Why I Write Crime
My grandfather on my mother’s side—Papa to his grandkids, because nobody, but nobody, called him Grandpa—was a great many things. A decent man. A fierce competitor. A stern disciplinarian. A consummate storyteller.
But most of all, Papa was a cop.
A damn good one, by all accounts. Papa rose through the ranks of the Syracuse PD from beat cop to Deputy Chief, busting his share of bad guys along the way. Somehow, despite everything he’d seen, he still never locked his doors at night. “If they want to get in, they’ll get in,” he’d say. “No point forcing them to break a window to do it.”
I remember riding with him in his Caddy (he always said that when he made it, he was gonna get a Cadillac—and even though his turned out to be a piece of junk, he loved it just the same) while he made his weekend rounds, my legs not yet long enough for my feet to reach the floor mats. To the newsstand, for a Batman comic (mine) and a Sunday paper (his). To his favorite bakery to pick up doughnuts (some stereotypes are true, I guess; the man was thin as a rail, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t love a good doughnut). To the Public Safety Building, where every cop in the place would say hello to me like I was some kind of VIP.
I remember, a few years later, me and my cousin Joey heading to the basement of the Public Safety Building with one of Papa’s friends—for what, exactly, we didn’t know, because all Papa would say was that it was a surprise. We soon found out the guy was a member of the SWAT team—and Papa had arranged for him take us to the firing range to teach us how to shoot. For two young teens obsessed with action flicks, it was a dream come true. And while I’m not terribly fond of guns these days, I still count shooting a suppressed, fully automatic MAC-10 (confiscated, we were told, in a drug bust, although I can’t swear on a stack of Hammett novels that Papa’s buddy wasn’t blowing smoke) among the coolest things I’ve ever done. (It was also helpful, research-wise. That memory informed a key scene in THE KILLING KIND.)
I remember Papa whisking me to Friendly’s in secret for ice cream (“For God’s sake, don’t tell your grandmother.”) The post-Sunday-dinner candy lottery, when he’d put the names of all his grandkids (I’m from a Catholic family, mind, so there’s a lot of ’em) into a hat, and draw names to determine the order we got to pick from the candy bowl (winner = Caramello; loser = Necco Wafers.) Me and my cousins piling onto Papa’s spot on the couch whenever he got up, and waiting—cackling—for him to forcibly remove us.
I’ve got a thousand stories like that about my grandfather, sweet remembrances of kindnesses big and small, but there’s nothing he passed on to me that I treasure more than my love of crime fiction. The man went through several mystery novels a week, and every Sunday dinner, he’d divvy them up for the rest of the family to read. They’d circulate from house to house until, one by one, they found their way to me.
I couldn’t have been more than ten when I traded up from Doyle, Christie, and the Hardy Boys to Papa’s MacDonald, Wambaugh, and McBain. Those books were a revelation. They weren’t gentle. They weren’t nice. What they were was full of men who smoked and cussed and fought and loved and never failed to crack a joke. Men who lived in the darkness and the muck, but who were never of it. Men that, to my young mind, looked an awful lot like Papa.
Papa never found out I’d grow up to be a writer. He never read any of my work. When he died in ’99—cancer withering in months a man I’d thought was cut from stone—I was on another path entirely, working toward a PhD in microbiology it turns out I’d never get.
I’d like to think he would’ve enjoyed my books. That he would’ve approved of my life’s path.
Although he might’ve cocked an eyebrow at me making a star out of a bad guy.