Cherchez le Crook

April 14th, 2014

It’s been a year since I wrote here, so this is by way of a catch-up.

Like all crime writers, I love crooks. And they frighten me.

I love them because they’re so much fun to write. They make their own rules. As children they paid no attention to the hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk, and as adults they pay no attention to the Ten Commandments and the million lesser laws and quibbles the Commandments spawned. They bubble and seethe, crablike, with malicious energy. They don’t have to be politically correct. They can offend people.

Laurence Olivier, seething as Richard III

They frighten me because they have a way, unless they’re watched very closely, of walking away with my book.

Our heroes have to behave, at least until we’ve pushed them to extremis. Even then, most of the time they can’t get any fun from the damage they do — that might cost them the reader’s sympathy. Our crooks, on the other hand, can win at chess by sweeping the pieces off the board and then shooting the person sitting opposite, shrugging it off as a striking variation on the Sicilian Opening.

Would you bet on black or white?

We’ve seen this taken to unfortunate extremes lately, especially in the serial-killer genre, with sadism and murder serving as straight lines for witless wisecracks. I think this is dishonest writing and actually violates the writer’s agreement to take the reader’s intelligence seriously. On the other hand, some of these books sell quite well, so what do I know?

But I understand the appeal of that energy. I have to admit that I’ll be digging away at a book, trying to figure out where in the world I’m tunneling to (I don’t outline and generally have very little idea what’s going to happen until it actually does) and all of a sudden the crook tears open the page and climbs through the hole, and I experience a burst of electricity. Crooks and villains seem to bring their worlds with them, while I feel as though I have to work to fill in the worlds of my more sympathetic characters. In the fifth Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, which came out in 2012,  the reader doesn’t get anywhere near the villain of the piece until page 141, if you don’t count a four-line exchange of dialogue in the second or third chapter.  And then, the villain just puts the whole book in his pocket and saunters away with it.

And all the villain, Haskell Murphy, does in his first close-up is get off a plane, climb into the back of a car, and be driven to his house, and within the four or five pages that drive took, I learned so much about him that I had to rewrite the first part of the book. That’s energy. It felt like I’d been digging away at the story with a tablespoon, and all of a sudden I was holding a jackhammer. Murphy even brought a whole new character with him, his daughter, whom he calls Treasure, and she changed not only the ending of the book, but also the book that will follow it this coming November and the book that follows that one.

But, as much fun as Murphy was to write, I couldn’t give him the book. It’s a series, and most readers expect the really important series characters to be alive at the end of the book. If I’d given Murphy his head, it would have been Armageddon.

So I dealt with it. I dealt with it by writing a new series with a hero who’s a crook, a burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks. When a crook gets ripped off, he or she is not going to call the cops. They’re going to call Junior.

I wrote the first two Junior books, Crashed and Little Elvises, as ebooks, but pretty much the moment I finished the third, The Fame Thief, they suddenly got picked up for everything – publishing (Soho), film, and audio (Blackstone). So the fun I had writing them is apparently detectable on the page.

Right now I’m writing the seventh Poke Rafferty, which is called The Hot Countries (the sixth, For the Dead, comes out this November) and the fifth  Junior Bender, King Maybe. (The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is due this coming July.)  I’m hoping that the energy will average out between the two series. As much as I love writing the Pokes, and especially the family, they’re less fun (read: harder work) than the Juniors. Almost everyone in the Juniors is crooked to one degree or another, and they’ve all got that energy. Writing them is like playing with matches—the old matches that you see in Westerns and noir movies that would strike on anything. I never know when the page is going to catch on fire.

Crooks. What would we do without them?

11 Responses to “Cherchez le Crook”

  1. Everett Kaser Says:

    Really nice thought-piece, Tim, on the ‘characters’ aspect of writing. I imagine that the most critical aspect of writing a “sympathetic crook” is to MAKE them sympathetic, likeable (other than their one little crooked weakness…), give them some admirable morals, even if 100% of their morals don’t necessarily match those of the reader. But then, how many characters ever ARE 100% a perfect fit? And certainly not for 100% of the readers.

    The people we live with and love periodically do things that we wish they wouldn’t, but we still love them (well, as long as they don’t start torturing animals).

    Best of luck with the new books (not that you need luck!)

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thank you, Everett, and thanks for the prod that got me back onto these pages.

    I think the secret to writing a crook the reader can put up with morally is to remember the advice good directors often give actors when the villain they’re playing comes across as flat: “Remember that no one thinks he/she is the bad guy.”

    People do things for reasons, and we need to understand what those reasons are. Even the most loathsome people have deep impulses that contradict theit villainy: Hitler, famously a vegetarian, was a pretty decent representative painter, won two iron crosses for bravery in WW I, was hopelessly in love with his half-niece, Geli Raubal and sank into a deep depression folliwing her suicide — upon recovering from this period, he chose to keep her room as she left it and commissioned portaits of her to hang in his own quarters and, later, in the Chancellery. That’s material that an actor or a writer could keep in mind when writing even the greatest monster of the 20th century.

    Murphy is as bad a guy as I’ve even written (although Arthur Varney in THE HOT COUNTRIES may steal that prize away by the time the book is done) but it was important to me to make him as human as possible.

    And thanks for the good-luck wishes. I ALWAYS need them.

  3. Shadoe Says:

    You are an endless source of creativity and I’ve missed these pages. I always get insight and practical advice from the immeasurable depth of your extraordinary mind. Keep it up. You’re always entertaining and inspiring. And I’ve always liked the Poke series, but love Jr. I’ve never found anyone but you who writes mysteries with so much wit and laugh out loud originality.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    So nice to see you here. and I like what you have to say. Very often, in drama, the villain is the most interesting character in terms of who and what s/he believe. I am running out of brain cells to remember all the boos that are doing out when. I hope you will remind us. Good fortune to you, I am sure you will earn it.

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    That’s all the books that are coming out out when. Fuzzy thinking today.

  6. Theresa de Valence Says:

    Good luck. Tim. Keep up the good work.


  7. Michael Sullivan Says:

    I didn’t know what I was missing. Thanks for this, quite an entertaining piece on process and how much of creativity is…chance (in a good way).
    More, please

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    SHADOE — You and I have made each other laugh for years and years. I owe you whatever chuckles you get from the Juniors. I’m REALLY happy to say that people who read me are about 50/50 on which series they prefer. I love them both. Junior is more fun but I get a different kind of satisfaction from the Poke books.

    LIL, welcome back! Actors know that the villain is usually the best part. Iago can walk away with “Othello” on almost any night, and I’ve always found the evil queen more interesting than Snow White. “All the books” probably refers to that confusing paragraph in which I present the coming books in the wrong order. So: July 15, HERBIE’S GAME (Junior #4) and November 14, FOR THE DEAD, which is Poke #6. The other two, KING MAYBE and THE HOT COUNTRIES, will come out in 2015, God willing.

    THERESA –Thanks so much. All I need to do is avoid a nervous breakdown. It sounds so easy.

  9. Bonnie Says:

    As a loyal Josephine Tey fan, I am convinced Richard III got a bad rap. And I just want to note here that, before letting Poke “deal with” Murphy, you put a speech in the so-called villain’s mouth that I suspect you (and maybe Poke, too) agree with every word of. It doesn’t lessen the impact of his horrible sadism, but it does make us aware how he can feel he’s on the side of the good guys. And his anguish mixed in with the love he feels for his damaged daughter does let us know without doubt he’s human.

  10. Glenn Jolley Says:

    Tim, A welcomed surprise to see you are back to the blog. I’ve missed your wit, insights, and creative bursts that often have encouraged me to press on in my own projects.
    Where you get all your creative energy is pure astonishment to me, but I appreciate and respect it.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    MICHAEL — We share a mutual admiration society. For those of you who don’t know, Michael runs an amazing site,, that culls all the major Southeast Asia news and presents it succinctly, with links to long-form coverage. It’s an indispensable part of my day.

    BONNIE — I don’t know about the historical Richard III, but Shakespeare’s is peerless. I’m positive he wrote the scene in which Richard woos (successfully) Lady Anne, the mourning and vengeful widow of his victim, solely to prove it was possible to write and to allow him to write the lines, “Was ever woman in such humor woo’d?/ Was ever woman in such humor won?/ I’ll have her but I’ll not keep her long.” This is, to me, an example of a writer aiming at the hopelessly difficult and attaining it.

    GLENN, Glad to welcome you back, too. I burned out on blogging after writing one a day for something like 150 days, but it feels good to be here. My “creative energy” usually begins each day with me sitting down with no idea what to write and then writing until my fingers fall off. Sometimes the product is okay, sometimes it’s embarrassing.

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