play.) Later, I wrote a story about a girl who murdered her mother, one about a mother who tried to murder her daughter, one about a girl who murdered her sister for the sake of the sister’s child, and so on. I seemed incapable of writing anything without putting a crime in it.
These weren’t whodunnits that focused on detection. They were stories about the upheaval that crime causes in people’s lives, and the way people deal with such a crisis. Eventually I started reading modern crime fiction by people like Ruth Rendell and PD James, and I found that they went far beyond the formula. Finally the light bulb over my head lit up. I realized that this was the perfect form for exploring the moral dilemmas that fascinated me.
But I didn’t think I could do it. The structure of a crime novel, and all the required elements, intimidated me. I wasted a lot of time because I was too scared to even try.
Then one Thanksgiving a few years ago, I ate too much of my own pecan pie for dessert. The result was a restless night punctuated by a strange, vivid dream. When I got up in the morning, I knew my dream had given me the start of a suspense novel, and I had to write it. That book is The Heat of the Moon. It was published in 2006 and went on to win the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Since I had my pecan pie dream, I haven’t looked back. I’m still learning how to write a good mystery or suspense novel, I’m still doubting that what I write will ever be published, but I no longer have any doubt that this is exactly what I want to write.
A psychoanalyst would probably say there’s some dark, twisted reason why I’m drawn to crime, but I think it’s simply because I’m fascinated by people and the way they cope with extreme pressures in their lives.
I really don’t have a warped mind.
That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.