The new breed of crime writers
Anyone who has been to law school knows the dirty little secret of what is on offer. Three years of studying thousands of short-stories, hardboiled domestic dramas, murders, corporate fraud, corrupt cops and politicians, greedy heirs, disloyal partners, wives, siblings, beatings, traps, smacks alongside the head, crashes and smashup and that is just the first year.
By the time graduation time rolls around the average law student has been immersed in the hardball, hardboiled, noir world where lawyers play their role as fixer, facilitator, advisor, draftsman, advocate, and confidant. With this background, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some lawyers break off formation and join the crime writing business. John Grisham made it look easy. Small town lawyer writes best sellers, rides into the sunset a rich, famous man. What’s not to like? As a role model to pursue an alternative career that wasn’t dependent on billable hours, Grisham single-handle effort to empty law offices never quite happened.
The core of a legal education is a far more powerful engine than any creative writing degree programs, and it is a surprise that more lawyers aren’t working the hardboiled roads to publishing.
There is, though, an explanation. It is very hard to find a traditional big name, big money publisher. There are only a handful of them. In contrast, the average lawyer can make a pretty good living in a law practice. People need wills. They need someone to get them that divorce or to represent them in a custody hearing. Contracts for the sale of a house or a small business requires a lawyer most of the time. Drunk driving, possession of drugs, or running over a neighbor’s dog is going to mean an appointment with a lawyer. So there is a constant stream of work for most lawyers. There is a large pool of potential clients. Chasing ambulances is easier than chasing readers. Only a handful of lawyers or judges can make the transition to writing fiction as a living. If law clients are like fishing in a well-stocked sea, finding a publisher is an over crowed puddle with tens of thousands of lines with bait on the end. And the fish don’t bite that often.
Judges are also lawyers. But unlike an ordinary lawyer, what they write is ‘published.’ Not by Random House or Viking Press but published in vast volumes of legal cases. The stories they tell are read by law students, academics, other judges, lawyers, policy makers, law makers and lobbyist. They read to make money not to be entertained. They are a highly specialized audience. It doesn’t matter how rotten a judge’s prose, his audience has no other choice but to read what he’s written.
Their judgments can’t be downloaded from Amazon onto your Kindle or bought in Walmart or Costco. And there is a reason for that limited market. Most judgments read like they were written for ‘lawyers’ and in a style and language that excludes those outside the profession. There is a reason lawyers are paid to read court judgments. You need a legally trained mind to figure out what they mean and what they have to do with you.
That is so an example of 2000 era thinking. Canadian judges are leading the way to update the style and form of legal judgments, bringing them into the mainstream of story-telling.
One day a couple of judges must have been shaving looked in the mirror and said, “Why don’t I write a real story. One that has all the emotion and drama of The Wire or Deadwood. Why not write in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammett?”
Why not, indeed. Lawyers started as ‘scribes’ so why not journey back to the future and reclaim the authorship mantle?
Ontario Court of Appeal Judge David Watt is a judge who has taken the plunge into the water of creative writing in a court judgment.
Examples (Courtesy of The Globe and Mail) of Judge Watt’s prose include:
“Early one morning in June, 2006, Melvin Flores closed the book on his relationship with Cindy MacDonald. With a butcher knife embedded in Cindy’s back. Fifty-three blunt force injuries.”
In a murder case last year, his judgment started: “Handguns and drug deals are frequent companions, but not good friends. Rip-offs happen. Shootings do too. Caveat emptor. Caveat venditor. People get hurt. People get killed. Sometimes, the buyer. Other times, the seller. That happened here.”
The Canadian legal community is divided between those who think Judge Watt’s is breaking new ground with this noir styled judgments and the conservatives who question the propriety of a judge who uses his audience to ‘entertain’ the reader of his judgment. Our judges are supposed to keep those eyelids slowly closing as they read and try to comprehend he judge’s verdict.
Judged Watt’s has a fellow paperback writer in Ontario Superior Court Judge Joseph Quinn who in a bitter divorce wrote.
“Paging Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud,” Judge Quinn wrote in the judgment. “Here, a husband and wife have been marinating in a mutual hatred so intense as to surely amount to a personality disorder requiring treatment.” In that same case, Judge Quinn wrote, that Larry, the 38-year old husband in the divorce/custody proceeding, possessed “a near-empty parenting tool box,” and sent his estranged wife Catherine insulting text messages and flipped her ‘the finger’ as he drove by her home. “A finger is worth a thousand words and therefore, is particularly useful should one have a vocabulary of less than a thousand words,” Judge Quinn added.
Catherine, the wife/mother in this drama, had all the characteristics of a paperback writer’s dream character: She had warned her children several times that if they telephoned their father, they would go to jail. She sent a text message her daughter while she was on an access visit to the father to ask: “Is dickhead there?”
The problem with judge’s writing crime fiction is that they are pretty much stuck with the dialogue of the parties that appear before him. A judge can’t just make up any old dialogue because it is more effective, sharper, a better indicator of character; his job isn’t to be original or creative in putting words in the mouth of the characters before his bench. His job is to support his judgment from the evidence he’s been given. He’s a prisoner of other people’s stories and the vocabulary they used to tell their stories.
As the above dialogue suggests, this limitation can work against the artistic goals of the author. “Is dickhead there?” won’t likely win the judge any literary awards. But I bet he felt a lot better writing the judgment that allowed him to bring that timeless prose into the larger story and reveal the character of the wife/mother. This brings up another problem with judges writing fiction. They can’t get out of what is presented to them. They can’t give a character like Catherine a credible backstory, one that might give such a line irony or poignancy. Also, he can’t kill off the characters that the reader would like to see dead.
With these problems, crime fiction writers have little to fear that this small vanguard of Canadian judges will put professional authors out of work. Crime fiction writers are judged by the quality of their imagination and that can take the author (and reader) to places that judges can never visit. Judges are given the facts, mostly conflicting, in the ‘he said,’ but ‘she said’ category—and he is allowed to choose what ‘truth’ is found in whose version of what happened. The judge, like the lawyer, is a captive to resolving other people’s conflicts. He or she is supposedly detached, objective, disinterested and fair in reaching the final decision. Judges and lawyers hide their emotions as if these aspects taint their legitimacy. But emotions, hot and wild, uncontrollable and inevitable, are the fuel of fiction.
Forget about Chekvo’s gun and other literary devices. You aren’t your own free agent as a judge. If you think both sides are lying, you can’t go out and do independent research, kill off characters who need some killin’, leave a cliff hanger as the ending. None of that will do. You just get to decide whose lies are more credible.
Also, in law there is the idea of precedent. That means the judge’s verdict is binding on other judges. You not only have to read his story. You must follow it and apply it to a similar story if one should come before you on the bench. In other words, you’re not free to just make up things as you go along. You need to put the story you hear into the framework of all the hundreds of other stories that share the same characteristics of the one you are judging. Or you, as judge, are overruled. That, in authors’ terms, is the ultimate ‘bad’ review.
The best of crime fiction examines actions and behavior in a larger social context of the community; novels about crime draw upon the psychological, cultural, and political realms, which wrap like invisible netting around criminals and victims.
What brings the reader to a novel is to witness the dance between those with power and those who seek protection, justice and fairness. Inside this drama, as hope appears and disappears before the reader’s eyes, the tension is played out as to whether there are larger truths and values worth holding on to, fighting for, believing in, and that takes the author and reader beyond the shallow and narrow interest of resolving one set of problems for a couple of the parties.
Judges must decide who wins or loses. They can’t leave the end hanging. Someone walks free; someone pays. Crime fiction authors know a dirty little secret that isn’t taught that well in law school—for a lawyer your story needs only to be just good enough to be better than your opponents, and most of the time neither story is totally plausible or even all that interesting to anyone outside of the dispute. The lawyer’s job: to make the most from the evidence at hand, and a judge’s to take that evidence, turn over, look for the expiry date, and choose one bad penny over another and move on to the next case. Now you know why very few lawyers are among the ranks of crime authors. Judges write different stories, for different reasons and for different audiences. Fear not the competition from the new class of writers wearing black robes. And worry not about their welfare. Their pay has never been linked to the size of the audience they can command. Now, there’s an interesting idea.
Listen to Christopher G. Moore talk about his years of living and writing in Bangkok here.