THE OTHER DAY I mentioned that I’m writing The Malcolm Cutter Memoirs in part because I think the murder mystery genre is perfect for exploring big ideas like death and justice. Someone asked what makes me think I’m qualified to write that kind of book. It’s a fair question, and I suppose the answer is, “Life.”

By “big ideas,” I mean the things that matter most in life. Of course, when it comes to the really important things, some people think you ought to call in expert meddlers such as psychologists, philosophers, theologians, professors, and so forth. But I’m interested in application, not in theory. When it comes to the human situation, I’ll take the opinion of a cop or cabbie or a bartender over any professional. That’s why I’m glad I got involved in the writing game by a round-about path.

Most mystery fans know Dashiell Hammett was a Pinkerton detective before he started writing murder mysteries, and Erle Stanley Gardner was a lawyer. But did you know Raymond Chandler was an oil company executive, James Ellroy was convicted of petty crimes twelve times and made a living as a golf caddy right up until the publication of his fifth novel, and Mickey Spillane wrote comic books? Faye Kellerman has degrees in math and dentistry. John D. MacDonald had a business degree from Harvard.
None of them had formal training, either as authors, or as students of the human condition.

A couple of the very best mystery authors, Robert B. Parker and Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar), had formal collegiate training as writers. (Both got doctorates in English literature.) And when it comes to the expert meddlers, at least one successful mystery novelist, Father Andrew Greeley, is a trained professional. But they are the rare exceptions that prove the rule. Most of our best murder mystery authors brought skills and fundamental wisdom to the keyboard which was gained in other walks of life.

I believe Dashiell Hammett’s life lived in the trenches inspired the powerful sense of moral authority in Sam Spade’s words, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.” An English major with some talent might be able to write passably about that kind of a code, but Hammett had lived by it, and the difference is obvious.

There have been a few ups and downs in my life. I was homeless for a while, and a drug addict. I’ve been through a terrible marriage, which was mostly my fault. I’ve been threatened at knife point, shot at, kidnapped for one night, and robbed. On different occasions I’ve been swindled, extorted, embezzled, and conned, and each time I lost between five and six figures. But I’ve also been married nearly 30 years to a wonderful woman. I’ve been an architect and successful businessman, a teacher, and even—believe it or not—a preacher. I have no formal training as a writer, and I’ve never studied God or man in any university, but based on what I know about my favorite mystery authors, I think life has prepared me pretty well to write The Malcolm Cutter Memoirs.

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