The Word You’re Looking For Is Genius—Not Crazy, Genius: The Top 5 Craziest Crime Writers

The writers of crime fiction are some of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

Seriously, if you ever get the chance to attend a conference such as Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime you’ll encounter a group of people more than willing to engage with fans and fellow writers alike. But, when you’re speaking with them, you can’t help but notice a certain—for lack of a better description—darkness lurking around the eyes or in the way they laugh. 

Even the guys and gals who write about mystery solving cats and dogs tend to have that certain something about their personality which makes you think: There’s something just not quite right with this person. In fact, I’m fairly certain Lillian Jackson Braun—you known, the original Crazy Cat Lady—was probably into some pretty freaky shit. Interpret “freaky shit” as you will. Personally I equate “freaky shit” as whips, chains, and putting cigarettes out on people.

But let’s face it, when you spend the bulk of your time writing about murder, rape, drug addiction, etc., you tend to—at least for a little while—live and breathe in the darkest parts of the human heart, and that darkness is bound to seep its way into your personality no matter how well you steel yourself from it.

And then there are the writers who, for one reason or other, let the darkness completely overwhelm them and they become, well, not so much what they write, but it bends their personalities in such a way that they could essentially be one of the characters they’re writing about.

Or maybe they were always a little fucked up (or a lot fucked up in some cases) and crime fiction simply gave a voice to their fucked up perspective of the world.

And let me be perfectly clear about the individuals I’m writing about: In my eyes, every single one of them was or is a genius.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

#5:  Cornell Woolrich

For most readers who aren’t familiar with crime fiction, chances are you’ve never heard of Woolrich. But if you’re a fan of Alfred Hitcock, it was Woolrich’s short story, “It Had To Be Murder,” which inspired Rear Window (and also inspired an overly long litigation regarding the use of the story in the film, which was finally resolved in 1990.) For the firmly initiated, however, Woolrich is the father of crime noir. (For those of you who have difficulty telling the difference between Hard-boiled crime and crime noir, this is the best way for me to sum it up: With hard-boiled, your characters are fucked by the end of the story and in noir your characters are fucked from word one.)

But what made Woolrich “crazy”, you ask?

Well, first off, Woolrich was a first rate mama’s boy. We’re talking a H. P. Lovecraft style mama’s boy. The man basically never lived without the old gal, other than a brief 3-month marriage (which was a total sham, considering that Woolrich was homosexual). Secondly, the man lost a foot from an injury caused by too tight of a shoe. I mean, seriously, wouldn’t you just think to yourself, ‘Man, this fucking penny loafer is scratching the hell out of my ankle, I better go and buy a new pair of shoes.’ Instead, Woolrich let the sore become an infection and by the time he finally made it to the doctor, they had to cut the fucking thing off.

After the death of his mother and the loss of his foot, Woolrich pretty much never left his apartment again. And when he finally died, he left his nearly million-dollar estate to Columbia University, which was pretty damn cool of the crazy old bastard.

#4:  Derek Raymond

I was introduced to the novels of Derek Raymond (whose real name was Robin Cook, and I probably would’ve used a pen name too if my real name was already associated with a guy who wrote way too many shitty medical thrillers) by my friend Jedidiah Ayres and Missouri novelist Scott Phillips (who I could’ve easily worked into this list). Raymond’s “Factory” novels were ground breaking in their use of setting, tone, and violence, particularly in the fourth book of the series, the stomach churning, I was Dora Suarez, which was one of the first novels—crime or otherwise—to address the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

So what was Raymond’s beef?

Well, first off, Raymond, the oldest son of a London shipping magnate, completely rejected the lifestyle and wealth of his parents, and preferred to associate with the English criminal class. (It was rumored that at one time in the 1960’s that Raymond fronted a real estate firm/ponzi scam owned and operated by the Krays.) Also, Raymond was pretty much lit 24/7 and loved his booze so much that it ended 5 marriages.

#3: Jim Thompson

“Just wait,” Jim Thompson told his ex-wife shortly before his death. “I’ll become famous after I’m dead about ten years.”

And sure enough, the work of Jim Thompson—the patron saint of hard-boiled crime writers—became famous the world over for the film adaptations of his brutal novels The Getaway, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Killer Inside Me (which also happened to spark the sub-genre of crime fiction—for better or worse—the serial killer novel.) But it was a long, drunken road to that success which he would never enjoy. Yeah, Thompson was a world class drunk and proud of it. But what really skyrocketed Thompson into the realm of "this guy is too bug shit for words to describe" was his massive ego.

You think Hemingway was an egomaniac? Let me tell you this, Hemingway’s self image was a whimpering schoolgirl compared to Thompson. The books that best demonstrate Thompson's raging personality are his two volumes of autobiography, Badboy and Roughneck. I’m telling you, by the time you’re done reading them you’ll either be suckered into believing that the man not only discovered how to refine oil into gasoline, but that he invented the modern automobile to boot (I’m, of course, exaggerating… Well, almost...) or  you'll be laughing your ass off over Thompson’s claims to greatness

#2:  James Ellroy

Oh, Ellroy, you fucking nut. How close you came to making it into the #1 spot. I’ll be the first to admit that James Ellroy is my favorite novelist, but, man, as a person is there anyone in literature as mentally screwed? Yeah, I guess I’d have a screw loose, too, if my mother was murdered and then I spent the bulk of my twenties living on L.A. rooftops tweaked to the gills and peeping the windows of teenaged girls and their mothers. Yes, I could go on and on about the mental foibles of the Demon Dawg of American literature, but I thought this little video would illustrate Ellroy’s lustrous personality far better than I ever could. (By the way, quick word of warning. If you’re easily offended, well, fuck you; I guess you shouldn’t be reading this article or watching the video, should you?) 

And now, ladies and gentleman, we come to the end of our list with perhaps the finest writer of noir ever, the king of Philadelphia crime fiction:

#1:  David Goodis

Oh, man, David Goodis… where do I even start? First off, as an artist, the man was beyond prolific. During his prime, Goodis wrote—under too many pen names to count—for virtually every pulp magazine in existence and was rumored to have churned out over 5 million words in a five-year period. And on top of that staggering output, he also wrote 18 novels and a dozen screenplays. But, despite his obvious brilliance, Goodis occupied a dark, zany world. During Goodis’ years in Hollywood, where he was making the staggering sum of $1,100 a week as a staff writer for Warner Brothers, he could have easily afforded to live anywhere he wanted, but instead chose to live in a skid row hotel operated by two prostitutes. Goodis' time in Hollywood was a tumultuous one, and after four years he returned to Philadelphia to live with his parents and help care for his schizophrenic brother, Herbert. At night, he would wander the streets of the city of brotherly love, frequenting the seedy bars and nightclubs which populated his fiction. On January 17, 1967, Goodis died of a stroke. Certain accounts report that it was caused by a head injury sustained during a bar fight, others that he simply collapsed while shoveling his front walk.

There are literally dozens upon dozens of stories of Goodis' eccentric behavior (including a personal favorite of mine, where a friend visited Goodis in Hollywood, and because Goodis' car lacked a windshield, he provided the friend with a gas mask to help protect him from the elements) and I encourage you to visit the excellent website Shooting Pool With David Goodis. But without question—at least in my very humble opinion—if any of the individuals on this list deserved to be called a genius, it was Goodis.

Well, that’s all she wrote on this one, folks. But as thanks for making it through my drabble, I thought I’d offer you the chance at some free swag.

I have the entire newly re-minted Factory series by Derek Raymond from the good folks at Melville House up for grabs, and all I want from you is to tell me in the comments section of this post who your favorite crazy ass writer is. New registrants to LitReactor will be given double entries in the contest and the winner will be chosen at random.

Sorry, but this one’s gotta be U.S. residents only, because, shit, I’m not made of money.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 23, 2012 - 2:02pm

Keith: First, great fucking article, man. All five of these nuts are high up on my list of favorite authors. But, to pick one, man that's a hard one. I've read them all, but I think I'd have to go with Thompson. There's something about his style, voice and story telling that you can tell his life is bleeding through. 

I never win anything... I'm just saying... :)


Linda Rodriguez's picture
Linda Rodriguez January 23, 2012 - 2:04pm

I really enjoyed this post, and I'm totally pleased to see that Cornell Woolrich made it. It seems as if he's been forgotten today. So glad to see that's not the case. Also, I loved your take on Lilian Jackson Braun. I suspect you're absolutely right!

tjking93's picture
tjking93 from Fair Lawn, New Jersey is reading Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahnuik January 23, 2012 - 2:38pm

I think it's Chuck Palahnuik because everything he wirtes is more fucked up than the last. But also, his style makes you expierence the story, not read it, as you are thrown into scenes midway through them and have to catch up through the narrative as it moves forward. Also, I believe that every satirical element he uses are more ingenious than the last.

RonEarl's picture
RonEarl from Charleston, WV is reading Dove Season by Johnny Shaw January 23, 2012 - 2:38pm

Let me tell you about this cat named Keith Rawson... ;)

I've got a lot to learn about the writers of crime fiction, so I can't talk to their peculiarities. But years from now I might be able to regale future readers with stories several up and coming writers.

Would be nice to win those books though.

spence's picture
spence from planet is reading Books January 23, 2012 - 2:44pm

James Ellroy is a total lunatic. But a functioning one.

Lou Boxer's picture
Lou Boxer from Philadelphia is reading Hell On Church Street January 23, 2012 - 2:54pm

Wow!  You have hit the porverbial Pantheon of Noir/Hardboiled/Crime Writers on the Head!  Woolrich, Raymond, Thompson, Ellroy and dear David Goodis.  The suggestion that Scott Phillips belongs in this spot on!  I would go further to suggest that these other greats will find a home on this list of "crazy" geniuses as well include but are not limited to - Jim Nisbet, Kent Harrington, Al Guthrie, Jake Hinkson, Duane Swierczynski, Ken Bruen.

A very wise Al Guthrie defined the difference between noir and hardboiled writing very succinctly in this analogy:

Noir is to the Crucifixion of Christ as Hard Boiled is to the Resurrection of Christ!  True genius! 

E.Robles's picture
E.Robles from Pennsylvania is reading Blood Meridian January 23, 2012 - 2:55pm

First of all, great post.  You're right.  Too much rape, murder, and crime will probably distort the personality of any unsuspecting writer.  For the favorite, I have to go with The Demon Dawg.  His madness makes his writing irresistable.  

DaveSieks's picture
DaveSieks January 23, 2012 - 3:29pm

Great list. A favorite of mine is Donald Ray Pollock. Compared to those on your list, his personal life is, from what I can gather, rather staid -- the only crazy things one could point to are that he was raised in the holler of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and that despite a butt-load of crazy-ass talent, he didn't put out his first book until in his 50s. But his fiction certainly qualifies as crazy-ass.


Snnichols7788's picture
Snnichols7788 January 23, 2012 - 4:10pm

Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk- case closed.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 23, 2012 - 5:37pm

Perfect list, and in order of best overall writing as well. But, Jim Thompson is the favorite. Some (most?) of his novels had truly cringe-worthy passages - and that wasn't the subject matter at hand but rather the hacky prose. But, Lou's prayer in the last pages of The Killer Inside Me, the hayseed Hamlet monologues sprinkled throughout Pop. 1280, and especially the batshit off-the-reservation denoument of Savage Night stick in the mind. I read and reread Goodis and Ellroy for their style, but Thompson's plots actually shock. As Thompson wrote, "There are 32 ways to write a novel and I've used them all, but there is only one plot: things are not as they seem."

Scaredcrowe's picture
Scaredcrowe January 23, 2012 - 7:23pm

Jack Ketchum! Only author that ever made me stop reading the story for a moment to gather myself. As far as crime writers, Ellroy is pretty amazing. He has a style that is all his own. Dig it, if you can.

gleerobbins's picture
gleerobbins January 23, 2012 - 7:43pm

I've made it through 5 of Chuck Palahniuk's works this last year.  His ability to instill shock, beauty, repulsion and truth simultaneously keeps me coming back for more.  Your piece is great though, and I've added all these guys to my list (once I get through the rest of CP's stuff...).  Keep the crazy coming.

jefferyhess's picture
jefferyhess January 23, 2012 - 8:00pm

Great selections, Keith and great piece here. I'd have to add James M. Cain to the list of iconic writers of yester-year.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones January 23, 2012 - 10:10pm

Boone - Thompson (along with Richard Stark and Ed McBain) was the first crime novelist I read as a teenager. I own and have read all of his novels. He was only super productive for about a decade, but his impact is undeniable.

Scaredcrowe - Let me guess, The Girl Next Door, right? That book emotionally tore me in half. Ketchum's one of the best at evoking an emotional response from me. You should check out his story "The Box". It' s such a simple, understated story, but it packs a whalop. A lot of David Schow's stories elicits the same reaction from me, too.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest January 23, 2012 - 9:15pm

(along with Richard Stark and Ed McBain) 

- Man, Stark rocks! And McBain? Totally blew me away... 

Ismael Santos's picture
Ismael Santos from Miami, FL is reading American Psycho, Essential Harlan Ellison, The Stand, Countdown to Lockdown January 23, 2012 - 9:25pm

James Ellroy is too good, and insane to boot. But you have to love him. Who couldn't love a man who calls himself "The slick trick with the donkey dick?"

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 24, 2012 - 7:57am

Great stuff, Keith. Really enjoyed this.

jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners January 24, 2012 - 8:19am

I really enjoyed this list! My favorite crazy mf genius is James Ellroy. 

Rod Wiethop's picture
Rod Wiethop from Carmi,Il. is reading Raylan by Elmore Leonard January 24, 2012 - 9:44am

Keith, That is one helluva list there buddy. It's a tug of war for #1 but I gotta go with Ellroy by a nose over Jim Thompson and I like Lou's suggestion that Scott Phillips, Al Guthrie & Ken Bruen would also definetly come to mind. Charles Willeford is another & James Crumley. Those books are very tantalizing.

Max Cairnduff's picture
Max Cairnduff January 24, 2012 - 11:36am

Great list. I don't know Woolrich so thanks for that.


My answer? Chester Himes. He wrote noir fiction set in 1950s Harlem. Awesome stuff. I've written about three of them here but the real place to find out about him is a book James Sallis wrote about the guy (which I've not yet read so can't vouch for it, but it's by James Sallis so how could it be bad?).

There's actually a fifth Raymond factory novel. I'm reading it at the moment. It's not been reprinted (I believe because it's generally regarded as not being to the standard of the others, which is probably fair). I wrote about the other four factory novels here and he really is hardcore. He Died with His Eyes Open is bleak, nihilistic and at times genuinely hard to read. A beautiful book, if beautiful is the right word. I was Dora Suarez famously caused Raymond's publisher to vomit across his desk when he read it, and is the only novel I can think of that actually made me feel queasy while reading it so I can believe that story.

If I'm pulled out of the hat by the way two things, one I'm not based in the US and two I already have the Raymonds so please let someone else have the books. That's a great prize.

Otherwise, I've had mixed results with Goodis so nice to have a recommendation (prolific often means not every book is as good as the next). Thompson is of course awesome, but Ellis I prefer the earlier, leaner stuff.

All that said, just in case I was at all unclear, Chester Himes.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine January 24, 2012 - 11:49am

Great stuff, Keith. Gotta love that Ellroy. He made my list of Jerks, and your list of crazy, but I gotta say, he was super nice to me in person.

Another one for the crazy pile, although not a crime writer, is Anne Rice. She's gone her share of bonkers, but was also super nice to me and seems to have mellowed with age.

Jason Purdue's picture
Jason Purdue January 24, 2012 - 2:59pm

I've been wanting to get in to this genre, thanks for giving me a great starting point!

The main crazy-ass writer I know and enjoy is Hunter S. Thompson.  I know, I know, way to pick just the low hanging fruit of the pop culture bad boy writers!  But you've definitely given me some new nutballs to enjoy! lol

Tuckerchristine's picture
Tuckerchristine from Bensalem, PA is reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King January 24, 2012 - 5:09pm

Being from the Philly area I have to go with Goodis. Great writer and all around odd dude.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones January 25, 2012 - 6:53am

Josh - I think 90% of what Ellroy says is pure shtick, (My friend Craig McDonald has interviewed Ellroy 2 or 3 times and he's told me that he's a perfect gentleman on a one on one basis.) but the other 10% is more than a little scary.

Gareth's picture
Gareth from Melbourne is reading Franz Kafka January 26, 2012 - 3:41am

I do love Ellroy but, yeah, I do believe he has a very theatrical public persona.  I simply don't think he'd function at all acting the way he does on stage.  A fascinating man.  I finished The Hilliker Curse and I did believe his dysfunctional OBSESSION with women.  He had a great line: "I always get what I want.  It comes slow or fast and always costs a great deal."

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones February 1, 2012 - 1:48pm

@Scaredcrowe - You win! I PM'd you with details on how to claim your prize. I also picked a runner up, @R.Moon, who'll recieve a copy of Crime Factory: The First Shift edited by Cameron Ashley, Jimmy Callaway, and myself. 

Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion!