Lawrence Block on Writing Mysteries
"No Messages" by Lawrence Block original essay
"If you've got something to say," Nolan Miller advised, "hire a hall."
I heard these words as a sophomore at Antioch College, where Nolan chaired the English department and led a writing workshop. Later I would learn that movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn had expressed much the same sentiment. ("If I want to send a message I'll call Western Union.")
Either way it was music to my ears. Because I didn't have anything to say, and I had no messages to send. I wanted to be a writer, I was in fact already in the process of becoming a writer, but not because I wanted to reveal the secrets of the Universe, none of which had as yet disclosed themselves to me. I just wanted to have a shelf of books out there with my name on them. I figured it would be a gratifying way to make a living, and might even render me attractive to women.
As I followed my footsteps into the area of crime fiction, I was relieved to find myself in a literary genre where no one expected you to write anything that would make Faulkner eat his heart out. The books I and my colleagues were writing aspired to no higher purpose than entertainment and escape. If one of my novels shortened a plane ride or took someone's mind off a backache or a bereavement, that was plenty. And if I found out, like the guy in the Noel Coward song, that all I ever had was but a talent to amuse, well, I could live with that. There were, it seemed to me, worse talents to have.
"I told my friend I kept meaning to write you a fan letter," one woman wrote some years ago, "and he said, 'Well, why don't you? His books have gotten you through a lot of bad nights'." Not bad, I thought. I was grateful myself to any number of writers who'd gotten me through some bad nights of my own, and elated to learn I'd performed a similar service for someone else.
Still, you don't expect mysteries to change anybody's life...
I did find, as my writing increasingly tended to center upon two series characters, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and ex-cop Mathew Scudder, that readers were becoming involved in their evolving fictional lives. Scudder in particular seemed to get hold of readers' emotions, as he grew and evolved, struggled to get sober and stay sober, found his way into and out of relationships, and worked at the tricky task of navigating in today's world without a chart or a compass.
When I met readers, on tour or through the mail, they argued about some of the choices he made. One man wanted to know when he'd develop a closer relationship with his grown sons. Many wondered if he was ever going to make an honest woman of Elaine. And quite a few were genuinely angry when he snuck out and had an affair with a client. How could he do that?
Men are swine, I told them.
And then one afternoon a woman approached me at a conference on the West Coast. She was thirty-something and attractive, and I recognized her but couldn't remember how I knew her. She reminded me that I'd signed a whole sack full of books for her a month earlier in her home town.
"But there were people around," she said, "so I didn't have a chance to tell you that your books have changed my life."
Well, I knew what was coming. A lot of people have been nice enough to credit Scudder's saga with having given them a nudge in the direction of sobriety. I figured she'd stopped drinking and wanted to tell me my book had been a help.
"You see," she said, "I used to be in the same line of work as Elaine." Elaine, you'll be interested to learn, was a call girl. "And I started reading the Scudder books years ago," she went on, "and in one of the very early books Elaine explains that she's been investing her money in real estate. And I thought, gee, I could do that. Because I never had a pimp, same as Elaine, and I earned more money than I needed to live on, so I started putting money aside and investing it. And now I own a whole bunch of houses, and I'm retired, actually, although I still see a client once a week or so because I enjoy it. But I'm retired to all intents and purposes, and I've got you to thank for it."
"Oh," I said. Or words to that effect.
If you've got something to say, hire a hall. If you want to send a message, call Western Union. But if you've gotten nothing more than the urge to write and a talent to amuse, just sit down and write your book. Even if you don't change any lives, you might get somebody through a bad night or two.