Columns > Published on January 23rd, 2012

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.

About the author

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.

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