In your wildest dreams, what effect would you want your book to have on your reader?
My dad was a college professor. He taught a “Cops and Robbers” course, and one of his students was Charlie Stella, who has gone on to become a successful crime writer. I remember once—I must have been about thirteen—waiting for my dad at his office, and I read one of Charlie’s manuscripts that was lying around in the stacks of paper on the floor. It was just a typescript, and I read a chapter at random.
It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was New York City in the late seventies. The young guys were going to a bar for older women who wanted to pick up younger men. In these pages our guy goes home with one of the women, gets a blowjob from her. Then when she’s in the bathroom, prepping for more, he steals her purse and runs off. His friends are waiting in the street with their car. She sees him going and they shout at each other from window to street.
Everything was new to me. Not just the obvious stuff. The whole world. The value system of the book.
Almost all art has the same easy messages. I read a lot of books and by age thirteen I knew what these messages were: Mean people are mean. Good deeds are good—and you’ll be rewarded for them; or you won’t be rewarded and isn’t that tragic? But Charlie’s book wasn’t operating on any system I recognized.
This sensation is hardly worth talking about. Whenever I talk about it with someone, they nod and recommend some book about a psychopath who trades bonds by day and murders coeds by night. So I must be doing a bad job of describing what I mean.
I doubt Charlie even remembers the scene. Sometimes art hits you at just the right time.
You teach literature. Crime novels—literature—what’s the difference?
Not much except that genre books push at reality a little bit more. There’s a different contract between book and reader. The reader’s part of the contract is that they don’t complain when in real life this alcoholic detective would have been fired and sued out of existence, or when this gun battle at the Space Needle doesn’t cause the city to lock down. The reader picked up a crime novel, and that was part of the deal.
Other than that, literature has the same traits as genre fiction. Every Pulitzer Prize book is a romance, or a mystery, or a historical novel. There are not that many different stories to tell. But more serious literature may hold back on some of the easier flavors. Hamlet is a crime novel, but Shakespeare screwed it up by making his detective too sophisticated. His detective solves the case right away and spends all his time wondering whether the case was even worth solving. Who would want to read that?
I don’t make a study of crime books. I’ll read anything that falls into my hands. I read everything by Charlie Stella. I read everything by Kate Atkinson. I’ve read and re-read the series by James McClure and Reginald Hill. Every Christmas a friend gives me a shoebox of paperbacks that he’s picked up over the course of the year, in used-book stores. I read them all. I have a few days off after Christmas and I read them all. Often I couldn’t tell you the title of the book I’m holding, or who wrote it.
Isn’t that your dream as a writer? That an old dog-eared copy of your book gets put in a shoebox with a ribbon around it? A stranger is lying on his couch, exhausted by Christmas morning, dips in…..
Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and is fiction editor for the journal War, Literature, and the Arts.
Amazon author page: