January 8, 2015

True Crime, True Genre, True Talent: an interview with Mark Smith, author of "Death of the Detective"

Mark Smith is the author of The Death of the Detective, the runaway New York Times Bestseller and beloved National Book Award finalist that is one of the most admired, compelling and unforgettable crime novels ever written. Brash Books is honored to be publishing a new edition in 2015. (source: http://mysterythrillerbooks.com/author/mark-smith/)

Gef: Where did you get the inspiration for The Death of the Detective?

Mark: From reading hundreds of detective novels. Also, possibly from Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. And from living in Chicago from the age of ten to twenty-five in what was then for me a fairly open city.

Gef: What kind of a gear shift is it writing-wise or marketing-wise or otherwise since the advent of digital publishing?

Mark: No change in my writing—and I refuse to pursue the automobile metaphor, tempted though I am-- but I now see digital publishing as a possible primary source of publication. Still, it’s a bit hard for me to take, I am very much committed to the tradition of print and paper and the colorful décor of book shelves. There is no pride of ownership in E-books, although in this greedy and acquisitive world, that may be a good thing.

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Mark: I once spent a year researching an historical novel and never wrote a word of it. I’m not a researcher, and researching can easily become an end in itself. My fictions are acts of imagination informed by personal observation and experience. I did set a scene in a morgue where I had never been, but interviewed a doctor, hospital attendants and a friend identifying a relative who had, and even then didn’t feel quite right about it. (And here I’m speaking of naturalistic fiction, not fantasy. I set a fantasy novel in an imaginary Latin American country I could neither research nor visit.). After reading travel guides and books, I also set several scenes on Greek islands in the Aegean I hadn’t visited although I had spent time on their counterparts in the Adriatic. But I made sure the information came from a character in the novel who was not entirely trustworthy and not from myself, the author. Any lies or errors were his fault, not mine.

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of the crime genre?

Mark: Given the phrasing of the question, I could say, as did Auden in his classic essay, “The Guilty Vicarage” that the solution of the crime and the discoverer of the murder, returns the violated society to a state of grace where, I assume, it wants to be. In support of this, I recall how Chicago, in my youth, when a policeman or child was murdered, turned overnight from a city of several million into a small English village very much on edge and rampant with fearful and angry gossip. In the crime genre, the reader identifies with the detective, which puts the reader comfortably on the side of justice and the restoration of social and moral order. Not a bad place to be. In a crime novel that isn’t genre, the reader can be made to identify with the criminal, as in Crime and Punishment, as Auden pointed out. The reader of who-dun-its, also wants to play detective, and solve the crime before the detective, if possible, but authors don’t always play fair. Such readers are plot-minded, and therefore intelligent and, like most readers of novels in general, can be said to be interested in gossip, scandal and crime. Sensational true crimes that seem insolvable will always attract the reader who wishes to play detective on his or her own. Hence, the popularity of such classic crimes as Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, the Boston Strangler, all of which now appear to have been solved. The most obvious recent example of such a crime is the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey. If this crime was committed by anyone outside the household on the night it took place, the killer has a psychology combined with luck unlike any I have encountered in my readings in the history of crime. Quite a puzzler. It left me baffled. Although I was convinced it was an inside job. Then out of the blue, my wife, no crime buff, came up with an explanation of the crime that fit perfectly with the psychology of the principals and the many seemingly contradictory known clues and facts. I will not give away this most satisfying denouement. Think of the books that would be lost.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Mark: “Show, don’t tell” is the answer to both. One should be able to both show and tell. The greatest writers have always been tellers. If would-be writers want only to show, two wonderful careers await them as dramatist and screenwriter. Of course they can also write objective fiction like some Hemingway and Robbe-Grillet. I suspect many teachers of writing who are not writers themselves really mean by this pernicious doctrine, “Be as specific as possible, whether telling or showing,” which is excellent advise.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Mark: I despise gratuitous screen violence, but I do have a prurient interest in literature and elsewhere for which I feel no guilt. However a well-written description of a landscape or garden can excite me almost as much.

Gef: We're coming up to the end of the year, which means everyone and their mama is writing year-end lists. So what book, movie, game, show, song, or dirty limerick has found its way to the tippy-top of your favorites this year?

Mark: I rediscovered the tv series, “Lieutenant Joe Kenda”. Also re-read blockbusters The Possessed, Anna Karenin, The Titan and You Can’t Go Home Again.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Mark: More fiction, mostly of the crime variety or at least with an aspect of crime. And probably less poetry. I’m almost too gray now for my most prevalent shenanigan, which is to play practical jokes. My daughters who share my DNA now make me their victim. Recently, while I was living in California, they informed me my home state of Maine had issued a license plate with not only a lobster on it but a cooked lobster, bright red. (Imagine, if you will, a roast chicken on an Arkansas license plate). Of course I didn’t believe them, my adapted state couldn’t be so tasteless, but they kept at it until they convinced me, at which point they said, Haha, we got you! You actually believed us! As if Maine would do such a thing. A few weeks later I came across a Maine plate with a red lobster on it. They got me twice.

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