WARNING: This is a great way to waste time. Seriously.
Check out the chart below. Pick one word from each column, and precede what you get with “Thou.”
Thou unmuzzled, rump-fed puttock!
(Feels good to get it out, doesn’t it?)
Don't you wish you trash-talked like this? Don't you wish everybody did?
Now, after you’ve limbered up a bit, gotten a few combinations under your belt, gotten so they glide effortlessly off your velvet/acid tongue, you may want to try something bold—like come up with insults for the Murderati member you love (read: despise) most!
Post it in the Comment thread and we’ll all try to guess who you mean!
Or, if you’re lazy (and who isn’t, really?), or just overwhelmed by your go-getter/jetsetter/bedwetter lifestyle, you may prefer to let the help do it for you!
Just match the Murderatero of your choice to one of these pre-selected barbs, chosen judiciously by our trained, conscientious, and dedicated staff.
It’s fun! It’s easy! It’s insulting!
Match One From This ListWith One From This List
Thou fawning, fen-sucked barnacle! Pari Noskin Taichert
The class deals with the importance of knowing your subgenre in order to better understand reader expectations so you can not only meet those expectations but exceed them.
I also stress the need to create characters with sufficient depth and complexity so your story has a chance to achieve not just popular but critical success.
There is still room for four more students in the class, so if you're interested, sign up now.
I realize I seem to be harping on the same theme as two weeks ago – the potential for greatness in the crime genre. My apologies if I seem a bore. Two weeks back I was inspired by Don Winslow's marvelous talk at the Book Passage Mystery Conference. This time I'm just restating my fundamental belief that this is a great genre that owes apologies to no one.
Either way, I find myself returning to a debate we often have in this particular corner of the literary world:
What does it mean to serve the genre, to respect the genre, and to transcend the genre?
I’m normally one of those people who finds the phrase “transcend the genre” more than a little patronizing. It’s so often used to describe the works of literary writers who go slumming in the Naked City to make a few bucks – and who often not only don’t “transcend” the genre, they fail to respect or even understand it.
Literary writers often think of genre conventions as mere formula, and automatically recoil. This is, to my mind, exactly the wrong way to look at it.
Rather, if you’re going to try your hand at a genre and not just wander in as some kind of snooty tourist, you need to know what makes the thing work, and why. Anything less simply reveals your arrogance and ignorance – and it’s been my experience that arrogance and ignorance all too often go neatly hand in glove.
But by saying we need to serve or respect the genre, I’m not saying that we can’t expand our usual understanding of what a crime story can do.
One thing I’ll emphasize in the class: The difference between a good crime story and a great one often lies in seeing in its subtlest, most far-reaching or most profound terms the underlying thematic premise of the particular subgenre you choose.
The detective genre, for example, is fundamentally about: How can we determine the truth?
This idea is as subtle and as vast as you care to make it. It’s no accident, for example, that Chinatown is based on the oldest detective story in the Western canon – Oedipus the King – or that it resonates with the same theme: the intrinsic danger in presuming the truth can be known.
And in Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson doesn't just solve the crime and overcome his fear of heights, he tracks Freud's understanding of male sexuality, from the pleasure principle (Babs) to romantic idealization (Madeline) to the reality principle (Judy) – with tragic results, as in Chinatown, due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.
At the heart of every detective story lies a mystery – something that baffles our usual understanding of things – and there is nothing confining the limits of that mystery except the reach of your own imagination.
The crime subgenre, which is more about the battle between police and criminals than about solving a mystery, fundamentally addresses the balance between individual freedom and social conformity.
A world run by criminals would be a Hobbesian state of nature, with no rules, the war of all against all, and ultimate power residing with those who possess money and weapons. A world run by the police would be – you guessed it – a police state, with everyone guilty of something, and paranoia and suspicion underlying every act.
Every society seeks a balance between these two polarities, and the crime story is a great vehicle for exploring what it would mean to move the goal posts in one direction or the other.
You can also ask fundamental questions such as what makes a given act a crime, or to whom do you owe your loyalty, and answer them in as ingenious a fashion as you please. Two great Boston crime writers, Dennis Lehane and Chuck Hogan, do this brilliantly in such books as Mystic River and Prince of Thieves.
Crime stories that feature the criminal as hero – like The Thomas Crowne Affair – often ask us to reconsider the value of the creative individual in a society defined by compromise, mediocrity, and conformity.
The criminal in such stories is often devoted to excellence – and risk – in a way that others in the society are not. In a very fundamental way, the criminal in such stories is a stand-in for the artist, whose role is every bit as challenging, enigmatic, potentially disturbing – even revolutionary. (It's no great surprise that real revolutionaries are often described as terrorists or criminals by those hoping to trivialize their political aims.)
Other stories with criminal heroes, like The Winter of Frankie Machine,Goodfellas or In Bruges, achieve greatness by forcing the criminal hero to perform a moral accounting of his entire life.
The thriller, which combines elements of the detective story with the horror story, pits the seeker of the truth against relentless pressure and danger. It shares certain traits with the epic and myth, and like those ancient types of stories it can be expanded to show the individual hero, through great sacrifice and personal transformation, redeeming or redefining the society in which he or she lives.
In other words, the genre is perfectly capable of delivering big themes and great art, and it doesn’t need interlopers to pull it off.
This is something I’ll continue to hammer away at here, in my classes, and in my own work. I love the crime genre. I think more than any other form of story it represents our current mythology on how we live. And if you see it in that context, you can achieve something truly original and meaningful and profound.
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So, Murderateros – What crime stories do you think have that spark of greatness?
When was the last time you had to defend crime stories against the snoots?
What themes in the crime story affect you most deeply?
Note: I’ll be traveling again today, and won’t be able to check comments until this evening when I get home on the west coast. Don’t let that stop you from chiming in, though. This community is more than capable of having a rousing discussion without me as room monitor.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was visiting the east coast this week, and on Saturday had the chance to visit with former Murderati regular Cornelia Read and her beau, the actor Peter Riegert. Peter shared a clip from a former student, the beautiful and gifted and quite tall Storm Large (her real name, interestingly enough). It’s a number from her one-woman show and I can’t get it out of my head.
WARNING: This track has quite explicit language and a perspective on sex and womanhood some may find offensive. If you think you might fall into that camp, by all means skip it. But if you’re up for it, this is one of the wittiest, raunchiest, most wryly ironic and unapologetically non-PC performances you’re likely to see in quite some time. (Real catchy tune, too.)
Brief introductory note: I'm off to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference where I'm serving on the faculty in the novel workshop, so may not be able to respond to all comments promptly, especially in the afternoon. My apologies on that front, but I will check in when I can.
Among my many duties, I was asked to introduce Don Winslow.
Don's a writer I greatly admire, and whose most recent novel, Kings of Cool, has just been published to coincide with the release of the film Savages, based of Don’s novel of the same name. (Kings of Cool is a prequel to Savages.)
I based my introduction on a bit of a rant I made on the online group RARA AVIS, which is a conversational watering hole for lovers of noir and hardboiled crime fiction. The most relevant part of that rant-cum-introduction was this:
In his fifteen novels and counting, Don Winslow has created something unlike anything else in contemporary fiction, especially Savages and Kings of Cool. They're like poetry and screenplays mashed up into fiction, and for some unholy reason it works.
He's distilled the essence of crime writing down into its molten core and fashioned something strangely recognizable and yet utterly new.
He's also one of the few crime writers I can think of who will be remembered not just for his body of work, but for a genuine, honest-to-God classic: Power of the Dog. That's an incredible accomplishment. Only the greats pull it off.
Don could have come up and pimped his book and movie, but he didn’t. He loves the Book Passage conference and has taught quite a bit himself, so instead he gave a truly memorable talk about the nature of crime fiction. For me, that talk was the true highlight of the conference in a weekend full of them.
He began by noting a question he once received in an interview: Do you believe you write in a literary ghetto?
Don responded: “Yes. And I love my neighborhood.”
But Don explained he takes an expansive view of the genre, tracing its roots not just to the obvious progenitors but to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, originally performed in 458 B.C.
In those three plays, we see the warrior king Agamemnon murdered by his wife, Elektra, for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so he could go off to the Trojan War; we see their son, Orestes, faced with the terrible dilemma of needing to avenge his father’s death (or face the wrath of Apollo), but this necessitates the killing of his mother (which will incur the wrath of the Erinyes, or Furies).
Orestes goes through with the killing, and is set upon by the Furies until Athena steps in and conducts a trial, dramatizing the movement in Greek civilization from blood vengeance to the primacy of the court. When the jury is split evenly, Athena casts the deciding vote, and Orestes is set free.
Move ahead two millenia to Elizabethan England, and in Shakespeare’s two-part Henry IV we see the template for the gangster classic The Godfather. In both, a son who declines the mantle of leadership that’s his birthright turns around through the course of the drama and rises to his true destiny, that of king, or godfather.
Young Prince Harry abandons the saloons and brothels where he cavorts with the pugnaciously libertine Falstaff, and ascends through battles with his father’s enemies to the position of king—where he closes all the saloons and brothels. When Falstaff approaches him, seeking a personal favor on the basis of their old acquaintance, Prince Harry, now King Henry IV says, “I know thee not, old man.” He adds that he knew such a man once in his dreams, but now that he has awakened, “I do despise my dream.”
Michael Corleone isn’t a libertine, he’s a war hero—with a schoolteacher fiancée, Kay. But he too disavows his father’s realm, until the old man’s attacked, and Michael rises to the challenge of defending his father against his enemies, and ascends to his father’s place as leader. When Kay asks him if what she’s heard Is true, he’s responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, Michael lies to her face, then enters the room where his leadership is acknowledged, and shuts the door in her face.
It’s the same story.
Don then traced the lineage to Don Quixote and the picaresque novel, with its focus not on knights and ladies but rogues and scoundrels, a tradition that continued in the eighteenth century novels of Fielding and Smollett—stories that dwelt realistically with the underclass, a milieu richly explored again in the novels of Dickens, especially Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.
If we expand our horizons in how we view the crime story, we needn’t be bothered with sniffy dismissals from our betters, because we understand that crime has always concerned itself with the defiant individual, the have-nots, and injustice.
He admitted that when he wrote Savages, stylistically so different from his other novels, he’d grown bored with his work, and feared readers had also. He decided to write the book he heard in his head.
He wrote the first 80 pages and handed it to his friend and collaborator and literary guardian angel, Shane Salerno, and said, “I'm not sure what I’ve got here. Either it’s great or I should pitch it and I can’t tell which.”
Shane read the pages and told him to put aside all his other projects and forge ahead with this one while he was still in this literary head space. He did, but remained terrified throughout that he might be committing a terrible blunder, or even professional suicide.
The rest, as they say, is history.
He exhorted the conferences participants to be daring, think big, embrace the larger canvas and, as he put it, “Write the story you’re afraid to write.”
He noted that you shouldn’t give up writing the book you think will get published, the one that publishers won’t reject out of hand, but nothing’s guaranteed, and how terrible to never have risen to the challenge to face the book you knew you had in you, but were too timid, too remiss, too cowed by the marketplace to get down in words.
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So Murderateros, what book are you afraid to write? Have you at least started it? Can you see yourself returning to it? Have you already written it? How’d it go?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I’m not going with music this week, but with a spoken-word performance by the late comedian Mike DeStefano produced through The Moth.
Note: Prepare to cry.
I made reference to this piece in my own talk at the conference on the importance of facing honestly your own personal wounds to enhance the depth, texture, and richness of your fiction.
(For a written version of Mike DeStefano's talk, with some additional material, check out this piece from the New York Times).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “trust” comes from the Latin for suckerpunch. That’s not true, but when someone says the word – as in “Lend me twenty bucks, and I’ll pay you back right away; trust me,” or “Trust me; this won’t hurt” – I prepare for the worst. Except in rare situations, only untrustworthy people say, “Trust me.”
The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet tells Juliet, “There’s no trust, no faith, no honesty in men,” and who can blame her? In my first Joe Kozmarski mystery, The Last Striptease (which I like to think is the kind of mystery a descendent of Shakespeare would write if the bloodline had been thoroughly bastardized), Joe trusts people about as much as the Nurse does. When an old family friend says, “Trust me,” Joe replies, “Not a chance.” And he’s right to say it: the family friend is a crook.
If a salesman says, “Trust me,” buy a different product.
If a politician says, “Trust me,” vote for the opposition.
If a lover says, “Trust me,” check the phone log, and find another bed to sleep in.
Weird then that some of the saddest words are those that express a betrayal of trust: “I no longer trust you; you’ve lost my trust.” These words cut to the heart. They’re ones that no one ever wants to speak or hear.
Trust is a confidence game, a game of faith – blind faith, as all faith ultimately must be – but a life without it would be cynical and empty. So, may we all trust wisely and well, and if others betray our trust, may they suffer Shakespearean indignities: may their heads turn into donkey heads and may their hands never wash clean.