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With the release of FLESH AND GOLD, book four in my Cantor Gold crime series, I’ve been busy with the marketing effort on social media, posting the cover image and snappy blurbs. Some of you might have seen them. In the posts, I’ve described Cantor’s latest adventure as steamy, passionate and dangerous, which it certainly is, and that’s why I’ve used those buzzwords. Marketing a book, as we all know, requires grabbing a potential reader’s attention and getting them excited enough to make the purchase. The right buzzwords can push the right emotional buttons.
Marketing should tell a truth, though, and FLESH AND GOLD is indeed steamy, full of passion and danger. But the need for the quick, compelling image doesn’t always allow for a book’s subtler truths. So I’m faced with the problem: how to market the subtler, meatier truths of the book’s story? Hell if I know. This is even a greater challenge in marketing crime, mystery or thriller fiction, where the kernel of the genre is action and danger. Subtlety in marketing doesn’t cut it.
And then there’s another marketing hurdle crime fiction writers, indeed all genre writers, must overcome, the “Hey, it’s only genre fiction!” attitude which influences some readers, reviewers, and various literary taste makers. The implication being that genre fiction is not important. It’s not literature. Has nothing to say.
Well excuse me, but I beg to differ. I’m a crime and mystery genre writer and I’ve got plenty to say, and so do the characters I create. They carry all those subtler truths. My characters, living in their danger-filled, life-and-death world, are eye witnesses to justice or lack of it, the Law and its ramifications, the wretched effects of poverty, the corrosive effects of bigotry, family dysfunction, greed run amok, survival despite long odds, and other social issues. Who better to address some of the most moving and consequential dramas of human existence than characters who perpetrate or suffer these indignities?
People outside the crime and mystery writing community who know me, or who know something about me, sometimes think it’s odd that crime fiction is my preferred genre. After all, I’m a woman of a certain age, as they say, a Professor of Art History, not an action or adrenaline junkie, certainly not a criminal or a cop and have no inclination to be either. In other words, a dusty little scholar by day, purveyor of murder and mayhem by night or days when I’m not teaching my classes or creating my college lectures. Why would someone like me want to spend time in the hearts and minds of villains and victims?
Those of you who’ve read my Cantor Gold books or my other blogs posts know that my protagonist is herself a criminal. Cantor is a successful art thief and smuggler in the 1950s who enjoys her life in the New York underworld. She’s smart, she’s brave, she’s daring. In her own way, she’s a romantic soul. So why has she chosen to be a criminal? Here’s where the social issues come in. Cantor Gold is a butch lesbian, very dapper in her custom tailored suits. In the 1950s, that alone marked her as a criminal. If caught on the arm or in the bed of another woman, she and the woman would be thrown in jail or the psychiatric ward, subjected to abuse in jail and horrific procedures in the psycho ward. So I write the Cantor Gold series from the point of view of someone who’s asked herself, “If the Law labels me a criminal just for being alive, do I owe the Law that oppresses me any allegiance at all?” Her answer: “Nope.”
And we’re off to the races. Cantor’s underworld life allows me as the author to look at, describe, journey through, and involve the reader in the reasons people commit criminal acts. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s an outgrowth of social circumstances, or mental illness, or society’s rules. Sometimes it’s in defiance of those circumstances or rules, such as Cantor’s criminality, or a hungry person’s theft of food, a desperate person’s theft of money or goods. Sometimes crime is actually in cahoots with social circumstances, such as white collar criminals taking advantage of a rigged financial system that benefits those “in the know” and shortchanges everyone else. Sometimes it’s a way to grab power if you have none, or grab more of it to satisfy ambition. Sometimes crime is the result of mental illness, and sometimes, sure, it’s just plain evil.
By writing in the crime and mystery genre, I can expose various social issues without being preachy. As a crime writer, I have to keep the action moving, keep you turning those pages, keep you on the edge of your seat while guessing who-dunnit, if there’s murder involved, and there almost always is. Which brings up the question of why they dunnit. Another social issue. Was it just plain evil? Was it self-defense? Was it after years of emotional or physical abuse? Was it mental health? Human desperation? A power grab? Jealousy? The Law, in real life, is often expressed in only two terms: guilty or not guilty. In crime fiction, I can shred those extremes and expose the fascinating, desperate mess of human life that struggles to survive in between. Most of all, crime fiction can make you question the definitions of guilt and innocence. These are complex questions of morality which it’s sometimes easy to ignore in real life when we’re neck deep in pursuing our own ambitions or surviving our own daily struggles. In FLESH AND GOLD, for example, the action takes place in the world of sex work, some of it coerced, some of it not. Cantor must navigate a morass of moral conundrums: the sex workers’ choices or lack of them, the brothel operators as fair or brutal employers, and most of all, her own attitudes. And while she’s at it, she has to dodge the bullets and knives of scheming gangsters, each with their own subtle layers of need and truth.
Now, the trick in crime fiction, as in any literary effort, is to write the stuff well. The best genre writers strive to push their stories beyond the purely sensational or formulaic into the realm of well crafted literature. Count me among those strivers who take the art of crime fiction seriously and strive to lift it into an experience of the literary sublime, even while my characters dodge bullets and knives.
Sublime crime. How the hell do I market that?