Occasionally, I am asked why I write crime fiction.
A simple enough question. After all, I’ve published several mysteries, so it seems like a logical inquiry. I always answer it by saying that a) I love reading good crime fiction b) as a mediocre plotter but decent descriptive writer I rely on the narrative hook that the mystery form inherently supplies, and c) crime novels in general tend to be popular with readers, just check out any bestseller list.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder if there may be a more elemental reason why I tend to build most of my stories around cops, killers, and the like. Simply put, I think I may be writing my novels because of the safety patrol.
I grew up walking to school. Like many others, when I was in the sixth grade, I was recruited into the safety patrol. I even spent a part of that year as captain and another part as lieutenant. (Lieutenant was the best job because you didn’t actually have to do anything except back up the captain, who kept track of all the other safety patrollers, and fill in for the occasional other kid who was sick.)
I loved being on the safety patrol. I loved donning my orange belt and shiny badge every morning and afternoon before and after school. They made me feel important, and I knew that the job we were doing had a purpose. Perhaps due to that small taste of protecting and serving, I’ve been sympathetic to cops ever since.
But something else happened that sixth grade year while was I serving on the safety patrol, something traumatic. Two weeks after Christmas, quite unexpectedly, my father died.
All of a sudden, donning a stupid orange belt and little play badge didn’t seem quite so important anymore. I loved my father. For a week, maybe two–I don’t really remember–I was absent from school, absent from the street corner where I was supposed to be protecting the younger kids. My mother, a sympathetic pastor, and extended family, provided some support. But my mother was still in shock and going through her own heartache, and there was no such thing as a grief counselor in my small town in 1970.
Sometimes I wonder if the real reason I write crime fiction is because of everything that happened that year. In my books I try to create characters that face such a loss. Themes like redemption, hope, and justice strike to my very core.
Maybe becoming a mystery novelist has simply become my way of returning to my past.