If there is single word that characterizes my encounter with writing crime fiction after decades as a criminal investigator, it’s counterintuitive.
And it’s part of the explanation why true crime makes for lousy crime fiction, why so few career-long law enforcement officers and private investigators succeed in crime writing and why most of those who do have only worked in the field briefly. In truth, much of what readers want from investigator protagonists are characteristics and habits that experienced investigators have to train out of themselves and train out of young investigators in order for them to succeed.
Readers want different things from investigators than do law enforcement agencies and private investigator clients. Readers want to feel increasing tension, while, with the rarest of exceptions, experienced investigators aim to lower it; readers want to watch investigators overcome obstacles, while experienced investigators aim to avoid them; readers want to read about characters who are uniquely qualified, while in the real world there are only investigators who are especially qualified; readers want to watch investigators run up against walls and then force their way through them, while experienced investigators aim how to slip around them; readers want spontaneity and surprise, while experienced investigators plan and plan in order to limit surprises; readers want to see investigators try and try again, while clients want real investigators to get it right the first time; readers are not troubled by brash, aggressive protagonists injecting conflict into a scene, while real investigators don’t inject it, they anticipate potential conflict inherent in a situation and work to mute it.
In the end, in the real world, doing all these things in these ways is both the criteria of competence and the conditions for successful investigations.
There is one kind of law enforcement that matches readers’ expectations: narcotics. But it isn’t at heart a crime solving assignment. Narcotics cases are generally built from leaning on people who’ve already been caught dirty—by patrol officers and street drug task forces and through search warrants and wiretaps–to give up those above them. It’s less about solving crimes and more about discovering crimes already in progress or creating crimes by means of informants or undercover agents. The problem is that since the skills and attitudes that succeed in narcotics enforcement fail in investigations, few narcotics officers become first rate homicide detectives. Observe the contrast between the drug enforcement reality shows and A&E’s The First 48. In The First 48, at least during the first few years of the show and before detectives began to play to the camera, nearly all of the excitement came from the music and the jump cuts. The detectives themselves were generally low key and methodical.
The problem for me was to translate the reality of investigation into fiction. That is to say, there could be no “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” of Raymond Chandler or “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery” of Dashiell Hammett. Rather, plots had to be driven internally and conflict had to be exploited from within, rather than imposed from without and the methods used had to be those that succeeded in real life.
On the domestic front, I’m making this effort in the Harlan Donnally novels of which A Criminal Defense is the latest, and on the international front, in the Graham Gage thrillers of which Power Blind is the latest. In each series, the central problem I faced was investigative competence: the protagonists had to apply real world methods and approaches in a realistic way. That meant applying the techniques of genre fiction to stories whose aim is realism. And the challenge was to make the stories not only informative about the real world of crime and investigation, but exciting for readers. In the end, it’s the readers who will judge whether I have truly bridged the gap between the real and the fictional.