Friday, July 20, 2018

Guest Post by Dale Phillips: The Simple Art of Murder

Today’s guest post is by Dale Phillips, who is one of those people who gives crime fiction writers a good name and deservedly so. Dale has published novels, story collections, non-fiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale's college writing teacher, and since that time, he’s found time to appear on stage, television, in an independent feature film, and compete on Jeopardy, losing in spectacular fashion. (Which is the best way to lose. No point going out quietly. ) In his spare time he co-wrote and acted in a short political satire film and has traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and through Europe. I've read some of Dale's stuff and will read more. He's an underappreciated gem of a writer.

Thank you, Dana for allowing me to pontificate here, as I love talking about mystery writing: its origins and practice, and the reasons why I spend so many hours of private time creating stories of it.

I first saw Dana King when he was quoting from The Simple Art of Murder, the famous essay by noir master Raymond Chandler. I was the one in the audience nodding in vigorous agreement, and practically shouting Amen! Because what Dana was describing, by way of Chandler, was the type of mystery novel I write (currently five books), and my protagonist Zack Taylor.

Chandler argued the virtues of the hard-boiled detective novel, and this piece stands as one of the most insightful and eloquent studies of detective/crime/mystery fiction. It explains why writers like Dana and I write what we do, and not mannered tales of English vicars who repeatedly stumble across bodies and help the hapless local constabulary solve quaint murders in even quainter villages.

They say to write the kind of book you like to read, and I was indoctrinated by the masters of the hard-boiled school: Dashiell Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane. John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and so many more. Here, murder is a dirty business, where people aren't being offed for control of a mansion or an inheritance, but sometimes for a few bucks in their pocket, or because they've fallen in love with the wrong person or crossed someone dangerous. In these tales, the people who killed will likely kill again, unless they are stopped. There is a great deal of peril for the person trying to solve the crime, and things won't be going back to a quiet, normal existence, because murder leaves a horrid stain on all those who come in contact with it.

So I write what I know, the life of people in Maine, and I try to bring those stories to a sense of realism with people you might know. I find it difficult to connect with the kind of traditional mystery where a cozy Mrs. Pennyfeather sips tea and somehow brings a murderer to justice with help from her cat and her quilting club. In my books, I show the aftermath of violence, how it marks people and affects their lives. I depict a flawed hero, a man who makes many mistakes, but who desperately tries to be a better person, even though he’s resigned to being the outcast, the near-criminal who can only make a difference by being what he is. I model my series and character after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and pay homage, even though my character is far more flawed, far less effective, and haunted by the things he’s done. Like Travis, he’s not above scooping up windfalls of illicit money. It helps him to help others, and keeps him out of jail by paying a very expensive attorney.

Too often the rich and powerful can escape justice for their crimes, and if Zack Taylor cannot bring justice, at least he can conjure a reckoning. But in doing so, there is usually unintended collateral damage, and Zack pays a terrible price for doing what he does. In the latest book, A Sharp Medicine, Zack realizes he’s losing the love of his life because of his brushes with violence. He begins to unravel, and his solution is to go deeper into danger and risk, searching for a missing reporter.

One big problem for our hero, though. Despite the fact that murders and criminals love and
use guns, Zack hates them due to a past tragedy, and doesn’t use them. Too often in mystery fiction the protagonist whips out a gun to escape danger and all problems are instantly solved. Where’s the fun in that? Better to have our protagonist at a major disadvantage, leaving the reader wondering how he’s going to survive. Makes for a more interesting tale, in my opinion.

I also put themes in each book- nothing that slows the action down, but bolsters the meaning of it all. If all Zack did was beat people up while solving murders, the series would get boring quickly. I change things up and try to better my game with each book in the series, and the careful reader will get more than just a good action yarn. The series is a study in human nature, drawn from life.

There are things I don’t put in my books. Murder is bad enough, so I don’t put in graphic torture scenes or the detailed abuse of children or animals. And while trying to give the air of authenticity, I shy away from detailing ways to successfully commit crime. There are authors who have had readers use something they learned in an author’s book, and I don’t want to be responsible for anything like that.

So if you like your fiction hard-boiled, down-to-earth, and a tad gritty at times, give the Zack Taylor series a try. Whether it’s the mean streets of Portland, Maine or Penns River (as in Dana’s work), you’ll get a good read that’s worth your time.

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