August 8, 2014

Why I Write About Crime: a guest post by James Neal Harvey, author of "The Big Hit"

About James Neal Harvey's THE BIG HIT: Mongo wakes up, brushes his teeth, and prepares to kill a movie star. He needs a wig and a phony press pass, as well as a very special tape recorder that holds two fl├ęchettes, one of which is earmarked for screen siren Catherine Delure. A bit of smooth talk takes Mongo past Delure’s security and into her hotel room, where he completes his assignment with ease. The hit was simple, he thinks. But it is about to go terribly wrong.
Delure appears to have been shot during a robbery, but homicide detective Jeb Barker is not fooled. Tracking the self-assured assassin leads the PI first to Las Vegas, then to California—where blue sky and palm trees cannot distract him from the darkness within the hit man’s heart.
James was generous enough to stop by the blog and offer his thoughts on crime writing and where it's taken him over the years. Enjoy!

by James Neal Harvey

The first money I ever made was for playing trumpet in a polka band at a Polish picnic on the shores of Lake Candlewood in Connecticut. I was twelve years old and the accordionist and the drummer and the clarinetist and the tuba player were all grown men. At the end of the day I went home with five bucks and a bloody lip.

Later I played jazz in a number of bands and at sixteen toured New England in one of them. Then I served three years as an able seaman on tankers in the US Merchant Marine.

Except for those experiences, all the work I’ve ever done has been creative: writing for advertising, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and books, and even inventing games for the Milton Bradley Co. I worked for Young & Rubicam in New York and Hollywood, and also for McCann-Erickson and Manoff, and then for 16 years ran my own agency at 477 Madison Avenue, with such accounts as BMW, Canada Dry, Georgia Pacific, Crayola, and many others.

All during that long stretch in the ad business, I employed a secret method to keep from losing my mind: I wrote as a freelance. And what I wrote about was crime.

Why crime? When I was a kid my family lived in a quiet neighborhood in Danbury, and a young woman whose home was nearby went to that same Lake Candlewood for a swim. Pieces of her body were found among the rocks on the west side of the lake. She’d been raped and hideously mutilated. The killer was never caught.

A year after that the owner of a small grocery store closed up on Christmas eve and went down into his basement office to tot up his receipts. An eighteen-year-old tough named Pooch McCarthy forced his way into the shop and shot the grocer and stole his money.

The justice system was different in those days. McCarthy was convicted, and instead of enjoying 25 years of appeals, in June he was taken to Wethersfield Penitentiary and given the juice.

Those events, and others, greatly stimulated my interest. At Syracuse University I studied psychology, and focused particularly on abnormal psychology. I learned about sociopaths and psychopaths, murderers and fetishists and rapists, and many other deviants. Do you know what frotteurists are? They’re people who derive sexual pleasure from rubbing against the body of a stranger. Where do you find them? Wherever there are crowds. Like pickpockets, they love the New York subways at rush hour. And however weird they may be, there are others who are far worse.

So I had plenty of material to write about while I was freelancing. And to expand my knowledge, I visited prisons and mental hospitals and interviewed inmates and cops and CO’s and psychologists. I did the same thing in Florida, and I have a friend in California where I live now who’s a psychologist in the state mental hospital.

Who bought my stuff? Men’s adventure magazines. I wrote dozens of articles for them, as did other writers I met, including Mario Puzo and Tom Chastain. The work not only relaxed me, it was a hell of a lot of fun.

While in advertising, one of my agency’s accounts was the Wella Co., maker of hair products. I created a campaign that would feature beautiful women using Wella Balsam Conditioner and Wella Balsam Shampoo, and the women I hired were the original Charley’s Angels, including Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Smith, Kate Jackson, and Cheryl Ladd. And believe me, they were no angels.

That was more good material, and I used it to write a novel. My lawyers insisted I use a pseudonym to fend off lawsuits, particularly from Farrah, and so I did. When it was published Columbia Pictures bought the screen rights.

Thinking I’d get out of advertising and write full time, I sold my agency. But then another agency made me an offer I couldn't refuse and I became its president and stayed with it for six years. During that time I wrote my first crime novel, “By Reason Of Insanity.”

Finally I quit and began writing full time. I turned out five more novels, and then took a break and became a partner in a video game development company. We struggled to make it go, but it was underfunded and the technical director died from Parkinson’s disease, and eventually the company went bust.

So it was back to writing. And for the first time I took a shot at non-fiction. One of the things I like to do is fly aerobatic airplanes, and I’ve owned a number of them. On a trip to Germany I met a former member of the Luftwaffe who’d test-flown the Me-262, the first operational jet, and had flown it in combat. I was intrigued, and wound up spending several years researching the life of the jet’s designer, Willy Messerschmitt.

The book was titled, “Sharks Of The Air.” To my chagrin, the publisher did a miserable job of editing, and before I knew it the book was released, errors and all. Never again, I decided. Stick with fiction, and make sure the publisher handles the material properly.

That led me to write “The Big Hit,” and my great agent Bob Diforio placed it with Mysterious Press, along with my earlier novels. In “The Big Hit” everything I’d learned came together. The villain is a psychopath, and his view of people and his reasons for killing them are quite accurately portrayed. So are some slimy dealings in the movie business. On top of that, the editors at Mysterious were meticulous and very helpful.

Now the book is out, and I’m pleased that readers are enthusiastic about it, and I’m working on another.

What’s the next one about? Crime, of course.    

Thanks, James. As for the rest of you, you can buy yourself a copy of The Big Hit on and other fine bookstores.

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