I never intended to become a crime fiction writer.
I hadn’t read much in the genre since graduate school at UC Berkeley, and then only as an end-of-quarter reach toward the rough ground from the frictionless, ethereal world of political philosophy. The novels I chose were known as realistic and I read them because I wanted to learn something from people who had thought about the world of crime and wrote with skill and insight.
When I returned to them after decades as an investigator, both public and private, I began to wonder what was meant by realism, for though many of the stories were rich in plot and character, and often written in brilliant prose, few seemed realistic. I appreciated why they were popular, for I too had once felt their attraction and they had seemed authentic at the time, but they had become wrong as paths for me to follow.
I had struggled with the problem of realism before. A decade ago I attempted non-fiction, recounting street crime cases from early in my career, focusing on the fragile state of truth in the criminal justice process. I soon realized that the most dramatic, tragic and morally significant aspects of those cases were also the most confidential. And once I start changing names and facts to protect it, I was already into fiction and contradicted the aim of the book. I therefore set it aside, thinking that realism in crime writing was not a possibility for me.
Later I found myself revisiting the problem. Near the end of my investigative career, after spending six months out of the country—in one two-day period travelling from Hong Kong (a smuggling case), to Chennai, India (a sex trafficking case) and to London (a fraud and money laundering case)—and tired of waking up year after year to the sound of a ringing cellphone and needing a moment to remember what country I was in, I decided it was time for a change. And mostly on impulse, I drafted two outlines and began writing to see if I could portray through fictional crimes and characters, for lack of a better phrase, the moral logic of the investigative life. It struck me that if I got that right, it made little difference whether what I was writing was fiction or non-fiction.
For me, achieving authenticity meant, among other things, that readers had to trust the protagonist, that he be competent, thinking the right thoughts and doing the right things at the right times, and that the readers’ angle of view had to be horizontal, rather than vertical.
From the perspective of character, experienced investigators act in many ways contrary to the genre: They almost always aim to lower tension, rather than raise it; aim to avoid obstacles, rather than overcome them; plan ahead, rather than race headlong; and get almost everything right the first time. That is not to say real investigation is without tensions and conflicts and obstacles, only that these arise from the potential within the situation they find themselves in, not injected into it by the investigator. Even errors have a certain sense and intelligibility.
For me, genre had to engage with experience, not struggle against it. And the test would be whether the stories were satisfying not only to the sophisticated crime fiction reader seeking realism, but also to the professional investigator who would say, That’s what I would’ve thought, felt and done.
Angle of view means that I could not employ an objective mind in the novels. The stories would have to be written only at ground level, from the characters’ points of view. I understand the desire for an anonymous, all-seeing narrator. In real life, when you are on the hunt for someone, ontologically, the fact is that the person is somewhere, but epistemologically, you are trapped in what you know. And for the sake of authenticity, it seems to me, so should be the reader.
Like the previous Harlan Donnally novel, A Criminal Defense is written from Donnally’s point of view. As a result, the reader has to live inside Donnally’s mind and with his frustrations. And the mind of Donnally wants to know more than just who the killer is, he wants to understand how the victim, a corrupt criminal defense lawyer, became corrupt and corrupted those around him. And his frustration is what he fears are the limits of human understanding.
And it is that struggle and the tragic working out of the moral logic of the story, looping through the past and then reaching toward the last page and beyond—for in real life there is always a beyond—that both first set me on the path of writing and which I hope will engage the reader.
Steven Gore is a former private investigator whose thrillers draw on his investigations of murder, fraud, money laundering, organized crime, political corruption, and drug, sex, and arms trafficking in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Gore has been featured on 60 Minutes for his work and has been honored for excellence in his field. He is trained in forensic science and has lectured to professional organizations on a wide range of legal and criminal subjects.