Thursday, October 11, 2012


Last Friday I met up with my writing Colleagues Liz Hand, Lou Berney, Chris F Holm and Seth Harwood, in Cleveland for our Bouchercon Panel, a discussion on “Morality in the Crime Fiction Hero / Anti-Hero.” Considering there were three other excellent panels, as well as key-note event with Toastmaster John Connolly in conversation with fellow bestselling novelist Karin Slaughter, we were very surprised at the turnout. It was standing room only, and for those who attended, we wish to thank you. As ‘morality in crime-fiction’ is a very broad and interesting topic, we had far more questions than time’, so I thought it might be fun to publish my notes and questions that we raised, as well as the ones we didn’t have time to debate. These points both those discussed and those not, should provoke thought. This is the pleasure of reading, it engages the mind and makes us think about life and reality, and the prism of crime fiction, an excellent way of viewing matters in an existential light. And we all know it rains on the just and unjust alike.

I would urge you to explore the panelist’s work, though Wallace Stroby emailed me that afternoon, with an apology as he was taken sick and therefore unable to participate. In honour of Clint Eastwood, who played the amoral Dirty Harry, we left Wallace’s chair empty………

Elizabeth Hand In the 1970s, Elizabeth Hand flunked out of college and became involved in the nascent punk scenes in DC and NYC. From 1979 to 1986 she worked at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum, and eventually received a BS in cultural anthropology. She is the author of eleven novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has received numerous honors, including the Shirley Jackson Award, World Fantasy Award, and Nebula Award, and her novels have been New York Times and Washington Post Notable Books.  A regular contributor to the Washington Post, LA Times, Salon, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among others, Hand divides her time between the Maine coast and North London.

Her novel Available Dark [2012] is a foray into crime fiction and a sequel to her highly regarded 2007 Novel Generation Loss, which received the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for best work of psychological suspense.   Both books feature her antihero Cassandra [Cass] Neary who she describes “as your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer.” Perfect for our panel on amoral heroes!

Lou Berney is an accomplished writer, teacher, and liar. He is the author of WHIPLASH RIVER (William Morrow, 2012) and GUTSHOT STRAIGHT (William Morrow, 2010). GUTSHOT STRAIGHT was nominated for a Barry Award and named by Booklist as one of the best debut crime novels of the year. Often compared to Elmore Leonard with a dash of Carl Hiaason, his short fiction has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and he has written feature screenplays and created TV pilots for, among others, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Focus Features, ABC, and Fox. 

Currently he teaches writing at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University. Berney’s antihero Charles "Shake" Bouchon, is a professional wheel man [aka getaway driver] and is described as “too nice a guy for the life he's led, but not nice enough for any other”

Chris F Holm - was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop with a penchant for crime fiction.  It was punk rock and Star Wars, two influences that hold more sway over Holm, than perhaps his wife would like.  But it was books [like many of us] that defined his childhood, from his grandfather’s Wambaugh and Lawrence Sanders paperbacks, to the timeworn pulps picked up secondhand from the library. Apparently, he wrote his first story at the age of six.  It got him sent to the principal’s office and he’d like to think that right then is when he decided to become a writer.

Since then, he’s fared a little better. His stories have appeared in a slew of publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, and Thuglit.  His novella “The Hitter” was selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner.  His Collector novels, DEAD HARVEST [Feb 2012] and THE WRONG GOODBYE [Sept 2012], recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. They feature Sam Thornton a collector of souls from the damned and sends them into eternal misery. So it should have been straightforward to collect the soul of 17-year-old mass murderer Kate MacNeil, but something isn’t right; her soul is too pure. The collection of an innocent soul can throw off the balance of good and evil and spark a chain of events that leads to the end of the world, biblical style – hence the moral / amoral dimension.

Wallace Stroby – I first met Wallace on a late night drinking binge at Bouchercon Las Vegas in 2003, in a bar called ‘The Peppermill’, which was featured in John Ridley’s amoral novel ‘Everyone Smokes in Hell’, and we’ve been bumping into each other at Bouchercons ever since. Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of the novels
"Kings of Midnight," "Cold Shot to the Heart," "Gone 'Til November," "The Heartbreak Lounge" and "The Barbed-Wire Kiss.".

A Long Branch, N.J., native, he's a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. "The Barbed-Wire Kiss," which The Washington Post called "a scorching first novel ...full of attention to character and memory and, even more, to the neighborhoods of New Jersey," was a finalist for the 2004 Barry Award for Best First Novel.

A graduate of Rutgers University, Stroby was an editor at the Star-Ledger of Newark, Tony Soprano's hometown newspaper, for 13 years. In Stroby’s latest KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, Crissa Stone, the cool-headed professional thief from Stroby's acclaimed COLD SHOT TO THE HEART returns and when reviewed at Kirkus she is described - "Crissa Stone may be crime fiction's best bad girl ever."
Seth HarwoodBoston born but now residing in California, Seth is the author of the Jack Palms novels. In 2005, Seth Harwood began writing his debut novel, Jack Wakes Up. No stranger to the literary scene, Harwood had graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop just a few years earlier and his short stories had been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies; getting attention from publishers for Jack Wakes Up, however, proved more difficult. So in July of 2006, Seth recorded a podcast of Jack Wakes Up and posted it on his website,, for free download. The podcast was a major hit and the Jack Palms Crime Podcast Series was born. Soon JACK WAKES UP was published by Three Rivers Press Paperback Original [Random House]. Since then he has written This is The Life [Jack Palms #2], Czechmate [Jack Palms #3], Triad Death Match [A Jack Palms Novella], A Long Way from Disney [a short story collection], In Broad Daylight [a Jess Harding FBI thriller]. 

The Jack Palms’ novels feature the eponymous anti-hero, former Hollywood one-hit wonder and ex-drug addict now has cleaned up his act, and is sorting his life out, but aspects of his amoral past still lay in his mind, and Palms is described by some as “half-likeable and half-asshole”. Though it is his 2010 novel Young Junius, that is perhaps his most intriguing, taking the 14 year old Junius Posey, who sets to track down his brother’s killer in a rundown area of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Junius ends up a killer, crossing the line but it’s the amorality he’s learned that allows him to sort out the dangers around him.

Seth teachs English and writing at CCSF [City College San Francisco] and Stanford University, and previously at UMass Boston and the University of Iowa.

Q         Would you agree that the basis of the success of the Crime Fiction /  Mystery Genre is the understanding of ‘Morality’, and the restoration of  order? Unlike in life, in the crime novel we have the ability to solve the problem, punish the guilty and restore order, giving the reader a sense of ‘closure’ / catharsis as satisfaction is often absent in the real world, due to the random nature of reality [where the rain falls on the just, as well as the unjust, in equal measure]?

Q         In some crime novels we often have the good guy, who restores the order  but in order to do so, he has a side-kick [to do the dirty work] so the hero keep his uniform white, eg Bubba works with Patrick and Angie in Dennis Lehane’s PI novels, Robert B Parker’s Spencer has Hawk, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar has Win, Bob Crais’ Elvis Cole has Joe Pike, while        some writers allow their ‘heroes / anti-heroes to do their own dirty work. What are your thoughts on this matter, should the hero clean up his own mess, or have a side-kick? And what do you do in your own writing with this dilemma?

Q         Many critics indicated that the Bond villains were very, very bad because James Bond was a deeply amoral character himself, so his enemies had to be even more grotesque, a bit like the Batman villains [as Bruce Wayne was a psychopath] would you agree that when your character / hero / anti-hero is a bad-ass, then his foes have to be even more evil?

         At this point the panel were asked “if you were in deep, deep trouble and need to call upon a fictional character to help you out of a jam, who would you call?” Seth Harwood asked “…but what sort of trouble?” At which I replied “consider it a big bloody problem, so big it would take an imaginary character, a real bad-arse to resolve." The panelists spoke about the character they would call, and the audience voted for a winner, and it was Chris Holm’s nomination of Bruce Wayne / Batman that was voted the biggest bad-arse, and the one they would call if mired in a huge problem, beating Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, Richard Stark’s Parker and Helen Zahavi's Bella.

       At this point, a giant cockroach fell from the ceiling to much consternation from the audience, luckily the Editor-in-Chief of Shots Magazine, and insect-wrangler managed to stamp on it, before it attacked the panel. This was a good time to open up the panel to the audience, for their questions.

            This left the following questions un-debated, but you might find them of interest and may provoke thought.

Q         When writing a amoral hero[s] / anti-hero[s], how hard it is to ensure the reader retains sufficient sympathy with the character[s] so there is a  willingness to continue to read, on. What writing tactics do you deploy with examples to keep the reader engaged even when the lead has some unpleasant character traits? [eg Elmore Leonard deployed humor, Westlake / Stark deployed violence and an efficiency, sense of purpose in the ruthlessness in Parker, Harris gave Lecter some very insightful dialogue and a scary intelligence, Larsson gave Salander autism linked to her backstory and hi-tech skills, Fleming gave Bond an upperclass  perspective, exotic tastes and locations, etc]

Q         I recall being chilled when I read that Adolf Hitler loved dogs, as he was a huge animal lover, this made him [in my opinion] all the more hideous as a monster, seeing that he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of so many innocent humans, but loved animals, so how important is it that we show the good and bad natures of our characters, antagonists and protagonists as the world is no longer black and white but murky grey?

Q         What about the good guys that appear in the genre, how important is to ensure they have dark sides to their nature, and not totally good-two  shoes types, so there is cross-over to the amoral anti-hero? Or is there legitimacy in have all characters with good and bad, and the hero is the one who is least bad?

Q         What happens when a writer / creator feels perhaps their anti-hero has crossed the line between the fantasy world and become a tool for the mentally unstable in the real world? Does the writer creator have a duty to society to keep the amorality behind a line? [Examples being Stephen King withdrawing RAGE, an early book published under his name   Richard Bachman which allegedly was linked to some school kidnappings  / shootings, Stanley Kubrick withdrawing A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in the UK as it allegedly inspired anti-social gang violence as some youths  copied Alex and the Droogs, now available again following Kubrick’s death, and more recently the BATMAN massacre in Denver], so what responsibility does the writer / creator have when walking the morality line?

As a coda to that question / discussion point, I’d bring out the anecdote / dilemma that British Composer Clint Mansell faced when that Norwegian nutter Anders Behring Breivik admitted in having the score from Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM [based on a novel by Hubert Selby Jnr] ‘Lux Aeterna’ playing on full volume, and on shuffle-repeat on his IPod as he killed the young people on the Norwegian island.

He said at the trial “In addition, I will put my iPod on max volume as a tool to suppress fear if needed. I might just put Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell on repeat as it is an incredibly powerful song. The combination of these factors (when added on top of intense training, simulation, superior armour and weaponry) basically turns you into an extremely focused and deadly force, a one-man-army.”

Q         Can you go too far in having amoral heroes in novels or cinema of the extreme, for example has anyone here seen the very disturbing ‘A SERBIAN FILM’? [show of hands please], where the lead character is a male ex-porn actor, basically a decent man, forced into some unspeakable acts and acts of extreme sexual violence. I’m never for agreeing with censorship, but that film disturbed me deeply, and is one that I think crosses the line. Have any of you, lines on your own value and moral system that you would not cross, or is any scared cow fair game?

Q         Is there a response to amorality by subversion? When Austrian Michael Haneke wrote and directed ‘FUNNY GAMES’ in 1997 [which was remade for US audiences a decade later], it was deeply shocking. I found it hard to watch. Haneke in an interview said that his film was in direct response to the laughter he heard from a teenage cinema audience when they viewed some of the random and amoral violence and death in Pulp Fiction. The teenage laughter chilled him, so in response, he made FUNNY GAMES, where the two psychopaths that terrorise and torture [and murder] the couple and their young son, are portrayed as charming, well dressed and their madness / amorality masked by their charm and joyful natures. We see that amorality is not funny, and the camera lingers over the violence and no one laughs.

            Other examples of subversion of morality could be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, where the cops are corrupt while the mob appear to be the good guys in the neighborhood, or in ‘Mute Witness’ by Robert Fish which became Bullitt, or the Dirty Harry Movies the amoral [fascistic] cops are better than the politicians that should be our protectors - Care to comment about the subversion of morality?

Q         There seems to an issue with regard to the treatment of morality when viewed through the looking glass of different cultures, as some ‘things’ maybe palatable in one culture but not in another. A case in point is the amoral ‘hero’ such as Thomas Harris’ 1999 novel “Hannibal” which was lauded by the British / European critics while on the whole unappreciated in Harris’ native America, and Patricia Highsmith whose work especially the Tom Ripley novels were critically acclaimed in Europe but only after her passing did they become more than cult books in her native America, she even left the US for Norfolk and eventually Switzerland? Would you agree that an amoral hero is more accessible to a European sensibility than an American one?

Q         What fictional characters do you consider really special? And why are so many popular characters amoral with often sociopathic tendencies? Can you pick examples from the book world, as well as comics, films and tell us about the ones you most liked and perhaps influenced you eg -

            Examples being Silence of the Lambs with Clarice Starling, and the Dr Moriarty style villain with Dr Hannibal Lecter, Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory, Larsson’s  Lisabeth Salander, Fleming’s James Bond, Richard Stark’s Parker, Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, David Morrell’s John Rambo and there are many more, not just in books, but comics, films eg Batman, Catwoman, The Joker, The Watchmen, Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns, Dirty Harry, Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, Any Tarantino movie, The Dirty Dozen, et al

            We had a lot of fun, and I do hope you explore the panelists’ work, because they plough    the amoral furrow well, because like in life, it rains on the just and unjust in equal measure.

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