I’ve had six crime novels published, seven counting Second Story Man, out this month. Not bad for someone who had no inkling he’d be writing about people who break the law.
As a child, I was a voracious reader. I loved the classic detective novels. Dead body. Suspects. Brilliant detective. It doesn’t get much better than that.
While I was enjoying Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald, my literary heroes were “serious” authors like Bellow, Malamud, Nabokov and Roth. I was an English major in college and started my first novel, right after my only year of law school (I won’t count the roman a clef that I wrote at the age of 12). My intention was to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, but somewhere along the way I got “lost,” and wound up writing about crime.
After reading my first novel, a teacher at the Columbia MFA program, a minor novelist, asked, “Do you know what a story is?” Of course, I knew what a story was. I was an English major, dammit. I’d been reading stories since I was three-years old. What the hell was he talking about? “You write that Philip Roth, Dostoevsky crap. Have you ever read Chekhov?”
Yeah, I’ve read Chekhov, asshole, but rather than answer I bathed in his un-meant compliment, comparing me to Roth and Doestoevsky. I mean, really!
He probably meant I was stronger on character than on plot. Okay, Mr. Do-You-Know-What-a-Story-Is? I’ll show you. I’ll write you a damn story, just to prove you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Oh, and I quit the class and the MFA program.
The most tightly plotted stories were detective novels. So, that’s what I’d write. In preparation, I read Hammett, Chandler, Nero Wolf, Ross MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, as well as pulp writers Big Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Once I “got it,” meaning the basic structure of a detective novel, I was off and running.
I began with the classic set-up. Down and out skip tracer, Henry Swann, working out of his dingy Spanish Harlem office, is visited by a gorgeous, wealthy woman who hires him to find her husband. Simple, right? But I couldn’t help twisting the traditional detective novel by having Swann find within a day that Harry Janus had been killed in a sleazy Times Square hotel. The next day, he’s hired to find the killer.
Only there was a problem. I just couldn’t adhere to the general formula. As Swann tries to solve the crime, he finds the victim led more than one life. He was a dealer in antiquities. A rock star. A spy. Swann winds up searching for the victim instead of the killer. In the end, I broke a cardinal rule of detective fiction: Swann does not solve the crime. A friend said, “You’ve written an existential crime novel.” Yeah, like Sartre, right?
Unfortunately, publishers did not see the brilliance in this, and after praising the writing, the characters, the story which ambles across the continent, into Mexico, then over to Berlin, before ending back in New York City, they turned me down.
Twenty years passed. I resurrected the manuscript, sent it out, and when an editor said he’d buy it if I changed the ending, I did just that (if you’re interested in the original ending, you can find it in the paperback and e-book editions, both are included.)
Swann was meant to be a one-off—hence, his last song—then I’d return to writing that Roth/Doestoevsky “crap.”
Only life rarely turns out how you think it will. Swann’s Last Song was nominated for a Shamus Award—I didn’t even know what that was. That’s when my life changed (or at least my writing life.) Not because I won but because I lost. Pissed (okay, so I’m competitive), I said to myself, “I’m going to keep writing these damned things until I win something.”
Now three Swanns later, I’m still writing about crime, not because I have to but because I love to. But I wouldn’t love to if I had to write solely about murder. That would mean a lifetime sentence of boredom—no offense to other writers who so brilliantly do deal with the ultimate crime. So, I decided early-on my crime novels would rarely be just about murder.
Take Devil in the Hole, based on a true crime. Man murders his three kids, wife, mother, and the family dog. The murder takes place before the book begins, the police know exactly who did it, so does the reader, and there’s never another murder. It’s not a whodunit; it’s a “whydunit,” as well as a study of how murder affects everyone around it.
Same thing with the Swann novels. None are about murder. That’s because I figure most of us will never be murdered, nor will we be touched by murder. Besides, aren’t there enough murders on TV, like twenty or thirty a week? There are so many more interesting crimes to write about: theft, fraud, kidnapping, arson, embezzlement, not to mention crimes of the heart.
Take Swann Dives In. You’re not sure what the crime is until halfway through the book, and by the end of the book, you’re not even sure a crime has been committed.
My latest, Second Story Man, is about a master burglar, and the two lawmen who chase after him.
Charles Salzberg is the author of the Shamus Award-nominated Swann’s Last Song and its sequels Swann Dives In and Swann’s Lake of Despair. He is also author of Devil in the Hole, which was chosen as one of the Best Crime Novels of 2013 by Suspense Magazine. He lives in New York City and teaches writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is proud to be a Founding Member.