True crime author Harold Schechter recently sent me a copy of his new book, Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal. (He'd done some of his research on Alfred/Alferd Packer at Colorado College Special Collections, where I'm curator.) I asked him if I could do a one-multipart-question interview with him for the blog, and he said yes. Enjoy!
Q: Do you read detective fiction? What do you think differentiates the crimes in detective fiction from the real-life crimes in your many books? In other words, what are mystery writers getting wrong, and what are they getting right?
A: I'm not a particularly big reader of detective fiction. Of course, I've read many of the standards, going back to Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories--and in fact, I've written a series of historical mysteries myself: NEVERMORE, THE HUM BUG, THE MASK OF RED DEATH, and TELL-TALE CORPSE, all featuring Poe as the detective/narrator. I've read all of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, many of Agatha Christie's Poirots, the hard-boiled classics of Chandler and Hammett, and a smattering of Ellery Queens, John Dickson Carrs, Nero Wolfes--the usual suspects. But I can't say that I'm a devoted or even regular reader of detective fiction.
There are a number of major differences between detective fiction and the actual historical crimes I write about, the most obvious being that the latter are not typically mysteries in the traditional narrative sense: mind-teasing puzzles that can only be solved by the extraordinary mental abilities of a great detective--the "ratiocinative" brilliance of a Dupin or amazing "little gray cells" of a Poirot. The atrocities of Edward Gein, for example--the "real-life Norman Bates" who was the subject of my first true crime book, DEVIANT--were uncovered when he walked into the local hardware store, shot the proprietor in the head, and dragged her corpse outside to his waiting pickup truck, leaving behind a trail of blood and the empty shell casing. The local sheriffs figured out that Gein was the killer before the day was out. Robert Irwin, subject of my 2015 (and, I'm proud to say, Edgar-nominated) book, THE MAD SCULPTOR, was identified when police found his name in the diary of one of his victims. I'm sure I'm telling your readers nothing new when I say that most real-life cases are solved through seat-of-the-pants, often plodding detective work as opposed to the incandescent insights of a Sherlock Holmes-like mastermind. Though some of my books feature particularly heroic detectives, what often distinguishes them is not their extraordinary forensic brilliance but their relentless, often years-long pursuit of an elusive criminal.
If mystery writers create larger-than-life heroes, they also tend to create wildly implausible villains. The classic case, of course, is Hannibal Lecter. While I bow to no one in my admiration for Thomas Harris, Lecter is a purely mythic monster, who bears as much relation to a real serial killer as, say, Professor Moriarity does to the average mobster. Even contemporary detective stories that rely on a great deal of verisimilitude--Patricia Cornwell's books, for example--transform bleak, often sordid reality into heightened fantasy. That's exactly why we read it! (Whenever someone I know sees a movie and complains that he or she didn't like it because it wasn't "real," my answer is: "If you want reality, why go to the movies?" I guess I feel the same about popular detective fiction.)