In addition to being the award-winning author of two popular crime-fiction series—the Shadows of New York and travel-writer Lily Moore novels—Hilary Davidson has produced more than four dozen short stories in our genre. She’s received two Anthony awards, a Derringer Award, and several other crime-fiction honors. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, she only turned to writing it after she had established herself as a journalist. In this post, the Toronto native talks about what drew her to our field when she decided to write fiction. Her latest short story, ”Weed Man,” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2021). “Her Last Breath,” her latest stand-alone novel, was named a summer 2021 reading pick by Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, Travel & Leisure, and the Toronto Star. —Janet Hutchings
When I published my first short story in a crime journal called Thuglit, it got mixed reactions from my family. My proud parents were thrilled, and they sent my dark tale of a sadistic stalker to everyone at their church. Other responses were less positive. My father-in-law told me it had given him nightmares, and he didn’t want to read my fiction again. Still, the most striking reaction was my aunt’s; she was horrified and perplexed in equal measure. “I just don’t understand,” she said to me. “How could my sweet, lovely niece write that? How?”
To be fair, my writing up to that point hadn’t hinted at any inner darkness. For a decade, I was a freelance travel writer, producing guidebooks for Frommer’s and honeymoon columns for Martha Stewart Weddings. While I occasionally wrote newspaper pieces that were a little offbeat—about New Orleans’ cemeteries, for example, or the graphic brothel frescoes of Pompeii—they were focused on history. No one questioned my mental wellbeing until I started publishing dark stories that were entirely unlike anything I’d written before.
At first, I tried to deflect. “I’ve always loved mysteries,” I would insist, pointing to my childhood love of Nancy Drew books. More than once, I called them my gateway drug into the world of crime writing. It was certainly true that I loved the genre. I’d graduated from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie as a tween, before discovering Sara Paretsky and Walter Mosley and a host of other crime writers that I still read today. But it wasn’t an honest answer. I wasn’t writing dark fiction because I admired other authors who did; I loved science fiction and historical novels as well, but I wasn’t interested in writing those. I was exploring crime fiction because I had no other place to put the dark thoughts running through my mind.
I don’t think I would have started writing thrillers if I hadn’t been the victim of a workplace violence attack at my first job out of college. At twenty-two, I worked in a government office that served veterans, and one very disturbed man decided that he wanted to kill his counselor and everyone else in the office. One morning he walked in, armed with a large plastic container. I heard him muttering as he walked past my cubicle, and I smelled the gasoline before I understood what he was doing. When I stood and went to my doorway, he was already at the end of the hall. In a smooth, swift motion, he flicked a lighter and threw it on the carpet. A wall of flame surged up, so tall it swept against the ceiling, so hot it seared my skin.
I think I screamed. I know I ran. Later, I was given an award for getting people out of the office, but I don’t remember doing that. One moment, I was frozen, seeing the flames come toward me. The next, I was on the sidewalk, seven stories down, with the reek of gasoline still making me gag. The fire destroyed three floors of the building and injured several people, some so badly they never came back to work. The police arrested the arsonist before firefighters finished putting out the blaze, but the case never went to court. He was declared insane and locked away in a mental hospital.
“That was crazy, but it could have been so much worse. We were lucky,” I told my friends and family afterwards. I repeated that line like a mantra, especially after the police told me the arsonist had originally tried to get grenades. But I didn’t feel lucky. There were odd, dark thoughts clustering in my head. I wasn’t a fearful person by nature, but I remember being on the subway, seeing a man reach into a duffel bag, and panicking, as if he were about to attack. In retrospect, that was a clear sign of trauma, but at the time I worried that I’d be labeled crazy if I told anyone.
My coping mechanism was to read about crime. Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, but at the time I was convinced that if only I understood criminal psychology, I wouldn’t be a victim again. Looking back, I think about it differently: it was very lonely to be a victim. People who knew about it expected me to stop talking about it and move on; after all, no one wants to dwell on the darkness, do they?
It turned out, I did.
There had been other things that had happened over the years that I’d never really talked about, and they bubbled to the surface. When I wrote that first short story about that sadistic stalker, I was thinking back to when I was fourteen and being stalked by a man in his twenties. The chill I felt then, when the police told me that they couldn’t do anything unless he “did something” to me, still hits hard. I wrote it into fiction because I wanted other people to feel the fear I experienced.
It still makes me feel deeply vulnerable, connecting my own personal history with what I write, even though I don’t write directly about my experiences. It more about the emotion and the questions that perpetually swirl around my brain. Deep down, I still want to know what drives a person to seek vengeance, or to kill? And I can’t stop thinking about why society looks the other way when men show clear signs of being a threat. But there’s an incredible satisfaction into making other people think about them too. Most of all, I’m grateful that all of the dark, disturbing thoughts that live inside my brain have found a home. For the first time, I really do feel lucky.