It’s my pleasure to have as a guest blogger in advance of his appearance on the Crime Cafe podcast mystery author Curtis Bausse.
Curtis is doing a unique giveaway. Not only is he giving away a copy of his novel PERFUME ISLAND, but he’ll also send a lucky winner a box of Calissons d’Aix — a renowned Provence speciality — it’s candy, folks! 🙂
So if you enjoy marzipan or mystery or both, be sure to enter the giveaway through Curtis’ contact page. The deadline for entry is January 23, 2018! Enter now, while it’s on your mind.
So … without further ado, here’s Curtis Bausse!
Why A Detective Chose Me
When I was young, there used to be two categories of books, fiction and nonfiction. At a pinch, you could add poetry and plays, but they didn’t really count because nobody read them. Oh, and the bible. That was a category all on its own, which we might class today as creative nonfiction. That’s a handy label since it’s up to the reader to decide what the dosage is — 90% factual with just a little embellishment? Or basically a whopping fairy tale built round a couple of plausible events?
Reverend Salter, our Divinity teacher at school, tried to convince us that the New Testament was all true, even the miracles. So Jesus didn’t actually make loaves and fishes out of nowhere but he managed to feed the multitude all the same by persuading them that they weren’t that hungry after all. Nor did he really calm the storm, he just showed the disciples there was nothing to be afraid of. As for walking on water, it was nothing more startling than a mirage. Lazarus, of course, wasn’t really dead but in a coma. And so on.
I’m not sure why the poor Reverend felt it necessary to convince us there were rational explanations to the bible. Presumably he was hoping to overcome our scepticism, the better to focus on the central message of compassion. But it seemed to me that if God created the universe, there was nothing to prevent Him getting up to all manner of amazing tricks. And if He didn’t, well, it was a lost cause in any case. So while the Reverend blathered on about subjective interpretations of reality, most of us doodled, daydreamt or played noughts and crosses.
Now, if Rev. Salter had simply declared that the bible was creative nonfiction, he wouldn’t have needed to tie himself up in knots explaining it. But the category didn’t exist then — it came into being in the last couple of decades along with a host of other genres: chicklit, cyberpunk, paranormal romance, lesbian vampire, recovering alcoholic Christian cowboy sci-fi, dystopian culinary memoirs and erotic self-help granlit. Ok, I made some of those up. But the point is, the marketers went to work on books the way they did on shampoo. In my younger days, I had hair. I’m still the proud possessor of 17.2% of it, but today we don’t have hair, we have dry, greasy, curly, sleek, permed, flaky, frizzy, thick, brittle, anxious, extrovert, metallic, compulsive or flatulent hair (oops! Got carried away again…). As a result, when I step into the shower, I must have my glasses on or I could be applying anything from Tahitian coconut and avocado enriched conditioner to essential boar musk and cuckoo spit triple thickness gel. Or bleach.
So if this marketing madness affects shampoo — not to mention toothpaste, kitchen rolls, cat food, headache pills etc. — we shouldn’t be surprised if it also affects books. The upshot being that when you want to buy a book, whether the store is bricks and mortar or virtual, you’re driven to specific labels, and you then become categorised yourself. ‘Ah, so you’re a dieselpunk fan. We think you’ll love Cecil F. Zipperwolf’s latest novel, Pistons of Paradise. Specially edited to combat dandruff and restore your natural beauty.’
When I started writing, it was what today is called ‘literary fiction’. The playwright David Hare has said that when strung together, those are the two most depressing words in the English language. The issue being that ‘literary’ novels are considered more profound, and thus more difficult — but also more rewarding — to read, than genre fiction. Which is of course hogwash. There’s no reason why genre fiction can’t be profound, and conversely, many a ‘literary’ novel is less about probing weighty topics than telling a good story.
I must admit that The Sally Effect, the literary novel over which I laboured for twenty-odd years, was rather difficult to read. The agents I sent it to said, ‘Love the writing but, um… Maybe get rid of 29 of the characters and reduce it to just the one volume, preferably slim?’ It did eventually get published but then the publisher went bankrupt. (I like to think that’s not a relation of cause and effect.) I intend to return to it one day, but in the meantime I’ve found a similar pleasure in writing in a specific genre, crime.
There are subgenres here too: cosy, hard-boiled, police procedural, private investigator, psychological thriller, tartan noir… and a bit of everything together, also known as One Green Bottle. Because I didn’t think, ‘Oh, let’s write a cosy mystery’, but ‘Let’s write a mystery and see what happens.’ And it turned out to have elements of all those subgenres. Except for the tartan, perhaps. I was tempted to throw in a kilt but decided not to. On the other hand, there’s an Alfa Romeo so it could reasonably go onto the Italian sports car mysteries shelf.
Why mystery though? Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought — the choice was instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say that it was Ten Little Niggers (now, for obvious reasons, called And Then There Were None, but I read the 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ — only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Galaxy Gunslingers. I didn’t choose a detective; she chose me.
And if we want to get philosophical — which every so often, I do, though rarely for long — it could be argued that a murder story takes us right to the heart of the human condition. Transgression and temptation, revenge and remorse, fear, guilt and original sin. Murder should, as a matter of course, be inconceivable — to take another person’s life is to undermine the notion of life itself, weaken the whole of humanity. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene writes, When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity… that was a quality God’s image carried with it… when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination. And yet people kill every day, often for the basest or pettiest of reasons. In other words, they manage to convince themselves, momentarily at least, that their victim is not a member of humanity, because humanity, in their restricted vision, doesn’t include the category they’ve put the victim in: Jews, infidels, homosexuals, prostitutes, whatever. The list, in fact, could go on indefinitely, since the motive for any murder includes the idea that the victim’s behaviour has in some way barred them from being fully human. A few years ago in Tennessee, when a young couple unfriended a woman on Facebook, the woman’s father and boyfriend expressed their displeasure by killing them. In Florida, a man shot his flatmate because he undercooked the pork chops. At an army base in Iraq, a soldier killed two roommates because they were untidy. In each case, of course, there was already animosity, so the category here is ‘people who persistently annoy me.’ Because, the reasoning goes, anyone who keeps on doing something that they know full well pisses me off is lacking the respect for me that would make them fully human.
Given that murder, then, is at the same time inconceivable and yet far too common, there has to be some way of reconciling the paradox. Nothing can ever quite do that, since the act of murder is irreparable, but we make an attempt through justice. In real life, this involves the cumbersome, imperfect machinery of police, courtroom and prison. In fiction we have the detective — neater, more entertaining, more satisfying. Detectives, however flawed they may be in their personal lives, restore our faith in humanity by bringing the murderer to justice. The mystery genre shatters our world with the murder, then lovingly repairs it with the detective. From Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew, there’s no getting away from a great detective, however sly or cunning the murderer may be. And into that illustrious company, I’m happy and proud to invite Magali Rousseau.
About the Author
I grew up in Wales, was educated in England and have spent most of my life in France. When the café-theatre I ran there got demolished, I became a university lecturer, specialising in Second Language Acquisition. Last year I returned to Provence after two years in Mayotte, France’s recently acquired 101st department in the Indian Ocean. One Green Bottle, set in Provence, is the first in a series of Magali Rousseau detective stories. Its sequel, Perfume Island, released in November 2017, is set in Mayotte against a backdrop of illegal immigration from nearby Comoros.