Why did I start writing crime? Blame it on OJ.
August 11, 2013
One of the most common question writers are asked is, “what made you start writing crime fiction?” For years I always answered the same way: I can tell you how and when I started writing, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.
I didn’t plan it. I was going to be a film-maker. I have an MFA in Film production from NYU and had visions of becoming the American Lina Wertmuller, dancing off into the sunset with Ingmar Bergman. But life had other plans.
A stint in broadcast journalism
I ended up working in broadcast journalism, mostly in Washington DC, but also in New York. Which was fine. I was raised in Washington, which, as I say in my bio, means when you’re sitting around the dinner table gossiping about the neighbors, you’re talking politics. And I had been a history major in undergraduate college, always aware that current events are history in the making. The shoe fit.
The big move came when I was put on the overnight shift at NBC News in DC. I couldn’t handle it. I hated working on the wrong end of the clock, although, curiously, I’d love it now. So I ultimately left, moved to Chicago and worked in PR for eight years producing industrial videos, films and audio-visual programs. I even trained executives for speeches, presentation, and media interviews. I got married, had kids, and eventually started my own business doing the same thing. Still, I had no plans to write.
Change in the wind
However, I had always been a voracious reader, reading everything I could get my hands on. Especially thrillers. My mother was – and still is – a dedicated mystery reader, and she hooked me on them, as well. Despite this, I still had no reason to write. Life carried on. Then, in February 1996, my father died.
We went to the funeral in Washington and when we got back, I went into the basement and started writing. Four months later I’d finished my first mystery. It was a police procedural about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. Of course, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. The rest of the world didn’t agree. It was never published (and it didn’t deserve to be). But I persevered, and a few years later started publishing books I could be proud of.
Now for the why. At first I thought the catalyst might have been my father’s death, my way of dealing with it, working through the grief. But it really didn’t resonate. Then I decided I was writing because my father had been such a practical businessman that his death, in a strange way, way freed me to pursue activities that didn’t have a measureable goal, money or closure. Nice and neat. But that didn’t really ring true either.
It was only about six or seven years ago, after I’d written six novels, that I finally got it. In fact, it was one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments. It was OJ Simpson.
The greatest show in town
Back in 1995 I was free-lancing, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of his murder trial. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict… in other words, everything you could want or need in a crime novel.
First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor, the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone. The racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, and the avuncular king of defense lawyers.
Then there were the forensics. I knew nothing about police procedure, and less about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the footprints. I was fascinated by the way crimes could actually be investigated in a systematic way, with all sorts of (at the time) hi-tech gadgets. I was mesmerized by the concept, even though the prosecution botched the job. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled – maybe even manipulated – it played to all of my latent conspiracy theories.
Finally, of course, there was the denouement in October 1995. How absolutely noir an ending! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn’t have done it better.
Remember: OJ was acquitted in October, 1995. My Dad died February 1996. You connect the dots.
Curiously, it wasn’t until 2007, when O.J. was arrested in Vegas for trying to steal his own memorabilia, that the light bulb flashed. THAT’s why I’m writing crime fiction. Because he got away with it! The injustice, the unfairness of it all, had percolated up from my subconscious.
In a way, I’ve been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? At the same time, though, I have to admit that OJ changed my life.
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