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My Kind of Clever

J Mark Bertrand

the-murderess-1906 There’s a whole group of us, a huddle, drinking church coffee out of Styrofoam cups and chit-chatting between services about sports and weather. Then one of them turns to me with a thoughtful look: “Remember that guy you were telling me about? I’ve figured out how you can kill him.”

Everyone hears and nobody recoils. Instead, they lean closer to hear what he’s come up with. We are not a congregation of criminals. The sixth commandment hasn’t dropped from our decalogue. It’s just that I happen to write novels, and in these novels people die. The guys at church might not be interested in my literary pretensions. If I need help with homicide, though, their faces light up. Murder is interesting.

Of the big sins, murder is the easiest to discuss in polite company. Even hypothetical violations of the 7th commandment (adultery) are awkward, and discussions of the 3rd (taking the Lord’s name in vain) die in church circles because no one will offer concrete illustrations. And nobody wants to help you plan a nice bit of coveting. You shouldn’t need help: coveting comes naturally, and it doesn’t have to be clever.

Murder does, or so the genre says. The golden age of detective fiction taught us that murder must be a clockwork puzzle, and today’s forensic science soap operas haven’t progressed much further. But I have no use for locked rooms and icicle daggers that melt once the deed is done. In my books people are killed the way they tend to be in real life: they’re shot mostly, or stabbed, or strangled, or burned. I don’t want murder to be clever. That’s not my thing.

I don’t know why murder as a genre appeals so much to readers. (Most of it I can’t stand, to be honest, but that’s professional bias similar to Howard Roark’s antipathy to fluted columns.) What I do know is why the genre appeals to me as a novelist. I want to contemplate the nature and results of evil, and I want to do it without having to put scare quotes around the word. We might begrudge a moral philosopher that absence of punctuation, but homicide cops get a pass. With work like theirs, they can be forgiven for still believing.

The Police once sang about turning a murder into art. The song loops in my head, yet most days I’m not so confident. But I try. I tell myself the genre, despite its ubiquity, can still be elevated, even transcended. The downside of subtle ambitions? When people who love what you’re doing don’t have a clue what you’re … well, doing.

That kind of clever doesn’t bother me at all.