(Editor’s note: This 58th installment in our “Story Behind the Story” series introduces to The Rap Sheet Barry Knister, who spent a career in the classroom at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, before retiring in 2008 to pen fiction. His first novel, a gritty thriller about Vietnam vets titled The Dating Service , was published by Berkley. His second novel, Just Bill , was an eccentric departure, a fable for adults about dogs and owners living on a Florida golf course. Knister’s third novel, The Anything Goes Girl [Blue Harvest, 2013], was the opening entry in his Brenda Contay suspense series. Below he writes about his new, second Contay novel, Deep North, which is due out next week in both print and e-book versions.)
Big, not to say daunting challenges confront everyone these days who aspires to write crime fiction. The number of titles being released is in itself enough to make a writer change his mind in favor of opening a cheese shop.
But that’s not the principal hurdle I faced when I first got the idea for writing Deep North (Blue
Harvest), a suspense novel set in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
The first challenge was the standard of excellence already in place. Do you admire Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch? For anyone reading The Rap Sheet, that’s a rhetorical question, one to which the answer is already known. The same holds true for asking whether readers admire Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, Sue Grafton’s P.I., Kinsey Millhone, Elmore Leonard’s federal marshal, Raylan Givens, Scott Turow’s lawyers and prosecutors, or Thomas Harris’ psychological profilers.
Part of our respect and admiration for these characters has to do with the writing skill of the authors, but part is also related to expertise. Each author knows a great deal about one or more aspects of the world of crime, and equips his or her characters with that knowledge. We are placed alongside authentic police, legal experts, and forensic scientists, watching them do their stuff.
But that’s not how real life works. Average persons--civilians--experience most crime as a bolt from the blue, a shocking, sudden intrusion of violence or discovery that stabs into the predictability of daily life, leaving the victim or witness stunned.
According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, family violence accounted for something like 11 percent of all reported and unreported violent crimes committed between 1998 and 2002. Of the 3,500,000 such crimes carried out against family members, 49 percent were committed against spouses, 11 percent against sons or daughters “victimized by a parent,” etc. Most tellingly, 22 percent of homicides committed in 2002 were “family murders.”
These numbers and what they represent point to a rich vein of do-it-yourself criminals. They offer the writer of crime fiction an abundance of possibilities. At least they do me.
Add to this that I’m in no position to compete with crime-fighter expertise: I’m a former college English teacher. I can write reasonably well, and I enjoy reading and writing crime fiction. But I am not able or willing to “go to school” to train myself in arts and techniques that have been mastered by so many writers before me, and that avid crime-fiction readers are fully versed in.
However, I can imagine stunning moments, and how my fictional characters might react to them.
My solution has been to start from the point of view of the civilian. For the central character in Deep
North and the series of suspense novels it belongs to, I feature Brenda Contay, a tabloid “live action” TV reporter turned freelance journalist who keeps finding herself in dicey situations. Those situations involve financial
and political crimes, and always murders.
But Contay, a resident of the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, is seeing what happens from the point of view of an outsider (and usually not even as a reporter), rather than as a crime fighter. Neither is she an amateur sleuth. In each instance, her encounter with crime is a matter of happenstance, the way it is for ordinary people who find themselves involved in or witnessing criminal acts.
By taking this approach, I free myself--and my main character--from the burdensome history of expertise and specialized knowledge that so many excellent writers have developed and refined for decades.
The approach is also well-suited in another way to Deep North. This story finds Brenda Contay going fishing with three other women, on a trip won in a raffle--but none of them knows anything about fishing. Brenda and her friends will need to rely on someone who does know, and this clears the way for lots of possibilities.
(Guess what teacher-turned-author goes fishing for just one week a year, in the Boundary Waters, said person relying on actual fishermen to keep him from falling out of the boat?)
Here’s something else that many writers can do far better than I can: devise plots that lead the reader through a labyrinth of twists and turns, plots that leave the actual agent of crime in doubt to the very end of the book.
(Right) Author Barry Knister
I am talking mostly about mysteries, whodunits. The trouble is, I don’t read very many such novels. I respect the ingenuity and craft of mystery writing, but the genre appeals most strongly to people who love puzzles. My wife tells me I’m insecure, that I shy away from mysteries because I don’t like being unable to figure out whodunit before the end. She’s smart, loves mysteries herself, and is very good at crossword puzzles, so she would say that. My younger stepdaughter--also a mystery reader--is relentless when it comes to jigsaw puzzles. I don’t like those either. They frustrate me. About halfway through a rainy-day jigsaw puzzle, I find myself saying, “Who cares about these damn pieces anyway?”
That may be why I’m drawn to suspense stories in which the criminal or criminals are known to the reader well before the end (but not to the hero), stories that place the protagonist and criminal on trajectories aimed at each other.
In fact, with one exception in my suspense series, those who commit crimes will not be professional criminals. They will be other civilians. Bitter or obsessed in some way, or arrogantly convinced that their intellectual superiority places them above the law, they, too--like my freelance journalist--will be amateurs.
So, the basic story dynamic in my suspense series is different. My effort to suspend the reader in a state of pleasurable anxiousness shifts from guiding her to watch and listen for clues, to watching the central character as she operates in ignorance of what’s coming.
In such stories, the reader is no longer in a squad car, or a medical examiner’s lab, or in a courtroom waiting to learn the truth about a crime. Instead, tension is generated by watching a sympathetic character as she moves ever closer to a fatal encounter.
How will she react? What will happen to her understanding of others after that encounter? How will the disaster alter the importance with which she has invested friends and enemies? Can she salvage something positive from a terrible experience? If so, at what cost?
In such stories, the Big Bang--the climax--is not the end of the novel, and the denouement takes on more importance: the reader needs to know what the aftermath will bring.
To succeed in bringing off this alternative approach to generating suspense in Deep North, I have to make the characters--all of them, not just the central point-of-view character and the “bad guy”--matter to the reader.
Yes, characters matter in any good novel, but in some sense their importance is diminished by the level of engagement the reader feels with the plot. It’s a delicate balance: plot and structure are of central importance to all well-written novels. But for me as a writer, figuring out how to keep structure strong, while at the same time expanding the meaning and value of characters, is the challenge.
In other words, two trains have to stay firmly on the track, but those riding inside them must be important enough to the reader to make him or her stick around for the whole ride. Not to find out whodunit, but to learn what happens when two trains headed for each other collide. Who will still be alive, and what will they do next?