Why I Write Crime Fiction

This post was adapted from a recent talk I gave at my local hospital.

Before I became an author, I was a journalist for many years. I wrote about local news and government corruption for The Record Newspaper, New Jersey’s second largest daily, covered an oxycodone theft ring at The Boston Globe, and interviewed technology company CEOs as a reporter at BusinessWeek and, later, CNBC.

But even when I spent my days writing facts, my nights were devoted to fiction. And the stories that most attracted me were crime stories, tales in which bad things happened to seemingly good people, and the reader was encouraged to contemplate why. What went wrong? What mistakes were made that spiraled out of control? Who was responsible? All those deep dark questions.

Some people think that I must be a very disturbed person to spend my day thinking about terrible things. My father, for example. I remember when I told him the premise of my first book. We were in my parents’ living room after enjoying a pleasant family dinner. I was sitting on the edge of the couch, holding my youngest. My oldest was crawling around on the carpet picking up toys, trying to jam them in her mouth. So sweet. And my dad is sitting in his rocking chair, gently tipping back and forth, surveying the whole scene in that content, grandfatherly way. He had the grandparent glow on his face–a satisfied, schadenfreude-filled smile that said my kids have kids and are finally going to experience everything I went through. And it’s not my problem. 

So, he’s there, enjoying my toddler taste testing the toys, and in between taking things out of her mouth I’m trying to tell him how excited I am about this book that I just sent off to my agent. “You know Dad, I think this could really be the one. I think this one is getting published.

He’s only half listening to me. He’s busy looking at my beatific oldest with her cherubic little duplo-filled cheeks. So innocent. And I say, “It’s about a sociopathic child who has it out for her baby brother, but the only one who sees the truth is the au pair.”

My father looks at me. Horrified. “Ugh. Hrmph. Um. You think anyone will read that? 

The answer, as it turned out, was no. Nobody was going to read that. However, a subsequent version of that book was published. My agent wisely suggested that I age up the villain to a teenager because, as she said from experience, everyone believes teenagers can be evil.

So, I switched the villain from middle to high school—turning her into a gifted, amoral student in a competitive dance program. My agent pitched the book as Black Swan Meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. And that became my first published novel: Dark Turns.

My father, I think, still thought the story too dark. Don’t get me wrong, he understood why people were reading it. But I don’t think he could fathom why I’d chosen to write it. I remember him asking why I’d want to spend a full year between writing and promoting the book, talking and thinking about such awfulness. 

The question, I admit, kind of confused me. Dad, I said. I’ve dedicated my life to writing about awful things happening to good people. Have you read the newspaper? Mass shootings. School shootings. Regular old domestic shootings. Parents bribing their kids’ way into elite universities. Kids becoming learning disabled from poisoned drinking water. A grandfather, shot in front of his grandson at a Kentucky Kroger’s because of the color of his skin.

The world gets dark. But, at least in my fiction, I control the laws of the universe. And in my books, karma reigns supreme. Karma is the Queen Bee. And we all know what the B stands for.

I own this shirt. I write in this shirt.

I write for that catharsis of seeing the sick ultimately get help, the selfish get their comeuppance, and the violent stopped before they can do any more damage. That’s the beauty of writing crime stories.  And I think that’s why people read them. 

Last year, crime novels overtook general fiction as the biggest selling genre worldwide. In the U.S. romance still edges it out a bit. (Freaking Fifty Shades.) But my chosen genre is near the top because, I believe, people want to see the mystery solved, the guilty held responsible, and the victims put in a place where they have the means—both financial and psychological–to move on. It satisfies a sense of justice that I think so many of us feel isn’t sufficiently present in our world.

So often, when terrible things happen—even when the perpetrator is caught–there really isn’t a satisfying way to make the victims whole. I remember covering the $65-billion-plus Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff.

(Madoff. I still can’t get over that name. I remember asking a news editor how to pronounce it and he said “Made Off, like he made off with his victims’ money.” Madoff. If I had named a villain that in one of my books, my fiction editor would have rejected the name. A little on the nose, Cate, don’t you think? You’re not Ian Fleming. You can’t make the gold thief “goldfinger.” You can’t do that. Get out of here. Give him a different last name.)

But though Bernie Madoff may be in prison for the rest of his life, there was no real justice for so many of his victims. I interviewed one investor, a woman named Phyllis Molchatsky when I was working as a multimedia journalist for MSN Money. After working on Wall Street for decades as an office manager, she was diagnosed with early on-set Parkinson’s and forced to leave her job at fifty-five. She had two million saved for her retirement, which she invested with Madoff on the recommendation a former colleague. This man advised her that Madoff was a conservative investor with solid returns who would help secure her savings so that she could someday put her adopted son through college.

I remember speaking with her in her lawyer’s office in the city. She was sitting in this chair in front of these massive bookcases filled with legal tomes. This small woman, just shaking. And she kept repeating that it was all her money, she couldn’t make anymore, and that she didn’t want to be a burden to her son. She’d adopted a child, she’d said, to make his life better, not to make someone take care of her.

Her investments were worth $3.8 million, according to the last statement she’d received from Madoff. I don’t know that she was able to recoup much of that. She tried suing the SEC, saying that they should have been a better watch dog and known something was up. But it wasn’t allowed to go through and then her appeal was rejected. There were some clawbacks from assets held by Madoff and his family members that were supposed to be redistributed to victims. I read the number was around $11 billion of the 65+ billion lost on paper.

Phyllis’s story stayed with me. I just never felt like justice was really done for her and others given all the people this man harmed. There was no way to deliver justice. Even if Madoff dies in jail after watching everyone he loves suffer, it won’t change what happened to the people who lost their entire savings.

So, I wrote a book The Widower’s Wife, which was a USA Today Best Seller. There’s an unscrupulous financial character in the book and a largely unwitting victim of fraud. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I think it’s satisfying in a way that real life was not. I tried to leave my traumatized victims in a position to rebuild, which so many of the real people never got.

I’m not really a moralist writer. I’m not writing allegories. Though I think all good writers have a moral hidden somewhere in their stories. To be good, you have to have a point of view. You just can’t beat the readers over the heads with it. Folks read to be entertained. And, in the case of crime fiction, I think, they read for that catharsis: the restoration of that secure feeling that order exists in the world and things can be made right. Really right. As a writer, I try to create that feeling at the end of my books–both for me and my readers.

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