Tim L. Williams is one of the best short-story writers to enter the mystery field over the past decade. His EQMM story “Half-Lives” won the International Thriller Award for best short story of 2011; he’s received two nominations for the Shamus Award, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories. He’s a professor by day, and his knowledge of crime fiction is extensive. You can follow him on Twitter @TimLWilliams1.—Janet Hutchings
When I was in my late teens and first setting out to write fiction, I woke to news that would chart the course of my writing life. A twenty-year-old girl whom I’d flirted with at parties and who was now dating a friend had been murdered. Corinna Mullen’s beat-up Pontiac had been found outside a municipal garage; a worker had spotted blood smears on the interior and the body had been discovered in the trunk. By noon nearly everyone in town either knew or claimed to know the specifics. For days the murder was all that people who waited in line at the IGA, pumped gas at the Red Ace filling station, or loaded up on stale Little Debbie snack cakes and two-day-old bread at the Colonial Bakery discount store could talk about. Mutilated was the word most often used. As it turned out, the gossip erred on the side of understatement. Calling what had been done to her mutilation was like saying that the South Pole is cool in wintertime or that a ghost chili is on the spicy side.
Understand. Central City was a small mining town of five thousand on the edge of the Western Kentucky coalfields, but it was a long way from Mayberry. This was a hard town where people settled arguments with their fists, where teenagers drank beer and cheap wine and died in fiery car crashes, where bad things happened to people all the time. It wasn’t the fact of the murder or its grisly details or even the shock that came from knowing the victim, but the identity of the murderers that changed the assumptions I’d always made about life.
Since all of this occurred during the first great wave of America’s obsession with serial killers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the local media, my neighbors, and I latched onto the idea that there was a genuine, honest-to-God serial killer in our midst. Surely, we believed, this was a faceless Michael Myers or an ingenious Hannibal Lecter who had intruded into our lives. But then the suspects were named, three of whom would later be convicted. One was a local police officer who often stopped by to drink coffee with my father, another a distant cousin of mine who was an infamous bully, and the third a casual acquaintance whom I’d once seen weep for a half an hour when his Beagle-mix puppy had been hit by car. Their acts were monstrous, but I knew for a fact that they weren’t monsters, or at least not in the sense that I understood the word.
In his seminal essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler speaks of giving “murder back to the kind of people who commit it . . .” The thunderclap of realization that came to me was that people who committed horribly brutal murders were people I knew, people I understood, people who weren’t all that different from the image I saw in the mirror.
In time I realized that the mystery and suspense novels I liked the most had villains who were completely and undeniably human. Even more than that, they were villains who seemed little different from the people I interacted with every day. Back then, it was the stories and novels of James M. Cain, most of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series, the early Matthew Scudder novels from Lawrence Block, a handful of Patricia Highsmith’s darkly ironic short stories, and a couple of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels that I kept returning to. Don’t get me wrong. I had and have a special place in my heart for Hannibal Lecter, the SPECTRE organization, and, of course, Professor Moriarty, that grandfather of all supervillains, but it is still the question of how such inhuman actions can be committed by such ordinary human beings that I find myself drawn to as both a writer and a reader.
What I’m talking about is a particular form of realism, I suppose. The verisimilitude of evil might be a suitable term. For me it is a realism that transcends genre and niche. When I read, I’m drawn to books and stories, whether they be hardboiled or cozy or noir or thrillers, with an antagonist or antagonists who are as human as my next door neighbor. Now let me make a confession. I don’t know a single movie star or mafia boss, but I’ve read books and stories about both that I absolutely cherish. These books have villains who are as familiar and identifiable as the woman in neon green sweatpants in line at Walmart. No matter the setting or social milieu, the story or novel that truly captures my interest is one that makes clear that even the worst of us is undeniably one of us.
Daniel Woodrell’s novels are wonderful examples of what I mean. Read The Death of Sweet Mister, and you’ll understand. The “villain” in that book is not only believable and utterly real, his motivations are heartbreakingly understandable. The same holds true for Larry Brown’s Joe or Father and Son. The spectacularly violent and ruthless characters who populate Frank Bill’s remarkable collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, provide a perfect illustration of the type of ordinary evil I’m talking about. Bill makes us recognize, understand, and condemn, all in one fell swoop, men who molest children, betray their families, and cherish their meager possessions to the point where they are willing to commit murder over a hunting dog. This is a brutal, ugly, poverty-plagued world that is as familiar as the rusting coal shovels, trash-strewn fields, and cottonmouth-infested slews of my hometown, or any other rural area where drugs and despair are as common as Super Walmarts and EBT cards. While Bill’s stories are often exaggerations of the violence at the heart of “fly-over country,” they reflect its spirit and capture the darkest aspect of what Henry James referred to as “felt life” in a way that no documentary can. The situations, the characters, and their actions are extreme, but anyone who doesn’t believe that these people are real has never watched a nineteen-year-old murderer cradle his broken-backed puppy nor visited a West Kentucky dive bar late on a Saturday night.
While most of the fiction I’ve mentioned is what reviewers are fond of calling “country noir,” I certainly don’t mean to imply that this verisimilitude of evil is confined to a particular subgenre. Tommy Tillary of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, the low-level, seedy mafia associates of Shane Stevens’ Dead City and the lost, desperate-to-have-a home sociopaths of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues and Sideswipe are just three urban examples of these thoroughly human monsters that have always been a source of fascination and horror for me. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the shiver that comes from reading about the nearly superhuman villain who spins a web of ingenious evil. One of the things about crime and mystery fiction that I treasure the most is its infinite variety, its ability to let us visit English country estates or the mean streets of Los Angeles and New York or the back roads of the rural south or even the palaces of ancient Rome. To me the genre is like a city that is alive and growing with new arrivals. However, as a writer and reader, my particular neighborhood, the place I call home, is one in which the evil we meet is as flawed and conflicted and human as the protagonist.
Years ago when one of the perpetrators of that horrible murder in my hometown was convicted, his wife stood outside the courthouse saying over and over that, “He wouldn’t have done this. He’s a good father, a good man. He even bakes our daughter’s birthday cakes.” This was pretty much the refrain of everyone who knew the murderers. This good father who baked birthday cakes, this bully who loved his mother, this classmate who had once cradled a dying puppy in his arms had committed a crime so horrible that a number of people who attended the trial grew physically ill at the crime-scene photos. Corinna Mullen had been beaten, gang raped, tortured, and left in a car trunk to die. They couldn’t have done this. But they did.
The question of how ordinary people can commit such horrific acts is for me the ultimate mystery, and one that perhaps no other genre can address as well as crime and suspense fiction. When it does, it has a power and depth that can resonate long after a page is turned or a book closed. God knows that even after all these years the thing that brings me back to the genre again and again is that horrifying moment when we look into the face of the monster and are forced to realize that it is one which might belong to a neighbor or a friend or even the reflection we see in the mirror.