Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Chris Rhatigan

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Chris Rhatighan is a highly intelligent crime writer.

He writes cutting edge hard boiled crime that never fails to deliver.

He’s a journalist who knows his game and he is as sharp as a razor.

If you don’t believe me check out one of his stories.
He delivers fine Noir.

He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about crime and paranoia.

Do you think killing and fucking are related?

Definitely.

For better or worse, it’s the logic that sustains almost all of American entertainment. And often the two aren’t just related, but overlapping and mixing and becoming indistinguishable from one another. Like Xenia Onatopp from the James Bond movie Goldeneye–she’s the villain who kills men by crushing their skulls between her legs, a femme fatale on crack. To me, she’s one of the most memorable characters in film–a perfect union of killing and fucking. (Can you even use the term victims? Didn’t those dudes want to be there?)

Or the phenomenal TV show True Blood, based on the series by Charlaine HarrisMost of the show focuses on people with death wishes who like to have extremely violent sex with vampires. It’s this strange kind of symbiotic relationship. And it’s endlessly fascinating in a grotesque way–all the people in the show who aren’t  having sex with vampires are always thinking about…. you guessed it, having sex with vampires.

So why are killing and fucking related?

Don’t know. I suppose both are primal urges. And the most direct way to prevent another person from fucking the person you want to fuck is by killing them.

Or perhaps it’s because both are at the extremes of human experience. You don’t get much more intense than killing and fucking.

But whatever the reason is, I think Quentin Tarantino hit it on the head talking about the movie Hostel: “It’s like a Resse’s peanut butter cup. It’s got boobs and gore, two great tastes that taste great together.”

Who are your literary influences?

For the last several months, I’ve been almost exclusively reading short stories and flash. I love both these forms, and they’re what I’m trying to write. So, many of the writers who have influenced me aren’t the old masters like the Chandlers and Parkers and Thompsons of the world (who I do love), but newer authors.

Paul Brazill has been a huge influence. That guy writes fearless. I was talking with a writer buddy the other day about how there’s a strong tendency among short form writers to imitate Hemingway. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Hemingway–he turned me on to the short story in the first place. But he’s deceptive. You read his stories and think, “Fuck, I could do that. It’s just this minimalist kind of thing. No problem.” But you can’t. Sorry.

Anyways, Brazill is kind of a response to Hemingway. His work is loaded with personality and force. It’s just alive. Both are economical, but approach writing differently. To use a just awful, hackneyed metaphor, Hemingway is like ice and Brazill is like fire.

Along those same lines, Jimmy Callaway is one of my favorite writers. Like Brazill, he’s hilarious and crafts sizzling dialogue. I recently read all of his work at A Twist of Noir–each one is a gem. Every time I read one of his, I think, “Dammit. I wish I wrote that.”

Matthew C. Funk is another writer who has found what works for him. He writes these gritty crime stories based in New Orleans and hits a home run every time he steps to the plate.  His stories aren’t that similar to one another, but it’s more that he’s found these themes–the bleakness of urban poverty, the tenuous ties between friends and family in a brutal world–that he weaves into each one of his stories.

So, I want to write stuff like these guys write–with electric prose, a breakneck pace, oozing with personality, and no bullshit.

Do you think men and women have different styles of killing?

Certainly men and women have different styles of killing in fiction of all forms. Men tend toward the more “business-like” murders– contract killers, assassins, and mobsters all populate the make-believe scene. Their murders tend to be quick, efficient, and emotionless. Usually for money. (Although I guess the serial killer genre would be a strong challenge to this.)

Women tend to kill for more personal reasons (see any movie on the Lifetime network as an example… not that any of you watch Lifetime. You’re much too cool for that.) and, consequently, they’re more likely to stab their victims or bludgeon them with something… or use their legs to crush the victim’s head!

One thing I like about the neo-noir writers (I hesitate to use the prefix neo- but there it is…) who are turning these conventions upside down. Take Ian Ayris’s work on “Stars” or “The Argument Bunny” or “By the Dim and Flaring Lamps.” All these are about men who kill for very personal reasons and in sloppy ways, making for very visceral material. I tend to like these kinds of stories more–where the characters are emotionally invested–than those of the stoic hit man.

In reality, I would assume men and women have different styles of killing, as we’re both always performing (or, at best, fighting against) prescribed gender roles. However, it’s kind of hard to tell, as the only way I hear about murder is through the media. And, as a reporter myself, I know that we only hear about the stuff that’s deemed newsworthy–the mother who drowns her children or the guy who sprays a Van Maur’s with machine gun fire. In other words, it’s a biased sample and difficult to draw any accurate conclusion from.

Why do you think gun culture is so integral to the American psyche?

Americans definitely have a fascination with all things guns. We glorify the individual in America, and I consider the gun culture to be linked to that. Being able to carry a source of overwhelming physical force means you never have to rely on anyone else.

And, obviously, fear is another big factor. Americans are afraid of virtually every threat out there. Pedophiles, gangs, terrorists–you name it, Americans are afraid of it and convinced that it’s happening in their backyards. A gun provides the illusion that one can control these forces. One push of a button (or, in this case, a trigger) and the problem is conveniently eliminated.

On a side note, the gun culture here provides an interesting challenge for crime writers. Nigel Bird recently commented here at The Slaughterhouse that British crime writers have to be more creative in deciding how to kill off their characters, as Britain is a gun-free culture. Certainly with the prevalence of guns in TV, movies, video games, etc., it’s where my mind goes first when I’m thinking about a story with violence. This is lazy thinking/writing, so I feel the need to thoroughly interrogate why a character has (or uses) a gun.

You’re given a sum of money to carry out a hit.  How do you do it?

Oooh.  Twisted.

Well, I have two answers to this. Real-Life Chris wouldn’t have a clue of how to actually carry out a hit… so that would be one stupid client who paid him all those bucks. And even if Real-Life Chris did know how to do it, he would probably just end up crying or something. Besides, Real-Life Chris makes a lot of sound when moves, which I would imagine wouldn’t be a good trait for a hit man.

Bottom line, he doesn’t have the guts for that business.

But Fictional Chris is very badass. Fictional Chris not only gets the job done but makes you say, “Shiiiit. You don’t fuck with Fictional Chris!”

So you want to know how Fictional Chris does it? He can’t tell you. Cause then he’d have to kill you.

But here’s what happened to his last victim:

Fictional Chris went deep into the jungle. He caught a poisonous tree frog with his bare hands. He sucked the venom right out of it. (He didn’t die cause Fictional Chris is too manly to be killed by a tiny frog.)

With that venom, he fashioned a poison dart. Just one, because that’s all Fictional Chris needs. And he took a stalk of the finest bamboo and lined the inside of it with palm oil, which Fictional Chris knows is a superior lubricant.

Then, as the unknowing victim sat at home eating his cookies and drinking his milk, Fictional Chris soundlessly opened the sliding glass door (which was left open cause the victim was the trusting type and thought he lived in a good neighborhood) and shot him with that dart.

What do you think distinguishes a serial killer from other types of criminal?

I once heard a definition of a serial killer as someone who kills specifically for sexual pleasure. This is definitely the idea one gets from most media sources, but I think it’s a bit limited. I would say a serial killer is someone who targets their victims for a specific reason and derives some sort of pleasure from the act of murder. That seems a bit broader to me.

I’m not a fan of the current serial killer craze in entertainment. There are some good examples (Joe Konrath’s novels and the Dexter novel/TV series), but plenty of bad ones (the TV show Criminal Minds, which is freaking dreadful, or anything James Patterson has written–or whoever is writing his novels now). For whatever reason, there’s a fixation on them. I guess people like a lot of violence and a lot of sex and, preferably, both at the same time.

But, to actually answer your question, I think serial killers differ from other criminals in that they’re not really in it for personal gain. Most other criminals are looking to get ahead in some way–looking to make money or gain prestige. But the serial killer just wants to keep doing what they’re doing. Like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, serial killers have the sickness. So I guess serial killers tend to resemble drug addicts or pedophiles more than they do other murderers.

Elias Canetti in ‘Crowds And Power’ commented ‘behind paranoia, as behind all power, lies the same profound urge: the desire to get other men out of the way so as to be the only one’. To what extent do you think this is true of politics and also crime and if so how related are politics and crime?

I don’t think it’s necessarily true of politics. Though politics is always a game with winners and losers, it’s fundamentally a group game. You have to have allies to win. And according to network theory, which I sort of buy, he with the most informal connections (not the strongest or the most influential—just the highest number) is always more likely to advance his position.

So to me, the goal of politicians is to be at the top of a hierarchy with all others in subordinate positions. Perhaps in that sense a politician is seeking to be the only one—or at least to be part of the reigning group. If you don’t have that mentality, you probably don’t get into politics. But to be alone at the top? That seems to be only for the truly ambitious, those willing to sacrifice their personality to climb the ladder.

But even then, are you really seeking to be the only one? Politicians thrive on the existence of their opponents. They thrive not only on actual competition, but also on the existence of an opposing view that they can point at and say, “We’re not that.”

For example, the publisher of a popular conservative magazine said that after Barack Obama won the election in 2008 their circulation skyrocketed. In this sense, politicians are define their identities more by what they oppose than what they support. That’s why negative political advertising is so overwhelmingly successful. Or could you imagine Bill O’Reilly without the Left? Or Stephen Colbert without Bill O’Reilly?

For crime, I think that statement holds more true and certainly is strongly linked to paranoia. Revenge is a prime example of this. What is revenge other than trying to eliminate all those who pose a threat to what you value?

By its very nature, crime turns people into loners and turns them against each other. I recently read Ken Bruen’s The Max—a bunch of low-life criminals double-crossing each other at every opportunity, a story that fully embraces Otto Penzler’s definition of noir. All these people trying to be the last one left standing.

But maybe it’s broader than crime and more about human nature. People almost always fail Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Do you think Iowa would lend itself to its own style of crime writing?

I don’t think so. I grew up in Connecticut and moved out to Iowa City three years ago, so perhaps I’m not qualified to answer that, but I find Iowa pretty unremarkable. Mostly giant soybean/corn farms and a few lackluster cities. Iowa is not unique, which I think is necessary to foster a style of crime writing.

There are very few crime writers from here. Off the top of my head, I know Max Allan Collins went to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and John Kenyon currently lives in Iowa City, but I can’t think of anyone else.

Certainly there’s a “rural American” style of crime writing that parts of Iowa could be included in. I recently read Christopher Coake’s beautiful short story “All Through the House” and although it was set in Indiana, it could’ve easily been one of hundreds of dying rural towns spread across Iowa.

Do you think the lust for power is behind a criminal’s psychology?

Yes.  I was going to qualify that answer, but there are so few instances where the criminal isn’t seeking power that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Certainly criminals frequently seek more than just power–money or safety or satisfying an impulse–but all of that kind of links with power as they’re seeking to insulate their position at someone else’s expense. This is one of those areas where fiction and life are aligned.

Even the professional hit man or the mobster is probably attracted to that lifestyle because it gives them power over other people. Take B.R. Stateham’s character, Smitty, or Christopher Grant’s character, Greta–two very memorable characters. Though they’re pros, they like exerting power over other people.

So all crime fiction has to have a power dynamic—or at least it seems that way to me. This simultaneously makes it more interesting (struggles between characters, the stakes are always high) but also presents problems.

Personally, I veer away from the sheer “game” of crime in fiction–where it’s more about who wins and who loses than it is about the characters. To me, this is part of the reason why some mainstream mystery novels have gotten stale and boring, especially in the thriller genre. I gravitate toward stories that are more personal and, ultimately, about how a character changes.

Although I look at some of my work and it’s just about the game. And I adore Michael Crichton’s work and he didn’t write a single interesting character in his career . . . so there are exceptions?

Do you think humor and crime belong anywhere near each other?

I don’t know if it’s my obsession with contrast or what but I really dig humor in crime fiction. Joe Konrath, Jimmy Callaway, Paul Brazill, Harlan Coben, Elmore Leonard, they all use humor very well. It makes for fast reading and (in my opinion) makes the dark parts darker. I’m starting to work humor into my own writing more, but it’s harder than I thought it would be.

I think my fondness for humor-crime is linked to my former career as a reporter. You just hear about so much weird shit every day (even in the small towns and cities I worked in) that you become calloused. (Or you use jokes to pretend that you’re calloused–I don’t know, something like that. Or maybe it’s because everyone assumes that because you’re a reporter, you’re scum, and then you meet that expectation.) Anyways, reporters make literally everything into a joke. In fact, the more gruesome, the better. There was one dude at my office who was fantastic with one-liners. Gotta have something to get you through the day.

Thanks so much for having me Richard. I’m honored to be a Chin Wagger!

Chris Rhatigan’s fiction has been published in A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, Yellow Mama and Pulp Metal Magazine, and has work upcoming at the brand-spanking-new Pulp Carnivale. His blog, Death by Killing, is all about the world of short crime fiction.  

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