Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Mystery of Why I Write Mysteries...

by Clare O'Donohue


Q: Looking back over your life, can you see the early clues that you were going to be a crime writer one day?


You mean, when - barely out of diapers - I killed a guy in Reno, just to watch him die? Or was that Johnny Cash (minus the diapers)?

I was not a kid caught up in murder mysteries. I didn't read Nancy Drew mainly because no one introduced me to her until I was well past Nancy Drew reading age. My mother was an English teacher, and Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Shakespeare were already in the house waiting to be plucked from a bookshelf. I read those books and loved the words and characters and how each author had his own voice, distinct from everyone else. But the truth is that long before then, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

I loved stories - the ones my parents told me as they tucked me in, and the ones I told my older sister when we couldn't sleep at night. My parent's stories were about Cinderella and Goldilocks. Mine were about the evil people who lived in the closet, who would escape under the door at night to attack us. Our only protection was the loyal, loving help from the people who lived under the bed - who fought to keep us safe and always succeeded. I was about five when I would tell these stories. I look back now and wonder if having two older brothers and one television set prompted me to be subconsciously influenced by superhero cartoons.

But mystery writing came later. At age 15 I wrote an 80-page novella about a college student flunking history who digs into an unsolved crime in the town's past in order to get extra credit. Pretty decent plot line if I do say so. Sadly the book itself, done on a typewriter, has been lost to history. But I remember the details even now. I don't know that I thought of it as a mystery. I just liked the idea and wanted to see what happened.

I hadn't read any mysteries at that time - and I wouldn't until James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, plucked from an airport bookstore about ten years later.

I was a writer by then, a newspaper reporter on a small, weekly paper near Joliet Illinois. Writing mysteries was far from my mind. But reading them became a passion. Having discovered Crumley, I moved forward to Westlake, Paretsky, Grafton, Hammett, and anyone else I could find.

But it would be years later before I decided to write a mystery. And that was as much a matter of practicality (mysteries take up lots of room in a bookstore, so I figured people must buy them) as a matter of interest.

So here I am. And in truth, I still don't think of myself as a mystery writer, but just a writer who has written mysteries. I like to think that I'll always do what I did as a kid - like an idea and want to see what happens.

1 comment:

Robin Spano said...

Would you ever try to write that first novel again, with your new skills but the same cool plot? The premise sounds compelling.