On Dodging a Bullet (by Gregory Fallis)

Gregory Fallis’s most recent short story, “Terrible Ideas,” appears in our current issue, September/October 2020 (on sale this week).  His tales have previously been featured in both EQMM and AHMM. He’s also the author of the novels Lightning in the Blood and Dog on Fire. Writing, however, is not Greg’s only occupation: He’s been variously employed as a criminology professor, a private detective specializing in criminal-defense work, and a counselor in a prison for women. He’s also a photographer who serves as the managing editor of Utata.org. It’s all of these other hats he wears, and has worn, that he talks about in this post, as they pertain to the writing life.—Janet Hutchings

I came this close to becoming an academic.

Okay, that’s not really true. I did think about becoming an academic. I taught several courses in criminology as a graduate student in the Sociology: Justice program at American University and I was a full-time adjunct professor for a year and a half at Fordham. It’s true that I’d taken the first steps on the academic track. But even as a grad student I’d begun to suspect I wasn’t good academic material. When I made it to Fordham, it was made clear to me that I lacked the proper attitude to be a serious academic.

I can pinpoint the exact moment my nascent academic career started to crater. The chair of the department saw me reading a novel at lunch. Not just a novel; a science-fiction novel. The 1951 postapocalyptic classic The Day of the Triffids.

He didn’t exactly frown, but there was some serious eyebrow raising. He said, “Reading outside your field? Something you can use in your teaching?”

I could have legitimately argued that the novel had academic value for sociology and criminology students. In a very real way it’s about how a society reforms and reorganizes itself after a global social collapse. It speaks to gender roles and social class and people with disabilities. I could have argued the novel asked interesting and important criminological questions, like “If the social order has collapsed, is taking an abandoned car still ‘theft’?”

But the truth is, it never occurred to me to make that argument. I told him the truth. I was reading for pleasure.

I might have gotten away with it if I’d been reading a crime novel. But science fiction? Science fiction that features plants that walk?

When it came time to begin the search for a tenure-track position in the department, I wasn’t even asked to interview.

Serious scholarship, you see, requires a narrowing of focus. It requires dedicated specialization. I suck at narrowing my focus; I’m a colossal failure at specialization. Yes, crime fascinates me. Who gets to decide what’s criminal? What are the personality differences between burglars and strong-arm robbers and embezzlers? How does art fraud work? Why have police departments become so militarized? How is justice dispensed within organizations like the mafia? Or the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology, or the American Kennel Club, or the Freemasons?

I wanted to ask all of those questions, and more. But to be a serious academic, I was expected to ask increasingly narrow questions—usually to the exclusion of other questions. If you become a scholar of, say, informal justice systems, you could start by comparing how the Sinaloa drug cartel handles members who break their internal rules to the way the Catholic Church does. Then maybe you narrow your focus. Do Trappists discipline their monks differently than Dominicans or Capuchins? Then still narrower. Are the current disciplinary issues among Capuchins settled in a way that’s different from those experienced by Capuchins in the sixteenth century?

Fascinating questions, to be sure. But I didn’t want to spend my career reading ancient arguments for and against friars being discalced (seriously, the first Capuchins were required to go bare-footed; which leads to a wonderfully odd but interesting question: what is a just form of discipline for somebody who breaks the rules by wearing sandals?).

I was also impeded in the embryonic stage of my academic career by having been a practitioner. I’d worked in the criminal justice system; four years as a counselor in the psychiatric/security unit of a prison for women and seven years as a private detective specializing in criminal-defense work. In academic circles, practitioners are given a lot of side-eye.

It’s the same way theoretical physicists look at engineers. Physicists concern themselves with how the universe operates. They’re not particularly interested in the practical applications of that knowledge. Engineers, on the other hand, are interested in designing and making things that work.

An academic criminologist may spend years conducting research and constructing a theoretical foundation to explain why some criminals exhibit poor impulse control and resort to violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts. A practitioner is more concerned with not getting stabbed.

Looking back, it was obvious my notion of becoming an academic was doomed. Being caught reading a novel about a meteor shower that leaves most of the world’s population blind and at the mercy of an invasive, poisonous, mobile plant species presumably bio-engineered by Soviet scientists was merely a pivot point.

Yet I have to say, those quiet years as a grad student and budding criminology professor weren’t wasted. My dissertation advisor wanted me to study my prior field, private investigation. I reluctantly agreed—reluctant because there were other areas of crime and criminality that interested me more. Worse, she wanted me to include a dissertation chapter comparing the work of real private detectives to that of fictional detectives.

Here’s a confession: at that point in life, I generally disliked novels and movies about private detectives. They never got it right. Never.

Wait. That’s not entirely accurate. I should say I avoided watching detective movies and reading detective novels because the very few I’d seen or read were wildly inaccurate. But you don’t argue too much with your dissertation advisor. She wanted a chapter on fictional detectives, so I was going to give her one.

I went to the literature department, found a professor who studied mystery and detective fiction, used my P.I. social engineering skills to convince her to tutor me in an independent course of study, and got her to give me a reading list.

The first novel on the list was The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, published in 1928. I was prepared to hate it. The title alone was so twee it made me cringe. I found the whole notion of an upper-class amateur British detective preposterous. I mean, the protagonist wore a monocle and had a valet. How could I take that seriously?

The plot mechanics of the novel were convoluted and pretty absurd. But it turned out to be a story about combat veterans trying to adjust to a postwar society. This was meat-and-potatoes to me. I grew up in a military family. I was a medic for four years. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II; most of my uncles fought in Europe and later in Korea. Both of my brothers were Marines in Viet Nam. And in the first page, Sayers has a veteran of WWI say this:

Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income tax.”

Veterans are still saying that; the complaint is still valid. I didn’t care how silly the plot was, I didn’t care if the detective was a fop; the integrity of the characters carried me through.

The reading list was maybe a dozen novels. Rex Stout, James Crumley, Dashiell Hammett, Caleb Carr; some names were familiar to me, some weren’t. I read them all. I didn’t like them all, but every one of them taught me something important. Not about crime, not about detecting, but about being human.

I was about halfway through the reading list when I decided I wanted to write a detective novel.

So I did. I’d no idea what I was doing, but I kept putting words in a row and when I had enough of them, I sent them off to a publisher. And hey, the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, bought it. It was called Lightning in the Blood. It might have sold a few hundred copies; not even enough to cover the advance. But it was published around the same time the chair of the Sociology Department at Fordham drove a stake through the heart of my academic career.

I came this close to being an academic. I dodged that bullet.

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