Monday, March 19, 2012


Crime fiction can be a great vehicle for exploring history, especially eras in the collective active memory of our country in which prevailing opinion was in violent flux. I may not have described that very elegantly but these are the two elements I'm thinking of:

1. Not everyone who was alive at that time is dead - we have a few living social historians and civilians who were there. I suppose nowadays that means events going back to the thirties.

2. I'm most interested in social issues in which our society has done a U-turn. That is to say, historically if you got a hundred random US citizens into a room and asked them about the issues, the outlying opinion would now be the majority opinion.

3. People were and are so passionate about the issue that it engenders violence (necessary for the "crime" part of the fiction). For instance, there has been a lot of change in the way we view intellectual property, but that would be tough to make into a compelling crime drama (but hey! prove me wrong!)

Obviously, this is far from an original thought. Changes in civil and women's rights provide a rich backdrop - a recent favorite example is Attica Locke's BLACK WATER RISING. There was a recent book - I wish I could remember the title - that proposed a murder investigation during a pandemic, which poses the interesting question, is justice for a single life worth getting all that excited about when people are dying on every block? (- which - sidebar - is, of course a character question; the real story here is about who would undertake such an investigation and why.)

Anyway, the front page of the NYTBR this week is devoted to FLAGRANT CONDUCT by Dale Carpenter. Here's the blurb, though I must caution you that it greatly oversimplifies and possibly misrepresents the book's treatment of the issue - (read the review instead):

No one could have predicted that the night of September 17, 1998, would be anything but routine in Houston, Texas. Even the call to police that a black man was "going crazy with a gun" was hardly unusual in this urban setting. Nobody could have imagined that the arrest of two men for a minor criminal offense would reverberate in American constitutional law, exposing a deep malignity in our judicial system and challenging the traditional conception of what makes a family. Indeed, when Harris County sheriff’s deputies entered the second-floor apartment, there was no gun. Instead, they reported that they had walked in on John Lawrence and Tyron Garner having sex in Lawrence’s bedroom.

So what I'm proposing is that you could write a fascinating story by dropping a murder into such a case. Honestly, I think your biggest problem would be convincing people that Texans could be so wrong-headed as recently as 1998 - or our Supreme Court for that matter, in particular Scalia, who - disappointed in the 2003 ruling reversing Texas's dumbassery - said the court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda."***

.....okay, I'm going to insert a tiny little whine in here since we're talking about smart fiction, one of my favorite subjects. I finally got around to reading ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead and I pretty much love it. Sure, it's flawed, but you all know that I admire risk takers (and do NOT admire people who are content to rest on their laurels when it comes to growing as authors). What is really getting to me is the absolutely caustic, hateful response of many reviewers who complain that the book is full of too many big words and complex sentences. To them I say, with absolutely no judgment of comic books, if you want short sentences and words, go buy a fucking comic book and get the hell out of my discussion. (To me, they would be absolutely entitled to say, it ain't your discussion - a point i often lose sight of.) Anyway, ZONE ONE. Worthy.

*** Rock on, Scalia, I hope your future biographers caught that one and exact the proper pound of flesh.

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