Patti Abbott writes top crime fiction. If you don’t know that go and read ‘Portraits Of Detroit’ by her at A Twist Of Noir.
She is the author of more than 75 stories in literary and crime fiction print and online journals and anthologies.
She is the co-editor (with Steve Weddle) of DISCOUNT NOIR. She won a Derringer for her story, MY HERO, in 2008. She blogs daily at PATTINASE. She’s been running a series on forgotten books for almost three years.
She met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the legal system and psychology.
How much of your material do you get from Detroit?
Increasingly over time, more of my stories have become set in Detroit. (My childhood was spent in Philadelphia so some of my material also comes from there).
In a recent attempt to turn a story “Raising the Dead” into a novel, I researched ten crimes involving young black men that took place in or around Detroit. Those ten stories have figured into a lot of my recent flash fiction. More and more, Detroit has become a major player in what I write because it is hard to think of a darker place to dwell.
I live six blocks from Detroit, work there, and go into Detroit for cultural and sporting events so it has a major impact on my world view. Also my son is a prosecutor nearby and his tales sometimes morph into my tales. I can’t imagine anyone who writes not finding Detroit frightening, exciting, and apocalyptic. Every institution from the city government to the schools to the neighborhoods are plagued by poverty, unemployment, crime, corruption and incompetence. Less than half the people in Detroit have driver’s licenses. Only a quarter of them read at an adult level. They cannot perform eighth grade math.
Pretty fertile ground for writing stories. But also ultimately depressing as hell.
Do you think the legal system needs to be changed in order to cope with crimes, or do you think there is a better way of dealing with the problem?
The legal system in Michigan has coped with crime by incarcerating more than 50,000 citizens as of 2007. The number is dropping now–but mainly from the state’s need to save money. One of the most prevalent reasons for incarceration is drug- related crime.
I think drugs like marijuana should be legalized for persons over 21 and regulated for purity. We spend 40 million dollars prosecuting drug offenses. Drug trafficking produces much of the violence in cities like Detroit and fills the jail cells.
I think the best way to deal with crime is to improve the education system and improve life in the inner city. When people have no legitimate way to earn a decent living, they turn to the drug business or to the drugs. If you are addicted to a drug that is expensive on the black market, you turn to crime to procure it.
I am very far from being an expert in any of these things, but I live in a city where drugs is the number-one business for the uneducated population.. An amazing percentage of black men in Detroit spend time in jail and I see few attempts at rehabilitation.
I think you could now be paid to take a house in Detroit. Any taxes the city could derive from the gift would improve their position.
Who are your literary influences and why?
I write short fiction and my favorite writers in that form would include Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mary Lavin, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Jean Thompson, William Trevor, John Cheever, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempl, John Updike and the incomparable Lorrie Moore. I like the precise, succinct and elegant prose of all of the above. Now it the realm of crime fiction, great short story writers are more rare. The traditional “mystery” does not lend itself as well to a short form because solving a puzzle requires more pages. But as we’ve come away from that narrow definition of crime fiction, there are more and better short story writers. Kyle Minor’s collection IN A DEVIL’S TERRITORY, Paul Tremblay’s IN THE MEANTTIME and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s AMERICAN SALVAGE are three recent stellar collections.
My favorite crime fiction novelist is Margaret Millar. She looks at crime from a psychological viewpoint, which I admire greatly. I am also a fan of Charles Willeford (his Hoke Mosley series is one of my favorites), Sjowal and Wahloo, Simenon, Nicholas Freeling and all the usual suspects.
How do you think the psychology of a serial killer differs from that of other criminals?
I have never written a story about a serial killer nor researched the topic but I imagine the crime is less profit motivated than other crimes. Less against a specific person and more against society at large. More about perceived injustices, perceived ill-treatment, a desire for fame, a wish to prove himself smarter than other, especially the police. I have never found serial killers all that interesting because they seem interchangeable in most cases. Hard childhood, psychosis develops, they act on it. My preference is for stories about the victims of crime or a person who gets backed into a corner and kills once. After Hannibal Lector, there is little to say for me.
Do you think humour is a form of social commentary and which comedians do you like and why?
I think a good comedian can have more impact that a good columnist or essayist because it goes down easier. Of course, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both brilliant and I can’t believe they turn that stuff out four nights a week. I also like Lewis Black, Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes. Fran Leibowitz’ recent HBO special PUBLIC SPEAKING was witty and reminded me of how much I enjoyed her books SOCIAL STUDIES and METROPOLITAN LIFE. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, David Sedaris, George Carlin, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce all made an impact. I adored Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby in their day. Right now, Ray Romano has turned out to have more to say about the angst of the middle age man than I would have ever expected (Men of a Certain Age). It isn’t as funny as his standup routines, but it sure is great writing.
Do you think that crime is related to economic deprivation and to what extent do you think crime authors reflect this?
Economic deprivation is an important element in crime. I think the best crime writers always reflect the political and economic situation to some degree. Pelecanos has been taking on race relations and poverty in D.C. for many years. Mosley does this too. Stieg Larsson looked at right wing politics and crimes against women in his trilogy. Stuart Neville looks at the repercussions of the troubles between Ireland and England. Woodrell sheds light on the consequences of poverty in Missouri–where an entire society has been turned into one giant meth lab.
Lehane and Connelly have important messages in all of their books. Gillian Flynn looks at dysfunctional families. Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman, among others, are concerned with the treatment of women across the decades of the 20th century. I could go on forever. But the best crime fiction functions in the same way the best so-called literary fiction does by shining a light on what makes us act in the ways we do. And it is often related to poverty. Other than psychosis, poverty must be the biggest factor in the commission of crimes.
Any book that has no larger goal than entertainment, in any genre, is only a fast beach read to me. I feel the same way about movies. I am almost never there solely to be entertained.
Elias Canetti commented that ‘Paranoia is an illness of power’. When you think of rulers and the exploitation of power how true do you think his observation is and in what ways does it expose the legitimisation of crime by those in authority?
I think the seeds for paranoia would have to be already in place for this to occur. If we look at the American presidents as an example, Richard Nixon comes immediately to mind. He exhibited paranoid tendencies from his earliest years in politics. It reached a crescendo during Watergate when he felt entitled to do whatever was necessary to hold onto power. LBJ acted similarly, testing people’s loyalty constantly, even in his years as leader of the Senate. Nearly all dictators seem to exhibit such tendencies: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Castro, Saddam, Kim Jong -il. Democratic elections help but do not solve this problem.
Plato said in Book 9 of THE REPUBLIC that tyrants have no control over their emotions so they project their bad impulses onto others and then punish them for it. English kings such as Richard 3 and Elizabeth 1 saw plots all around them. The more isolated political leaders allow themselves to become, the more likely such latent, perhaps, tendencies are to arise.
I think people in power begin to believe that only they understand the circumstances and only they can lead the country effectively so they do what they feel they need to to maintain power. Recently, I think Vice President Cheney was perhaps more paranoid after 9-11 than President Bush and as the stronger personality set the country on a course he believed was necessary.
On a lesser stage, you see such behavior in the workplace and in the home as well. A paranoid supervisor can wreak havoc on a workplace and a parent on a home.
Tell us about your novels.
I have two unpublished novels. The first one was based on a short story called Raising the Dead. It is the story of a photographer who hasn’t achieved the success she’d hope for and how she goes about achieving that elusive goal. It takes place in Detroit and deals with the current situation here–the poverty, the animosity between black and white, the failure of a once-great city. The second novel is about a Philadelphia woman who steals, grifts, hoards, and eventually kills, and the effect of her behavior on her family over many years.Neither novel falls solidly into crime fiction or solidly into literary fiction. I have not put the effort I need to into finding an agent and I am not sure why. I think I am past the point where such an endeavor seems worth it to me. I’d rather put my time into writing short stories where I know I have a better chance at success. I enjoyed writing the novels and do not regard it as a waste of time, but I won’t do a third. I continue to tinker with them between stories. I think thirty years ago, I would have been able to find a publisher. But with the current situation, no one would know how to pitch them. And I can’t seem to write a book that lands squarely in the proper place to attract interest.
Do you think that Charles Manson is guilty of incitement to murder or is there something else going on with the killings he was convicted for?
I think he must have had some potent gift for mesmerizing people to persuade seemingly normal woman to engage in such activity. Of course, you cannot overlook the times, when it was very easy to be swayed by a sense that if you did this or that, you could change society. Cults and radical groups abounded. And the war put us on the path to examining every social construct. If you read the memoirs of some of these sixties radicals, many of them red-diaper babies, you can see the angst it all produced. But in the end, I think Manson, was a megalomaniac and guilty of incitement to murder among other crimes. None of his followers would have come up with such a dire and directed action on their own. They may have bombed banks, draft headquarters or post offices but not tortured people in suburban houses. For a good look at this phenomenon, read Philip Roth’s AMERICAN PASTORAL or Carol Shields’ UNLESS. It was not so hard to persuade vulnerable children to engage in destructive acts.
Forgotten Books has been a feature on your blog for almost three years now. Do you think it has served much of a purpose in drawing attention to older books?
I am not sure. What is has done, at the very least, is draw a group of people together in talking about these books. Books that often have languished on dusty used bookstore or flea market shelves for years. And it has also introduced some new writers to the readers of the blog. Stuart Neville did a book review just as his first book was debuting here. I am not saying it sold any books for him, but it told a few people that he had a book coming out.
It has introduced me to the many people who I’ve gone to for reviews. Hundreds of them, in fact, and very few have refused to do a review. In the beginning I was shocked at how few people turned me down. Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen and Sandra Scoppettone did reviews in the first few weeks. I think all of us have a book we want people to know about. A book we believe is unjustly forgotten or was neglected on publication. I am appreciative of the support of the people who do this every week. Bill Crider has not missed a single week and several others are right behind. And I am also appreciative of Jeff Pierce on THE RAP SHEET who has done this project along with me until recently.
In many ways, we have access to these books more now than ever through online resources, but in other ways, all but a few of us ignore them.
Thank you Patti for giving a revealing and insightful interview.