Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory, a collection of stories available this week from Dzanc Books. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, The Southern Review, Surreal South, and Plots with Guns. A native of Florida, he now lives in Ohio, where he teaches writing and literature at the University of Toledo.
I did not set out to be a mystery writer or a crime writer, nor am I sure I am one now. That’s not to say that I don’t admire the genres, because I do. If forced to trade, I’ll take one Dennis Lehane, one Richard Price, one George Pelecanos, one James M. Cain, one Big Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett—any one of them, any day—over any ten “literary” writers. I mean it. Because all of these writers do all of the things to which literature ought to aspire—vivid evocation of character, an intelligent reckoning with thematic material that matters, an acquaintance with the music language can make—while, at the same time, giving us a sock-in-the-gut story in a time and place of consequence.
(I also ought to mention, while we’re speaking of it, that contemporary crime and mystery writers are lately doing another thing that literature used to do more often, which is to work out intractable social problems on a big canvas and consider the workings of groups and systems as worthy as the individual of their attentions. I might argue, in fact, that the closest thing we have to Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Dos Passos these days is HBO’s The Wire, a television show helmed by nonfiction crime writer David Simon, with episodes penned by Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos. But that’s an argument for another day, another essay.)
But, hey, I’m no David Simon,
I’m no Richard Price, I’m no Dennis Lehane. All I’ve been trying
to do for the last five years is write some modest stories about people
not unlike people I know and knew in my childhood, which is to say working
class people from Palm Beach County, Florida, whose backgrounds are
long on Christian fundamentalism and short in patience for intellectual
bric-a-brac. I’ve wanted to go deep into their inner lives at the
moments in which fate and circumstance have intervened. And I’ve tried
to be brave enough to choose the most fateful of intersections. So I’ve
written about the young man who gets caught up in the spate of bum bashing
that swept the local high school in the middle-1980’s, and culminated
in the death of an Ojibwe Indian under an Interstate 95 overpass. And
about the fifth grade schoolteacher, the one-time Cold War hero who
swam the frigid Spree River three times under cover of night, each time
with an elderly relative on her back, so she could make her way to West
Palm Beach, Florida, and “ruin the lives of fifth grade boys.”
What I started to find, as I stretched out into this material, is that each of us has something that keeps us up at night, some fundamental mystery of our own lives that won’t resolve itself, and which we can’t, despite our best efforts and intentions, make sense of, or shake. And also, in many cases, there is some act of violence, external or psychological or both, that is at the core of these mysteries.
I have written many times about my grandfather, a good man for all my childhood, and a good man made from the ashes of a violent, bitter alcoholic who spent the years of his prime terrorizing his wife and children in various ways. My fondest memories of him revolve around the days I feigned illness so I could spend the day with him in his trailer instead of at school, and we would watch war movies, and, at the end of the day, walk the back alleys with wooden sticks (to stave off the Dobermans that ran wild) and buy some candy from the convenience store at the other end. I remember, too, how when he died, his wife, my grandmother, didn’t want him to have his false teeth, because she knew he would use them to flirt with the VA hospital nurses.
It is easy to write about such a man, but harder to write about the kind of woman who would stay with him steadfastly through the bad and violent years and then spend the good years making him pay for all he had put her through in her youth. My inability to write a character like my grandmother was, in effect, a failure of empathy, and one I meant to address by writing an alternative history for her, one in which her life’s great trauma came in childhood rather than adulthood, and in which her good years were spent with a man who loved and protected her.
I worked all of this out by way of a self-consciously literary tale told in multiple points of view, about a senile woman who dies in a bathtub, thinking that it is her cousin, the escaped rapist-murderer of her childhood, who has returned to bathe her in her dotage, rather than her son, a Baptist minister who has been delegated the duty because his wife, the primary caregiver, is out on an errand. I called it “A Day Meant to Do Less,” and I suspected it would never be published, because it was a 71-page story that began in ended in a bathtub and covered a span of over fifty years in a nonlinear chronology.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when the Gettysburg Review called to say that they’d like to publish it. And, a year and a half later, imagine my greater surprise when Otto Penzler, dean of the American mystery writing community, wrote to say that he and George Pelecanos had chosen it for Best American Mystery Stories 2008. (What would I have said if he had called instead of written? “This is a mystery story?”)
In the aftermath, I have published several mystery stories, in my book In the Devil’s Territory (out this week!), and in pleasingly tawdry places like Plots with Guns. I’ve done murder, Stockholm Syndrome, and extortion. I’m working on two novels, one of which wraps itself around a kidnapping, and the other beginning with a race riot and ending with the bombing of an abortion clinic. Along the way, I’ve not really changed my method much from when I thought of myself as more of a literary writer. Instead, I’ve come to think of literary writing as, fundamentally, an exercise in plumbing the mysteries of human existence, character by character, and turning them outward and outward, so that, by story’s end, we’re all of us implicated.
Might I close with a digression,
a list of mystery stories that belong in the literary canon, and a list
of canonical works of literature that are, at their core, mysteries?
If it matters, I’ll let you decide which is which:
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat
The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin
In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos
Lush Life, by Richard Price
Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy
Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard