From Covering Crime to Writing Crime
Author of Desert Remains (Seventh Street Books)
“Hello. I’d like to see the menu. Thank you. Now if you wouldn’t mind listing the specials and telling me about the crime du jour.”
That was me, as a cocky young reporter, walking into the newsroom every morning, anticipating whatever bloody murder or other heinous violence I’d be assigned to cover. I would spend several years as that young reporter staring into the abyss of human behavior. From chilling crime scenes to graphic trials, I had a front row seat. A friend nicknamed me “gavel to gavel” for the endless hours I’d sit and observe the minutiae of murder: every wound, every piece of skin, every speck of brain matter all described in vivid detail. The woman who murdered her stepchild. The young lawyer brutally raped and shot dead. The young girl who disappeared, her body later discovered in the woods abandoned and mutilated beyond description and recognition.
I remember my first dead body. My first body bag. I remember the first time I traversed blood-soaked pavement or a blood-stained hallway. I remember the first nightmare of my career. Cocky in the newsroom, maybe, but I was in for a shock. This shit really happens. This ain’t no Law & Order. People are capable of murder. People are capable of multiple murders in multiple ways. Off-the-record sources would slip me crime scene photos. No two crime scenes looked the same. But each of them rattled me, pressed against my chest with the weight of a thousand regrets. Each of them was cold and true. Very cold. I wasn’t cut out for this. I couldn’t shake it. I’d stand dutifully behind the yellow tape waiting for the ghosts to reach out and talk to me. Days later I’d stand on their doorsteps, still waiting. Oh for sure, I’d take good notes and write up reports, but I’d struggle to edit out the sentiment. A voice inside my head said, “You cannot report from the corner of sympathy and empathy.” Then how, I wondered, could I impart the sense of vulnerability? That we are no less vulnerable than the victims? Until one day I realized that wasn’t my job. The facts spoke for themselves. Just the facts. Report the facts and move on. After all, it was only the crime du jour. Eventually, the macabre lost its impact on my psyche. The blood and guts would no longer feel real. I tuned out, desensitized, in order to be present and do my job. Many people who work in law enforcement tell me they do the same thing. It’s not necessarily a conscious effort; the conversion is, for the most part, a defensive reflex.
And yet. Years after I left the “crime beat,” I’d be haunted by the images I suppressed. The stories would come back to life. Gavel to gavel, I’d return to the courtroom. In that imaginary space, I’d stare down the defendant. As the prosecutors outlined their cases, my eyes would never leave the man or woman accused. I’d try earnestly to crawl inside their minds. I needed to know what they were thinking. I needed to understand how criminal minds worked. How did they choose their victims? What were they thinking in the very moments they committed these violent acts? Were they lucid? Deranged? Were they so cold? While the disconnection I had mastered earlier in my career had eroded, I was no longer shocked by the abyss. I was intrigued.
The need to satisfy the intrigue, to answer all those questions about the darkest human condition, is why you have crime writers. We think about it and think about it and think about it. We talk to scientists, consult with psychologists. We read articles that confuse us. We drink a lot of coffee. We talk to our characters out loud. And yes, it has occurred to us, as a group and individually, that our minds are as dented as the criminals we write about.
When I talk to my characters, I ask them about their rage and their sorrow. Here sympathy and empathy are not only permitted, they’re necessary. I dig deep into my own experience, sometimes, to a particular vulnerability or fear from childhood, and I use that experience to trigger a conversation with my characters. Or I choose defendants from those trials of my reporter days and set up imaginary appointments to discuss their cases. I probe. They tell me everything. This can take hours or days. Which is why I don’t always answer the phone. When I create a criminal character, it’s like I do an MRI of his brain and a CT scan of his mind. The results of those imaging studies show up on the pages of my manuscripts. They fill in the blanks. Take over much of the white space. I no longer work as a reporter. I’m too busy in the examination room crafting words from brain matter. So, today I make up the menus and list the specials, hoping readers are interested in tasting the crime du jour.
Steven Cooper is a freelance writer, video producer, and the author of three previous novels. A former television reporter, he has received multiple Emmy awards and nominations, a National Edward R. Murrow Award, and Associated Press awards. He taught writing at Rollins College (Winter Park, FL) from 2007 to 2012.