LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE
by Ann Aptaker
Life’s tough on a crime and mystery writer. Okay, okay, I can hear everyone telling me to stop complaining—“Who are you to complain?! You’re a published author with two books out and a third under contract!”—and just go back to peddling my papers. But I ask you: how would you like to lay awake nights thinking of ways to kill people? Year after year, book after book, shooting, stabbing, gouging, tossing people off bridges, blowing their heads off, cutting them to ribbons. That’s a lot of abuse of my mind.
So how do I stay sane? (And I assure you I am sane. Boringly, tediously sane. Everyone out there who knows me agrees, yes? Anyone?) I suppose my claim to sanity is tethered to the act of writing. Writing fiction depends on a bifurcated discipline: even as the imagination wanders into unreality, the mind is also tightly focused, organizing all those plot and character details which give the story clarity, enrich it, and make it believable.
Well, “So what?” you say. That bifurcation is true for any writer, not just crime and mystery writers. Okay, yeah, you got me there. But I think what separates crime writers from other fiction writers—besides our obvious and disturbing comfort with devising ways to do bloody murder, a trait we probably share with those other dark thinkers: horror writers—is our insistence on finding a spark of beauty in our deadly stories, a fundamental beauty in what it means to be human in what are otherwise threatening situations involving nasty people. For some crime writers, that beauty is expressed in the protagonist’s intellectual ability to solve the murder puzzle. Such writers celebrate the human mind itself. For other writers, the protagonist’s sense of right and wrong expresses the possibility of an ideal human morality. Still other writers celebrate the beauty of decisiveness, of taking action instead of backing down when faced with danger. For me, though, the beauty comes in finding my protagonist’s purpose.
The world of my Cantor Gold crime series—Goldie award nominee Criminal Gold, released by Bold Strokes Books in November 2014, and the second book, Tarnished Gold, releasing by BSB this month—is morally murky. Cantor is a true criminal after all, an art thief and smuggler. Dapper and self-assured, she takes great pleasure in the outlaw life of 1950s New York. But she is a butch lesbian at a time when such a life was illegal, subject to arrest and worse. So Cantor knows what it’s like to have the boot of oppression on one’s head. This doesn’t make her a saint (believe me, she’s far from that; in fact, she can be quite the cad), but it does make her aware of the sufferings of other people. Together with her gender-defying persona, Cantor Gold, underworld criminal, well-tailored butch dyke, thus embodies four of genre fiction’s enduring archetypes: the “Good Guy” and the “Bad Girl,” and the “Bad Guy” and the “Good Girl,” all in the same person.
So, what of her purpose?
In Tarnished Gold, Cantor’s general purpose is to find a killer. That’s what crime and mystery fiction requires. But her personal purpose is far more complex. In order to solve the murder, Cantor must uphold the victim’s—and her own more tarnished—honor. She has to untangle issues of identity, satisfy an unfamiliar responsibility, make morally questionable decisions and do morally questionable acts, cope with a painfully haunting passion for one woman and admit a passion for another, and do all of this within a life of crime, where “respectable” rules for survival don’t apply. And therein lies Cantor’s beauty: she must hang on, even by the most soiled and slender thread, to an inner humanity she depends on to guide her through her treacherous quest.
Well, all that is Cantor’s job. My job is to make you believe it, lift you out of your everyday experience, challenge your emotional safety, defy your sense of right and wrong, and reveal the beauty of Cantor’s flawed but exquisite humanity. And oh yeah, give you a hell of a good time on every page.
Whew! Big job.
Like I said, life’s tough for a crime and mystery writer.
CRIMINAL GOLD and TARNISHED GOLD from Bold Strokes Books:
CRIMINAL GOLD on Amazon: amzn.to/1FIwvJ7
TARNISHED GOLD on Amazon: amzn.to/1Kz6YEB
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on Twitter: @AnnAptaker