Why I Write Mysteries – Mystery Writing by Joe Gores

A three-time Edgar Award mystery writer reveals his winding path to success.

Almost all mystery writers will tell you they didn’t start out to be mystery writers.

I didn’t start out to be a mystery writer.

I started out to be a cartoonist. I wanted to tell my stories in words and pictures like Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and Burne Hogarth. Only I discovered I wasn’t a very good artist. I was a better writer (years later, when I got into film and television writing, I had come full circle–I was once again telling my stories in words and pictures.)

I decided to go to graduate school, major in creative writing, ease into this writing thing.

In 1954, Stanford University refused me a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing because the stories I had submitted for my Thesis “read as if they had been written to be sold.”

In 1955, Stanford University refused me a Master’s Degree in English Literature because my proposed Thesis was on the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. “Since these novels are not literature,” they said, “obviously graduate theses cannot be written about them.” That is, if fiction is fun to read, it is mere escapist fare. I have since learned that anything read for pleasure is escapist fare–for my wife it is the study of languages, for me, the prehistory of early man.

In 1961, Stanford University granted me a Master’s Degree in English Lit. because it had to. My thesis was on the Literature of the South Seas; my advisor had read only Conrad, Maugham, and Melville of my 50 authors, so he could not say it was wrong to write about the other 47.

I became a private eye in San Francisco for 12 years, off and on–and it was a fun way to make a living while trying to learn how to write. I wrote it all: mainstream, science fiction, fantasy, youthful angst, suspense. The trouble was, none of it sold. One year I got 300 printed rejection slips and papered the bathroom with them. Then, in 1957, the last of the pulps, Manhunt, bought a short story for $65. WIthout realizing it, I had learned the elements of successful fiction as a detective, by writing thousands of field reports that make clients willing to pay our fees–or readers willing to pay for stories.

By 1967 my short stuff was selling regularly, in every field; but then the late great Lee Wright, mystery editor at Random House, wrote me that “If you ever want to write a novel, I probably will want to publish it.”

Thus encouraged, I wrote A Time of Predators. Lee published it, and it won the Best First Novel Edgar for 1969. I became a mystery writer full-time.

And discovered that the mystery is the only fiction genre that lets you write anything you want while demanding a form that makes you tell a story people want to read.

So I write my mysteries for pleasure, mine and I hope yours, and for money.

Mine alone.

Buy Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com

A Selected Joe Gores Reading List

  • [su_amazon_link title=”Cases” code=”0892965932″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”Menaced Assassin” code=”0892965932″]
  • [su_amazon_link title=”Contract Null & Void” code=”0892965932″]


Joe Gores worked for 12 years as a private eye and based his Daniel Kearney Associates’ novels on one of his former San Francisco employers. Gores (rhymes with “doors”) has won three Edgar Allen Poe Awards including two in one year for best short mystery story and best first mystery novel, A Time of Predators. In 1976, he won an Edgar for a TV episode of Kojak; he has also written for Magnum P.I., Remington Steele, Mike Hammer, T.J. Hooker and Columbo, among others. His latest book is Cases.


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