Out now from Titan Books, CRACKED is the first in a new crime series from Barbra Leslie.
Why I Fell In Love with Crime Novels –
Picture the scene, if you will.
It was a cold late autumn in rural Nova Scotia. The snow was falling early, and meteorologists were (correctly, as it turned out) predicting one of the snowiest winters on record. My mother had a badly-broken ankle from falling over the vacuum cleaner in her den, and I had come from Toronto (and the hell of my own making I had created there: an addiction to crack cocaine) to care for her – and for myself, at the same time.
The first days went by in a haze of horrible withdrawal, sickness and sadness. (But that’s another tale.) I couldn’t tell my mother what I had been doing to myself, so I told her I was sick, getting over bronchitis; anything to explain the hacking cough and malaise, even as I prepared her meals and lifted her into her wheelchair.
After a couple of weeks, I started poring over my mother’s bookshelves, looking for something, anything I might want to read. I had finished the few books I’d thrown into my suitcase in my haste to get away from Toronto, and the closest library was a bit of a long drive on very snowy roads. I didn’t like to leave Mother for that long. Still, I didn’t hold out much hope for the books at her house.
They were all mysteries.
Somehow, voracious reader that I am and have been since I was a small child, I had missed out on the whole mystery genre. Sure, I had read some fantastic true crime books – Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song – but the only mysteries I’d read were Agatha Christies when I was a child, and somehow I thought all crime fiction fit into the cosy Miss Marple category. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, but I associated them with bedtime stories; there were no children’s books in the house when I grew up.)
Then I picked up a Dennis Lehane. And then another one. Soon, I had gone through all she had of his, greedily, like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar. I moved on to Robert B. Parker, Jonathan Kellerman, and then discovered a stash of James Lee Burke that she had on the shelves in her bedroom. I was done for.
I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit, now, the slightly snobbishness attitude I had about crime novels before then. I imagined they were genre novels like dime-store romances or science fiction; the bastion of people who didn’t Read Seriously. (And I am a fan of a lot of science fiction now as well, I hasten to add.) And it’s not as though I had anything to be snobbish about, either: God knows I wasn’t a child of privilege, and I’ve never cared particularly about money or status. The only area where I became slightly judgmental, with nose upturned, was in people’s reading habits.
Now, I read some of James Lee Burke’s books and I think they are among the best-written American novels we have. I defy anyone to read The Tin Roof Blowdown without being moved and mesmerized. Nicola Griffith’s Aud series – which I didn’t come to until later – is nothing short of brilliant, and I was both gripped and moved to tears in equal measure.
And this is the key, of course. A good crime novel grips you, takes you on a ride, but also makes you care deeply about its characters. And unlike in most so-called “literary fiction” (a distinction I now discount altogether; good books are good books, as far as I am concerned), in crime novels, very bad things can and do happen to the characters you love. The stakes are high; the character you love might well have a broken heart, but very well may also get a broken neck.
When I sat down to write Cracked, it was therapy for me; my own way out of a hell I had been living in. My agent – who is also a good friend – had wanted me to turn my head to writing a memoir; my story was extreme, by most people’s reckoning. I tried, but it wasn’t working. I wasn’t far enough away from it, maybe? I’m not sure, but I was boring even myself as I was trying to write it.
What I do know is that when I sat down to write a very early draft of Cracked, sitting at my mother’s dining room table with the snow nearly up to the windows, I was in a fever of writing unlike anything I have experienced. I felt like I had come home.
- Barbra Leslie