I write crime fiction. It’s fun, it’s entertaining to my readers, and I know hundreds of other crime writers. But I’ve written other genres as well, and I, once and again, have to ask myself: why crime?
I write about sick shit, terrible crimes. I crudely kill people off with a stray sentence. But if you know me, you’d know I am a deep, thoughtful person. And a total pacifist. So why do I use my literary voice to show you the worst in people?
I’m a history-minded person, and I have a theory. Let’s say it starts in the late 19th century, the “Gilded Age”, where the Carnegies and the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers were listed as the “men who built America”. But they funded the build. The real men (women and children) who built America worked sixteen-hour days, six days a week, doing grueling work in unsafe conditions, totally disposable, and paid so poorly that they could work their whole lives and never get out of debt to the company store. And if they had enough, went on strike? The U.S. Army would come to the rescue – of the “men who built America” and with rifle and cannon, blew strikers away.
That was the Law. Indentured servitude to the very few. So when people like Jesse James started making the papers, they caught the pubic’s attention. They were stars because the only difference between Jesse James and the workers who went on strikes was that he got what he wanted before the Law started shooting at him.
The outlaw, even on the run, was truly free to the factory worker whose technical freedom was only a few square miles.
Every time we’re struggling under the weight of a law or laws – be they criminal or social – we boil a special kind of desperation under our skin. Those who skirt those laws, moreover, those who flaunt those laws, become mythic to us. We can’t bring ourselves to be them, but God, we want to know how they tick.
This became especially important after the horrors of World Wars I and II, when writers struggled to unlock just what it was that allowed a person to kill thousands in one day and believe that they were doing an acceptable thing. We seem to revolve around glorifying the criminality and reeling from it, and nothing captures that like the fiction that donned the black hat and the flawed anti-hero.
Applying this theory to modern crime fiction, I see the weight of Law more on a social front – the disconnect that we’ve acquired in the social media revolution. At the beginning of this century, we talked to each other; now, we bury our faces in our phones. I see rural crime and noir expanding its popularity. Because today, a person not attached to their phone or laptop is flaunting the social law. I also see gritty, hardboiled gaining in popularity, with simpler plots but much more character and scene development.
So that’s my theory. What’s yours?