“The Human Condition” (by David Dean)

A contributor to EQMM for more than twenty years, David Dean has won the magazine’s Readers Award and been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award for his EQMM stories.  His significant body of work was accomplished while also serving as a full-time police officer, most recently as chief of police for one of New Jersey’s popular resort towns. Now retired from police work, he is writing not only short stories but novels, the first of which, The Thirteenth Child, will be released in paperback and e-book on October 5th.—Janet Hutchings 

In her introduction to my story “Jenny’s Ghost,” in the June 2012 issue of EQMM, Janet Hutchings mentioned that the police were rarely central figures in my writings. She posited that perhaps this was because my stories concern themselves less with the solving of crimes than with the effects of crime upon its practitioners and victims. She was right on both counts. It’s not that I ignore the police—I spent twenty-five years being one, and one of my recurring characters is Chief Julian Hall of the Camelot Beach P.D.—but I do have an insider’s appreciation of their role and limitations.

The police tend to be the “middleman” when it comes to crime, being neither the criminal nor the victim. Generally, the crime itself has already been committed before an officer is ever involved, and once there, his primary job is to ensure the safety of those at the scene, identify witnesses, and secure the site for evidence-gathering. If possible, he makes an arrest. After the processing of the accused, the case slips from the officer’s control and arrives on a prosecutor’s desk. His role after this is relegated to that of witness. No matter how spectacular the arrest may have been, the officer is no longer in the driver’s seat; it’s up to a jury.

The police also get to leave at the end of their watch. Only the victim and, sometimes, the perpetrator, is left with the residual effects of what has been done. It’s not that police officers are unaffected—far from it, but the crime didn’t happen to them, and they didn’t commit it. So, when it comes to writing about it all, I do often favor the other characters over my stalwart, wise chief of police and his officers. It was not always thus.

My first several stories, way back in the early nineties, featured Julian Hall as a young patrolman and, not surprisingly, were police procedurals—a subgenre I still enjoy reading because of its focus on the officers themselves. However, as a writer, I wanted more room to grow the psychological and moral dimension of my stories. In Chief Hall’s later years, I gave him an unofficial partner in the person of Father Gregory Savartha, which allowed me to kill two birds with one stone—write about police and crime, while having access to more esoteric issues. In most of their outings, the priest has figured more largely than his police friend.

Some writers sidestep my conundrum by having their officers more “involved” with both criminals and victims, sometimes to the point where my ability to believe is strained to the breaking point—put a private-eye in the same situation and I have no problem. I guess it’s just a cop thing.

My overall concern as a writer, just as it was as a cop, is the human condition. Everything about police work is generated by people and their actions, just as everything that truly concerns a writer is about the same. What people, or characters, do and say is why I write . . . and read, for that matter. No one ever wrote about an empty cardboard box, unless that box had some significance, or impact, upon a human being. Simply describing the aesthetics of cardboard boxes is dreary. But reveal that the box once contained an urgently needed children’s vaccine, now gone missing, and you have the beginnings of something worthwhile.

Crime fiction is particularly good at focusing the reader on the various facets of human nature. The stressor of crime and its ramifications tends to clear the deck of the extraneous. It also brings character into sharp relief. Of course, there are many other avenues for writers to accomplish the same result, such as natural catastrophes, family tragedies, and war. But the fear of crime, particularly violent crime, is shared by most people, whatever their walk of life or status. In fiction, the expedient of crime allows the writer the freedom of exploration into the human psyche and soul.

A good friend of mine, who passed away a few years ago, once remarked, “Human behavior is very complicated, but the motivations for that behavior are very simple.” He had been a clinical psychologist within the prison system for many years, and knew a thing or two about people. I found his observation helpful whenever I interviewed suspects, and even more so when writing. No matter how convoluted a person’s actions may be you can usually reduce their motive for doing them down to a single sentence, or even a single word. Father Gregory might point to the Cardinal Sins for a listing of what gets people into trouble: greed, lust, envy, gluttony (include drugs and alcohol with this one), wrath, sloth, and, the most insidious of all, pride—the great enabler.

And true to my late friend’s observation, the behavior to mask these motives is couched in lies, denials, and pretense. How many of us have envied a colleague’s success and yet forced a smile to our lips when greeting them? Think of the elaborate schemes cheating spouses concoct in order to continue their liaisons; the deceptions practiced by the secret alcoholic. And none of these failings are even crimes. Just think if your freedom, or your very life, depended on it. What wouldn’t you do, or say?

Many people who are arrested for crimes are just like you and me. They didn’t set out to do anything wrong, but somehow it happened. Somehow, during the course of a normal day, events conspired against them. Their lives began to spin out of control. Something happened that shouldn’t have. At least, this is how they frame their new and altered reality. Mostly it’s self-justification. But, often there is a grain of truth in it. A new, or misunderstood, set of circumstances exposed their weaknesses and forever changed their lives, and those of their victims. Mostly, these are the criminals I write about: the hit-and-run driver of “Road Hazard,” who wants to settle a score with a bully; the young kleptomaniac in “The Vengeance Of Kali,” who steals something he should have left alone; or the husband in “The Wisdom Of Serpents,” who determines to kill his best friend over his mistaken belief that he is having an affair with his wife. Not a single Moriarty among them.

I have little interest in true career criminals simply because they tend to be so predictable. Sociopaths can be wily, of course, but in the end they cannot stop repeating themselves; they are slaves to their own psychopathy. The only skin they have in the game is the freedom to continue their behavior; lacking a true conscience and the capacity for remorse, they are as robotic as they are unrelenting. Admittedly, these characteristics can be exciting in crime fiction, but more for the shock value and juxtaposition with the protagonist than for the person—Hannibal Lector is one of the great villains of modern crime fiction, but more monster than man.

As for victims, I find I write more about them than any other character. In many of my stories, the criminal is a victim as well as a perpetrator. Much of what I have written is concerned with victims, or victims-to-be, coming to terms with their new, unwanted lives, such as the Marine in “Ibrahim’s Eyes,” who can’t quite accept his own survival. Sometimes, like the errant, drunken father of “Stolen,” they have materially contributed to their unwelcome status as victim, while others have misunderstood the clues, misinterpreted the warning signs along their path, like the young man in “Tap-Tap” who travels to Belize to investigate his lover’s suicide only to become a murderer. They are seldom completely blameless, and sometimes reemerge as antagonists, other times as heroes.

My time as a police officer, as well as my own personal experiences, has taught me that life is often murky, our way through it hazy and unclear. We look for signposts only to find they are indecipherable. Yet we are still forced to put one foot in front of the other, to take another step down the path. Mostly, we do our best, and that is good enough; sometimes it isn’t. But that is the human condition, and well worth writing about.

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2 Responses to “The Human Condition” (by David Dean)

  1. Dale Andrews says:

    Very interesting piece, as usual, David!

  2. Very illuminating on psychopaths. I have written psychopaths, but I think they function more as story-telling devices than as characters.

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