July 4, 2022

LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE REDUX by Ann Aptaker

LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE REDUX by Ann Aptaker

Seven years ago, after my first two books, CRIMINAL GOLD and TARNISHED GOLD, were published, I mused on what it means to be a crime and mystery fiction writer. What does it mean creatively? What does being a crime and mystery fiction writer have to say about morality? What does it contribute to Queer literature? Blogs having come into fashion at the time, I wrote one.

Seven years and four novels in the series later, still thinking about these issues, I thought I’d write another essay to include newer insights. I reread my initial effort for inspiration and found that quite a bit of it still holds up and remains relevant―perhaps even more so―in today’s literary and political climate.

So rather than reinvent the wheel, as they say, I decided to update my original “Life In The (Literary) Crime Lane” blog essay with new material and to deepen my latest musings on the matter. Thus, to paraphrase an overworked adage: old ideas don’t die, they merely keep sprouting new weeds.

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Life’s tough on a crime and mystery writer. Okay, okay, I can hear everyone telling me to stop complaining—“Who are you to complain? You’re a published author with an award-winning series of novels and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines!”—and just go back to peddling my papers. But I ask you: how would you like to lay awake nights thinking of ways to kill people? Year after year, book after book, shooting, stabbing, gouging, tossing people off bridges, blowing their heads off, cutting them to ribbons. That’s a lot of abuse of my mind.

So how do I stay sane? (Assuming, of course, that I am. Opinion varies.) I suppose my claim to sanity is tethered to the act of writing. Writing fiction depends on a bifurcated discipline: even as the imagination wanders into unreality, the mind is also tightly focused, organizing all those plot and character details which give the story clarity, enrich it, and make it believable.

Well, “So what?” you say. That bifurcation is true for any writer, not just crime and mystery writers. Okay, sure, you got me there. But I think what separates crime writers from other fiction writers—besides our obvious and disturbing comfort with devising ways to do bloody murder, a trait we probably share with those other dark thinkers: horror writers—is our insistence on finding a spark of beauty in our deadly stories, a fundamental beauty in what it means to be human in what are otherwise threatening situations involving nasty people. For some crime writers, that beauty is expressed in the protagonist’s intellectual ability to solve the murder puzzle. Such writers celebrate the human mind itself. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are the premier examples of crime fiction’s intellectual hero. For other writers, the protagonist’s sense of right and wrong expresses the possibility of a moral ideal. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, his knight of the streets, exemplifies this hope. Still other writers celebrate the beauty of decisiveness, of taking action instead of backing down when faced with danger. Chandler’s Marlowe, again, fits this bill, as does Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. For me, though, the beauty comes in finding my protagonist’s purpose.

The world of my Cantor Gold crime series is morally murky. Cantor is a true criminal after all, an art thief and smuggler. Dapper and self-assured, she takes great pleasure in the colorful outlaw life of 1950s New York. Moreover, she is a butch lesbian at a time when such a life was illegal, subject to arrest and worse, which is why she chooses to embrace a truly criminal life instead of a law abiding one. As far as she’s concerned, if the law and society are going to label her a criminal just for whom takes to dinner or to bed, then she doesn’t owe that law any allegiance at all.

Cantor knows what it’s like to have the boot of oppression on one’s head. This doesn’t make her a saint (believe me, she’s far from that; in fact, she can be quite the cad). But it does make her aware of the sufferings and oppression of other people. In the latest installment of the series, HUNTING GOLD, Cantor addresses the issue directly:

The Law would be just as happy to see certain segments of the population disappear, or even die, or just shut up: people whose names have too many vowels or consonants, or whose accents are too musical or their skin color too dark, people whose idea of romance doesn’t fit the  Mommy-and-Daddy-and-two-kids mold.

 Together with her gender-defying persona, Cantor Gold, underworld criminal, well-tailored butch, thus embodies four of genre fiction’s enduring archetypes: the “Good Guy” and the “Bad Girl,” and the “Bad Guy” and the “Good Girl,” all in the same person. In today’s parlance, then, you might say she’s a literary non-binary or gender fluid persona whose sense of self straddles not only varied gender identities but competing moral definitions.

So, what of her purpose?

In each book in the series, Cantor’s general purpose is to find a killer. That’s what crime and mystery fiction traditionally requires. But her personal purpose is far more complex. In order to solve the murder, Cantor sometimes upholds a victim’s questionable honor, or even a killer’s honor, and her own often tarnished honor as well. She must untangle issues of personal identity, personal morality, make morally and ethically questionable decisions and do morally questionable acts. And making things even more tortuous in the deepest part of her soul, she must cope with a painfully haunting passion for one woman while acting on desire for others. She must do all of this within a life of crime, where “respectable” rules for survival don’t apply. And therein lies Cantor’s beauty: she must hang on, even by the most soiled and slender thread, to an inner humanity she depends on to guide her through her treacherous quests.

Well, all that is Cantor’s job. My job is to make you, the reader, believe it, lift you out of everyday experience, challenge your emotional safety, defy your sense of right and wrong, and reveal the beauty of Cantor’s flawed but exquisite humanity. And oh yeah, give you a hell of a good time on every page.

Whew! Big job.

Like I said, life’s tough for a crime and mystery writer.