Columns > Published on January 13th, 2012

Craig Clevenger Asks Crime Fiction Instructor, David Corbett, Three Questions!

On January 23rd we're unveiling our largest class to date; an 8-week super-intensive crime writing master class with award-winning crime novelist David Corbett. In anticipation of this class, friend and fellow author Craig Clevenger sat down with Corbett and fired three very good questions his way on the subject of crime fiction.

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Question:

Crime seems to be the cornerstone of most contemporary drama, at least in film and television. How does a writer achieve originality in a genre where, at first blush, it’s hard to imagine that it all hasn’t been done before?

Answer:

Whose first blush? Is the war story spent? The love story? Family sagas, tales of redemption, the bildungsroman—haven’t we seen it all, or at least enough?

All art is taking an old form and breathing new life into it, asking the magic What if …?  Making hybrids from two different forms or even sub-genres of the same form – the historical PI novel (like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist), the combined caper and police procedural (as in Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves, adapted for film by Ben Affleck as The Town), or my favorite, the medical thriller-cum-hitman thriller (as in Josh Bazell’s wonderful Beat the Reaper). Richard Price says if you want to write about a time and a place, there’s no better way to do it than place a crime in it and set a detective loose.

And if you think the crime story is stale, maybe you should check out what’s happening in other countries. Look what Juan José Campanella, an old hand at the CSI Special Victims Unit grind, was able to do with the crime story in The Secret in Their Eyes (Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2009), or what director Fabién Bielinksy accomplished with Nine Queens and The Aura. And that’s just Argentina. Look at what the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu did with Amores Perros. These are great films, and reveal the humanity of crime – and there will never, never, never not be a need to give a voice to the voiceless, which crime is especially good at.

The theme of crime is universal and timeless: The war between the individual who refuses to accept his culturally assigned slot and the society that refuses to condone his intransigence. It appeals to both sides of the political spectrum—I just described The Fountainhead as well as The Wire—and it permits an understanding of the core conflict of good versus good, which is always the most compelling. I’m not saying the lion’s share of the crime stories out there measure up to that analysis but that’s not the genre’s fault. Editors and producers are like generals, they’re always trying to win the last war, i.e., sell the previous best seller or megahit.  

Most bad writing is just delivering on what’s expected without any spark of innovation. It’s no more or less true of crime than anything else. If you don’t believe me, check out most of what gets written by someone with an MFA from a creative writing program. One more dose of benign ennui, served up with enough flare to impress, not so much to risk anything.

But in every generation young men and women are finding their lives defined by forces beyond their control, and they try to break out of that mold in a variety of ways and find their tribe, whether its hip idiosyncrasy or artistic expression or amassing a fortune or crime. The self-made man is a sanctioned breed of criminal in a society that believes his way of breaking the rules – screwing his competitors and flaunting the social costs of his business practices as he makes a ton of money -- serves everybody more than if we treated him like the sociopath he so conspicuously resembles.

Those stories never stop, and they’re as innovative as the people trying to hustle up a break, make a name, hit that killer score.

Question:

You have experience as a P.I. which informs your work, to some degree. Likewise, a lot of crime fiction comes from the Underwoods of many former/retired cops, journalists and investigators of various stripes. What about somebody who grew up in a Norman Rockwell-esque setting

Answer:

Underwoods? You mean I have to give up my Montblanc Special Edition fountain pen and enter the modern world?

Those of us who’ve been involved in the justice system tend to want to write fiction so we can finally tell “the whole truth,” which hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom since the days of Solon.

But we also tend to get stuck in being too realistic. We cringe at the blatant falsehoods we see on TV and film (nowhere worse than in the CSI franchise).

But there’s a middle ground between anti-gravitational bullshit and real-as-they-come. Take Scott B. Smith’s A Simple Plan. This was a classic suspense tale that drew its power from its exacting portrait of modern rural America, and what happens to ordinary people down on their luck when a ton of money lands in their laps. A simple story with a simple name, that delivered an incredibly dramatic tale about a particular time and place (sensing a theme here?).

Anyone who understands human nature can write a crime story. The rest is just bells and whistles, something you can pick up from an insider.

Question:

Is there a specific reason you address the genre as “crime fiction” rather than, say, “murder mysteries?”

Murder mysteries are a sub-genre of crime story. I use crime as the umbrella term because the entire genre deals with crime in one form or another.

Murder mysteries solve a murder. They are all about figuring out who committed the deed and delivering justice. They make up the most conventional form of a crime story. And to my way of thinking, one of the more uninteresting, unless they add sociological or political or psychological depth.

The urban novel is usually a sociological novel with a murder in it, but the point isn’t to portray the pursuit and ultimate triumph of justice. It’s to show what it means to live in a given city at this point in history.  The work of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos is very much in this mold, and though it’s very much in the mystery tradition – there’s usually a dead body and an attempt to find out what happened -- it’s so much more.

But there are other types of crime stories: the caper and noir, where the criminals are the protagonists; the tale of suspense, where an everyman is being preyed upon by some malicious other, the hard-boiled PI story, which is more about exposing corruption than administering justice. We’ll cover all that in the course.

The genre can incorporate virtually any story about trying to escape one’s fate. That’s Oedipus’ crime. And Oedipus the King provided the thematic template for one of the greatest crime films ever made: Chinatown.

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About the author

CRAIG CLEVENGER is the author of The Contortionist's Handbook (MacAdam/Cage, 2002) and Dermaphoria (MacAdam/Cage, 2005). He is currently living in San Francisco, California, and completing his third novel.

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