Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is crime good for crime writers?

Does real violence inspire crime fiction?

Yes, says Ken Bruen, who said he "didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now."

Yes, say Roger Smith, who told Detectives Beyond Borders that "During the apartheid years, writing crime fiction in South Africa seemed beside the point. But now, sadly, South Africa is one of the most crime-ravaged countries in the world, and writing crime seems all too appropriate" and Wessel Ebersohn, who said: "If violence is what you want to write about, South Africa is the place to be."

Maybe, says Deon Meyer, who tells BOOK Southern Africa that "Real world crime (everywhere) is mostly sad, sordid, domestic, related to alcohol and drug abuse and tragic socio-economic circumstances. Crime fiction asks for intriguing, often sensational, always wrapped in riddles ... the sort of thing that is very scarce in reality."

Over in Iceland, where almost no one gets murdered, authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardòttir have said that such killings as there are tend to be similarly petty, a drunken brawl that gets out of hand, say. Maybe that's why they turn to history, geography, hints of the supernatural — and their own imaginations.

Smith, cited as exemplifying the proposition that real-world influence on crime fiction is decisive, filters that belief through a rich lens of techniques and influences from crime fiction, so there may be no one right answer.

What do you think? Does real-life crime influence crime writers? In what ways?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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18 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter. Great question. I'd say crime inspires writers as anything else can. Crime writers specifically are, of course, inspired by crime--or, to broaden things, what they see as crime.

Every locale has a different flavor of crime. To paraphrase Bruen's comment, one can't write about crime in a particular place until one knows the nuances of a crime there.

To Roger Smith's point, writers are called to reflect their times to an extent. Now that crime is more prevalent in South Africa, he's writing about it.

While I don't wish crime on anyone, at the most basic level, one can't imagine how it feels to be wronged, how it feels to want revenge, until one has been wronged or closely observed others wronged.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The opening of Roger Smith's first novel, Mixed Blood, is an explicit homage to Raymond Chandler's story "Red Wind." I'm impressed that an author inspired by today's news turns to the past in this way. I mentioned also in my review that Wake Up Dead, for all its rootedness in the Cape Town Flats, has structural similarities to old noir melodramas. Even has he's inspired by his own times, Smith expresses this inspiration through oold techniques and shows that much life remains in them.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

You can't live in Detroit and not think about crime-especially with a former mayor on trial. And having a son whose a prosecutor introduces a lot of crimes I might not otherwise hear about. Elmore Leonard would not be the writer he is if he was born in Maine.

April 20, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

I mentioned also in my review that Wake Up Dead, for all its rootedness in the Cape Town Flats, has structural similarities to old noir melodramas

Peter, I don't think the conventions of those old melodramas ever went away. The femme fatale may be looking a little tattered around the edges, perhaps as a result of feminism, and while private eyes are scarcer that they used to be, that's only because writers have realized they can get away with the paradox of presenting their cop heroes as anti-authority figures.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elmore Leonard would not be the writer he is if he was born in Maine.

So that's why Stephen King has to keep making up horrible stuff: because nothing really bad happens in Maine.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Peter, I don't think the conventions of those old melodramas ever went away

And Roger Smith embraces some of them with special zest, though that is not the totality of his writing, of course. That zest works nicely with the novelty of the setting, at least for me and, I suspect, for other readers outside South Africa as well.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

In my case definitely yes. I've used real-life historical crimes in my books.

But I know you mean modern crime, and in that case, it's problematical. Real murder is a terrible thing. If the mystery is written as a puzzle-to-solve, then the crime is, or should be, sanitized.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I did not necessarily have modern crime in mind. A Periclean Athens or twelfth-century England or early imperial Rome full of killings that wanted investigation would meet the criteria for a yes just as well as Roger Smith's Cape Town or Ken Bruen's Ireland.

If the mystery is written as a puzzle-to-solve, then the crime is, or should be, sanitized.

Now, there's a proposition ripe for a lively debate that would quickly get at the heart of crime fiction and why we read and write it.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

I thought that statement might be slightly controversial! I'd be very happy to defend it in a debate some time.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It might make for a worthy debate. I suppose our age might find something unseemly in the idea of murder reduced to a parlor game, but then, so did Raymond Chandler.

April 21, 2010  
Blogger DTK Molise said...

I am not sure either way. I think that it really depends on the writer in question and what inspires them, as well as how they see their role as a writer.

Personally I am with David Peace on this who recently said that writers should focus on true crime and then, as Ellroy said, "extrapolate".

Peace states that: "I'm drawn to when writers take on history, take on real crimes. To me there's just so much that happens in real life that we don't understand and we can't even fathom. I don't really see the point of making up crimes,".

Now that view point makes sense to me because I am person who is rooted to politics, sociology and history. Yet I don't think that this necessarily makes "made-up" crime any less successful in fiction.

http://kabulnoir.blogspot.com/

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment and welcome. David Peace's comment is an eloquent statement of what I think authors such as Ken Bruen. And no one extrapolates from true crime like James Ellroy.

I wonder what Peace would say about crime writing from places where not much real crime happens -- Iceland, for instance. You are rooted to politics, sociology and history, but Arnaldur Indriðason is rooted to geography and geology.

April 24, 2010  
Blogger Roger Smith said...

Excellent question, Peter. Thanks for including me.
When Crimebeat blog recently asked how S.A. influences story choice, I replied: "South Africa offers us crime writers an embarrassment of toxic riches, from the grand themes (the spoor of lies and corruption leading straight to the presidency) to the small and intimate (a man in a shack somewhere raping and murdering his baby.)It’s all out there."

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That makes an interesting contrast with Deon Meyer's answers. On the one hand, he seemed to discount sordid, everyday crime as a source of inspiration to crime writers. On the other, he said that South Africa had influenced him "in every possible way." I've read just one of his books so I can't really answer this question, but I wonder if small-scale crimes influence his writing more than he knows or acknowledges.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Roger Smith said...

In South Africa five children are murdered every day, and a South African woman stands more chance of being raped than learning to read. If this didn’t influence my writing, I’d have my head stuck deep in the sand, or deep up my ass.

April 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A land of opportunity for you, I suppose -- countless stories to tell and, more interesting, countless ways to tell them.

April 28, 2010  
Anonymous Harkavy said...

It's not as simple as all that. South Africa was one of the most crime-ravaged places on Earth during apartheid--safe for whites, brutal for blacks. And not necessarily safe for whites, particularly under the placid surface of white suburbs and farms. Just look back at James McClure's Kramer/Zondi police procedurals. Gritty stuff, plus the kind of indictment of society also seen in the Martin Beck books.

May 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. Soho is reissuingThe Steam Pig this summer. I'll take a look.

I wonder if any current South African crime authors write about the phenomena you mention: crime during apartheid, brutal conditions for blacks, violence in the placid suburbs.

May 09, 2010  

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