The facts . . . just the facts

Special to the Journal Sentinel
First Published, Sept. 17, 2005

The drive to Chicago is about as exciting as watching reruns of the "Golden Girls." The roads are old and the scenery boring. Plus the tolls keep reminding me that I am, indeed, in the Land of Lincoln. They squeeze every last penny from me.

As far as I'm concerned, paying freeway tolls is just another kind of social control, along with lines at theme parks and occasional working class families winning the lottery. They create the illusion that we're going somewhere.

So I took the train.

I arrived at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Chicago ready to face over a thousand people interested in crime, criminals, murder and mayhem. The World Mystery Writers Conference (a.k.a. Bouchercon after the critic Anthony Boucher) held over the Labor Day weekend, drew me to the city with the big shoulders.

My name is Barrowman. I'm a writer. Here's my story.

The investigation

It's Thursday afternoon and I have too many questions.

Why is it that some of the best contemporary novelists are crime writers, and yet many critics still treat the genre like literature's slutty sister? What's the difference between a mystery and a thriller? Can crime writers be poets? Are there any taboos in crime fiction? Can a person bleed to death from a shoulder wound?

And, for Chandler's sake, why are there so many mysteries with cats?

I need answers.

Authors Laura Lippman, Karin Slaughter, John Connolly and Mark Billingham offered some clues during a panel session riffing on crimes against the genre.

"One of the reasons crime fiction is considered inferior," posits Lippman, "is that the non-reader in the culture sets the agenda for the rest of us," and he or she just reads one or two books a year.

This year those two books were Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code," and the newest Harry Potter novel. According to Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan series, these books are such megahits that publishers only want to solicit and sell more of the same.

"Children shouldn't read porn," quips Billingham, whose dark procedural mysteries are set in London, "and adults shouldn't read Harry Potter."

The panel agrees. I'm skeptical.

"The London Sunday Times gives 30,000 words to books like 'The History of Zoos in Post War Germany,' " snaps Billingham, and then "only a couple of paragraphs to all the crime books of the past month, many of which are selling more than the zoo book's 10 copies."

"Books are frameworks for ideas," explains Irish thriller writer Connolly, "so don't be a door knob. Read widely," and, interjects Slaughter, author of a mystery series set around Atlanta, read books that "study the grey areas" in life.

Now I'm getting somewhere.

So I follow a long dark corridor to a crowded session with Eddie Muller, who writes a series set in 1940s San Francisco; Charlie Huston, whose latest novel "Six Bad Things" is six times better than his first, "Caught Stealing," which was brilliant; Jim Nesbit, who writes hard-boiled novels; and William Deverell, author of "The Dance of Shiva." All are writers on the wicked edge of the genre.

Inside the room, the language is so raunchy the walls are blushing. Their one-liners are like bullets shelling the audience.

"I once had a French editor," cracks Nesbit, "who kept rewriting 'topless bar' as 'bar without a roof.' Another thought a character named 'Dago Louis' was insensitive so he changed it to 'Dago Vinnie.'"

The confessions

Like bodies in a serial killer novel, the answers are piling up.

Lee Child, best-selling author of the Jack Reacher thrillers, reveals that the mystery "inhabits a puzzle structure that is usually segmented in time," but the thriller "is all about pace and the way that pace is managed."

Ken Bruen, whose poetic crime stories are laced with violence and a raw romanticism, confesses that as an Irishman "I'm only happy when I'm unhappy," and that he "gets murdered in the Irish press because all his heroes are American writers."

Paula Woods, author of the Charlotte Justice series set in L.A., admits she is "very conscious" where she kills people and "where she puts the bodies" so as not to offend; whereas, Peter Craig, whose novel "Hard Plastic" channels Jim Thompson and screams to be on the big screen, cautions "just never touch Disneyland."

A forensic specialist from Chicago demonstrates how a "shoulder wound renders an arm useless," how "a bone can knick an artery," and how it's "very difficult to knock a person unconscious with only one blow."

Finally, it all makes sense.

Except . . . what is it with mysteries and cats?

"Of all the animals that are going to give a rat's ass in a book - it's not going to be a cat," counsels Connolly. "There's a reason there are no seeing-eye cats. You'd get out into the middle of the road and you'd be on your own."

Carole E. Barrowman is a professor of English at Alverno College.