Johnny Cash’s narrator of “Folsom Prison Blues” tells how he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Pretty bad, huh? Yet on the live recording of the song at Folsom itself, the line brings a huge whoop from the lifers in the audience.
I think I understand why. I’ve only killed fictional people and it’s quite a thrill. Without suggesting that murderers have found some human essence that’s beyond most of us to experience, I can say that they’re at least tied to an energy that illuminates the life in them. It’s an energy that – at somewhat of a different, less gruesome tangent – is also at work in crime fiction readers.
As a journalist, I used to cover Wall Street. I became deeply depressed and drank too much, because the subject of my daily research and labor was so vacuous and populated with people of such ugly impulses and self-congratulation. It was a milieu out of which all life had been sucked. Some people filled that with money or cocaine or general wild living. I gave it a try, but it didn’t cut it. Maybe I just wasn’t earning enough….
Even covering Israeli politics left me half-dead with boredom. Not Canadian politics, Israeli politics. You’d think that’d be an endless whirl of excitement. But no, it’s just a different set of principles to betray for those involved. It’s a long time since I was excited to hear a minister’s secretary calling to patch me through to the bastard’s limo for a phone interview.
I saw through Wall Street, and I saw so far through politics and politicians that — like Doctor Seuss’s “little old worm” — I saw all the way around the world and back again until I could see the fools in front of me.
War and crime were different, though. Every moment I spent exploring them as a reporter was fantastic.
You can’t see through war and crime. Sure, you can see through the causes of war, or the circumstances that lead to crime. You never can see through the actions and emotions that arise during war or crime. They can’t be faked.
The actions are so deep and vibrant and the conflicts between the people involved are so intense and existential. There can’t be any pretense…unless you write about them on a fictional level. Even then, the pretense is overshadowed by the deeper truth that can be revealed in fiction (as opposed to within the objectivity that straight-jackets journalists.)
Crime novels can be filled with liars and their lies. But in the end something is going in those pages that uncovers a purity. It isn’t something that’d seem pure if we conceived of its presence in our own lives, on a rational basis. But to imagine ourselves close to it, captured by it, threatened — it reaches our pulse, long before we stop to admire the sentence structure or what it has to say about society. And the pulse is where writing ought to register.