Saturday, January 10, 2009

My fascination with murder

My fascination with the subject of murder began back in 1948, during my early days as a newspaper reporter. I had gone to work for The Knoxville Journal the previous fall, at the start of my junior year in journalism at the University of Tennessee. It would make a lot more interesting story to say I was involved in writing about murder cases back then, but no such luck. My assignments were on the order of reporting on dog shows. However, I read a couple of books by Horace McCoy—They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud—during that time, firing up my imagination. The latter featured a reporter covering a murder case.

I sat down at my little portable typewriter in the dank depths of my fraternity house and banged out a murder mystery. It featured (what else?) a reporter helping solve a homicide. The editor at a Philadelphia publishing house declined, saying he had too many manuscripts already. Yeah. And though it was twenty years before I tried my hand at another novel, I was hooked on murder and mysteries.

I’ve often thought about what gets us all, writers and readers alike, so jazzed up on murder. To most of us (with the exception of those mentioned below), taking a human life is the ultimate crime. The damage done by thieves and robbers can be overcome, but death is as final as it gets. We love to delve into the motivations of a killer, peel away the layers of cunning behavior and rash activity that lead to the inevitable outcome. And we stare through voyeur eyes at how the crime affects those around the victim.

Serial killers have been a staple of crime fiction for several years now, but I’ve found few who could match the real thing we encounter occasionally on TV. There’s one type of killer who hasn’t appeared much in fiction yet, or maybe I just haven’t read enough books. That’s the unconscionable youth who kills without remorse. The news in Nashville, my hometown, deals too often with a teenager who robs a clerk and then shoots him or her for no apparent reason. We may see more of that in fiction soon.

Writers flock to murderous subjects since that’s where the action is. The mystery genre, taken in its broadest context, ranks second to romance in terms of book sales. I suspect man’s inhumanity to man will keep mystery writers busy at their keyboards for years to come, and as long as I’m around, I’ll be right there among ‘em.

If you’d like to read the long version of how I got started and where I’ve been, check out “Reflections on the Writing Life—my 60-year odyssey with the written word” at


Helen Ginger said...

Book murderers do seem to be more like reality these days. We get more into the murderer's head and motivations. The pendulum swings in the book world, though, and we'll go back the other direction eventually, it seems.

Anonymous said...

There is something about murder mysteries! I love them right now cozies are my thing!

Chester Campbell said...

Helen - Interesting to see how the pendulum swings.

Brooke - I don't really think of my Greg McKenzie mysteries as cozies, but a few reviewers have kreferred to them that way.

lucia said...

I always wondered about "They Shoot Horses." I should go back and read it. I was the assistant defense atty in a murder prosecution years ago, still want to write about it. Thanks for the post. Lucia

Morgan Mandel said...

You're getting a Premio Dardos Award. Please stop at my blogspot on Sunday to learn about it at

Morgan Mandel

Bob Sanchez said...

It would be fascinating to examine the line between good and evil, and the forces that push a good person toward violence. Are the heroes in mysteries really good people, or just people who follow society's rules? The more interesting "good guys" have to struggle against their baser instincts.

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting idea, Bob. I think all our "good guys" have to live through their flaws.