November 6, 2013

Big shots: Four best-selling crime-novel writers talk about death

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 1:08 pm

There are seven billion people alive on the planet today — and it’s a sure thing that every single one of us will die eventually. Death is completely unavoidable. And perhaps this cold hard fact is one reason for our universal fascination with murder-mystery novels: That they deal with the subject of death, an event that all of us face 24/7 — but which no one really knows one damn thing about.

Who can you ask about death — who has ever returned from the dead? “What was death like? Did it hurt? Is it better now? Is there an after-life? Do you like being dead? Will I survive the process?” The Bible says that Jesus came back from the dead. But probably nobody else ever has, not really — near-death experiences aside.

Death is the absolutely most important event in all of our lives (besides birth). But it is a totally unknown factor. And so we watch CSI on television and go to zombie movies and read crime novels, searching for clues.

At the 2013 BoucherCon convention in Albany last month, four prominent murder-mystery writers got together to discuss their craft, at a seminar called “Big Shots”. Anne Perry, Steven Hamilton, Sue Grafton and Tess Gerritsen? Yes, they are all still alive. But they certainly know where the bodies are buried!

Sue Grafton was first to speak, and told us a really funny story about the death of (wait for it) her chicken Peggy Sue. “The vet gave me a very serious look and said, ‘This hen needs a hysterectomy.’ Yeah but… Isn’t the main purpose of a chicken to lay eggs?” Then the vet billed Grafton $250 but the chicken still died. Moral here? I guess that chickens aren’t immortal either.

But as Steve Hamilton pointed out, “That’s a pretty hard-boiled story.”

“I get a lot of plot problems solved while driving,” said Tess Gerritsen, “especially while driving across Texas.” Gerritsen also plays the fiddle in an Irish-music band in Maine and is a MD. She writes best-selling medical thrillers in her spare time. Death becomes her.

Anne Perry, who lives in a small village in Scotland where there are only 500 people, has to rely on getting “an endless supply of faces, ways of walking and gestures for my novels — from watching TV.” And I bet she gets lots of ideas on how to kill people too, just by watching TV. I bet that at least 600 people meet the Grim Reaper on TV on any given day spent in Televisionland.

Hamilton writes at night, after the family has gone to bed. “The idea of me getting up and working at 6:00 am is pure science-fiction.” But all four authors prefer to write when it is quiet.

“I have to listen to my characters’ voices,” said Gerritsen.

Hamilton was having a whole bunch of trouble writing about a hero who was an urban private investigator. And then,”I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘I live in a cabin in the wilderness and I have a bullet in my heart,’ and this character, Alex McKnight, just stepped out from my mind.” And murder-mystery readers everywhere are glad that Alex did.

“I identify with characters, envision them,” said Perry, “and find their vulnerabilities. And they all have some sort of vulnerability, even the villains.”

Gerritsen added, “When I can’t get started, I wait and listen; listen to the voices most different from myself. If I were to write from my own point of view, I’d get bored. My characters are never boring.”

And all of these writers are grateful for their readers. As Hamilton put it, “I still can’t believe that people love my books.” And Grafton sees her fans as friends. At BoucherCon, I watched Grafton stand and sign books for her fans for two and a half hours straight, without any breaks.

These four authors have sold millions of books about death. So what’s my point? Have I learned more about the Big Sleep by reading these books? Not really. But I have learned that the important thing about death is to realize that I am still among the living — and, until a whole big bunch more people besides Jesus (and possibly Lazarus) come back from the dead and tell me how much fun it all is on the Other Side, I would prefer to keep it that way.

PS: If, despite being a murder-mystery lover, you are still truly curious about death and what will happen to you when you die, just keep voting for RepubliDems. They and their pals on Wall Street and War Street will have all the rest of us joining the ranks of the dead sooner rather than later, years and years before our time.

According to one right-wing publication I read recently, the whole purpose of the government shut-down is to “DeFund Obamacare!” So between trying to defund ObamaCare and shutting down government services, that alone should kill off thousands of us. The plot thickens!

However, Single-Payer healthcare could save millions of lives in America, and over one trillion dollars as well — and do all this without any computer snarl-ups or sabotage. But no one in Washington appears to be interested in Single-Payer.

PPS: And in the immortal words of Dr. Richard Webber, “We’re all going to die. We don’t get much say about how or when. But we do get to decide on how we’re going to live. So do it. Is this the best you can be? Can you be stronger, kinder, more compassionate? Decide.”


I also have photos of additional authors at the conference: Johnny Shaw, Cara Black, Lisa Brackman, Robert Kroese, Kelli Stanley, Rhys Bowen, Marcia Clark, Rebecca Tope, Peter Barus, Robin Spano, Lee Goldberg and Louise Penney at

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