Friday with Joseph Koenig, True Crime, and False Negative
Not really about comics, this week, but rather about their usual next-door neighbors on the newsstands when I was growing up.
The pulps had three bastard offspring that gradually replaced their pulp parents on the stands in the forties and fifties. They were comics, paperback original series fiction …and the true crime magazines.
(Or as they were called by those in the trade, the “dick books,” a nickname you used to be able to use without sending seventh-grade boys into hysterical giggles.)
You can make the case that sensationalized crime writing has been around as long as there have been newspapers, but most experts would tell you that what we think of as true-crime magazines began with True Detective back in 1924.
True Detective was an immediate hit and soon it was joined by True Crime, Crime Story, Police Cases, and a horde of others. Business boomed during the thirties and forties, and at one point there were over 200 true-crime magazines competing for shelf space. With that many pages to fill they were a good place for new writers to break into print– both Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson published early work there. At one point J. Edgar Hoover proudly announced he was a True Detective subscriber, which didn’t hurt circulation.
In the fifties things settled down somewhat, but unlike most of the other pulps, the true-crime magazines mostly kept chugging right along up through the 1990s. Though by the time I encountered them in the late 1960s, law enforcement officials weren’t trumpeting their virtues– instead, they were vaguely frowned upon, consigned to the same “trashy” ghetto as Mack Bolan, Perry Rhodan, and comics. Certainly my mother hated them, but her mother– my Grandma Jennings– liked to read True Detective and sometimes I’d sneak a look at one of hers.
What I remember is that the articles had a knack of expressing horrified disbelief while cultivating a certain leering can’t-look-away voyeurism. I could take them in small doses at Grandma’s house, especially if there was a headline that I couldn’t stand not to know more about, but overall they left me a little too skeeved out ever to really be a fan.
They still have a newsstand presence in Britain, though in the States they have mostly migrated over into the paperback book section, where writers like Ann Rule publish best-selling accounts like The Killer Beside Me, about serial murderer Ted Bundy. (Fun fact: Ann Rule got her start with True Detective in 1969, writing under the name “Andy Stack.”)
All of which brings me to Joseph Koenig, and his new book for Hard Case Crime, False Negative.
Joseph Koenig was another novelist who got his start writing for the true-crime magazines, and that experience is the basis for his new book.
His own words about that time and what it was like working at the crime magazines are better than any summary I could give you. In an article on the Titan Books blog he had this to say:
FALSE NEGATIVE, my new novel for Hard Case Crime, centers on the experiences of a young reporter/editor for the last of the true crime pulp magazines. It’s based, in part, on my own career at Front Page and Inside Detective, and later for Official, and Master, and True detective magazines. Because fiction has to be believable, something readers don’t demand of non-fiction writing, I had to tone down much of what really went on on the dick books.
I was hired as associate editor, whose responsibility included writing the letters to the editor that were beyond the literary aspirations of most of our readers. The job had opened up when another editor quit after 20 years. Twenty years was not an inauspicious run on the magazines. A typical sentence for murderers who had avoided the electric chair was twenty years. For an increasing number of them the first stop in the free world was at our office.
Few emerged from prison more pleasant than when they had entered. Fewer were better for the experience. Most were convinced that had it not been for the story in our magazine they would not have been sent up the river. As low man on the editorial totem pole, my responsibilities included greeting them. None denied his crimes. But if we #$%^&* journalists had minded our own #$%^&* business, there would have been no #$%^&* problem. “Who gave you the #$%^&* right to write about me?” was their usual opener. “Thomas Jefferson,” was the answer. For your average killer that’s a head-scratcher.
Prior to going to work at the magazine I don’t believe I had known a single murderer. Soon I was on a first-name basis with too many. They weren’t original thinkers. All had the same idea stuck in their head, and it wasn’t very different than the one that had landed them in stir. Somebody was going to suffer for their misfortune. The nearest available individual would do.
Tom Green at Titan Books, who has sent me ALL KINDS of awesomely cool stuff over the last couple of months, sent along a review copy of False Negative a while back and it blew me out of my chair. Ostensibly, it’s about a disgraced newspaper reporter named Adam Jordan who ends up taking a job writing for a true-crime pulp out of desperation, and then gets involved in trying to solve a series of murders… but that’s not really what the book is about at all. It’s much more about people being forced to confront truths they’d rather not, and the consequences of the lies they tell to themselves and everyone else; an intense character study cleverly hidden inside a murder mystery. I was so impressed with the deftly layered writing style of Mr. Koenig that I immediately sought out his other books.
False Negative is Joseph Koenig’s first new book in a while, which is the hook Titan is hanging its PR push on… but I was really more interested in finding out about the thought process that went into constructing the novel, I am literally awed by the craft that has gone into it.
So when Tom offered to set up an interview with Mr. Koenig, I lunged at it like a bass. I figured it was close enough to the whole pulp-comics-paperback orbit this column usually moves in, and anyway it’s too good not to print.
So here you go. My breathless fan questions and Mr. Koenig’s gracious answers. Enjoy.
First of all, I was really impressed with the book, how layered the narrative was. Sooner or later everyone in FALSE NEGATIVE, from Adam himself to the murderer, crashes into the idea of the unreal versus the real and how what they’d rather have is the image. The story starts with Adam faking a news report and that results in him taking a job with a magazine where the editor keeps telling him it’s not about facts, it’s about the story, and so on. Everyone, even the killer, has this sort of fake story they tell themselves until it blows up in his or her face. Even the title plays with the idea of image versus reality. I’m wondering if that’s what you started with, or was this an idea that sort of grew on you while you were working on it? If it’s not something you started with, I’m wondering what was the story idea you DID start with?
KOENIG: While False Negative in large part is about the effect of lies told to and by the major characters, your premise about the magazine that Adam works for is incorrect. Adam’s editor laments that the truth is prosaic, but never encourages Adam to lie, or allows anything more doubtful than the description of female murder victims as beautiful. When I worked on the dick books we didn’t play with the truth. The truth was what we were selling. Even the hack writers who looked down their nose at the pulps knew better than to fudge the facts.
In any decent crime novel there is a contest between goodness and honesty opposed to mendacity in the furtherance of evil. Killers can’t advertise themselves as what they are, and so they lie. The uncovering of lies is what crime fiction has always been about.
My original premise for False Negative was the case of Harvey Glatman, a notorious serial killer of the early 1950’s, who pretended to be a photographer in order to get pretty young women to pose for him, and to tell his story from the perspective of a reporter on one of the pulp magazines where I came to work years later.
There have been lots of crime and mystery books about reporters, but I think FALSE NEGATIVE is the only one I’ve ever read where the hero actually sweated over the act of writing itself– not the deadline, but just trying to write something and do it well. Can you talk about your own writing experiences as a reporter? Can you tell us how they played into the writing of this book?
KOENIG: Writing is innate. Little of it can be taught to be done well. Those youngsters throwing away their parents’ money at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and places like it, are in for a rude shock when it’s time to find a publisher for their first book. I try to hold to a fairly high standard in my work. Not everything that comes out of my typewriter makes the grade. The second-rate stuff bugs me, especially when editors and critics tell me I did just fine. Adam is a good journalist, who realizes he will make a good writer, and is worried that his stuff may be no better than good. Good is small satisfaction in writing’s big leagues. That’s what keeps good writers awake at night.
FALSE NEGATIVE is a Hard Case Crime book, and your other books are all nominally crime and mystery genre pieces… but both here and in FLOATER, especially, it seems like the mystery’s the least interesting part of it for you, the books feel more like character studies. Are you a mystery and crime-fiction fan yourself at all? What do you like to read for fun?
KOENIG: In my books the mystery is the ticket that must be punched for me to be permitted to publish. I’m not interested in mysteries as they are presented in crime novels. Puzzle construction is best left to tidier minds than mine. A better job is to make literature, to do it as a genre writer. If I make the mystery too compelling, it often competes with other things I’m trying to accomplish, and so I give it away deliberately. It’s character that intrigues me, and the use of language that expresses it best.
When I was ready to write fiction, I bought a stack of crime novels, and studied them till I knew that I could do at least as well. I wasn’t a fan, and am not one now. I haven’t picked up a crime novel since. What I’m reading now is all of Faulkner, trying to understand the parts I was too impatient to figure out when I read the books in my twenties.
Do you have any other projects you’d like to tell us about?
KOENIG: It’s often commented on that I didn’t publish for 20 years. I didn’t quit writing during that time, but completed a dozen or more novels. When False Negative found a publisher, I thought of putting the dozen in print one by one. However, I’ve lost interest in them in favor of whatever I’m working on at present, and the books that come after that. I recently completed a lengthy manuscript about a Creole jazz trumpeter in Nazi-occupied Paris. It gave me a chance to say things about race and patriotism, for instance, that I couldn’t get away with in a genre book like False Negative. Will I seek a publisher for it? I don’t know.
And finally, is there a question you wish people would ask you but they never do? What is it and how would you answer it?
KOENIG: Off-hand, I can’t think of a question that I wish people would ask of me that until now has gone unasked. There are several that I wish they would stop asking. One is, Why are you a genre writer since you don’t care for genre fiction yourself? The answer is that a writer writes about what he knows best, and murder has been a constant factor in my adult life. Given my druthers, I would write Moby-Dick, David Copperfield, Absalom, Absalom. Fortunately, they were crafted in more capable hands. Reading Melville, Dickens, and Faulkner is humbling enough. Trying to write for the ages is asking for grief.
And there you have it. Many thanks to Joseph Koenig for indulging my slightly-starstruck questions, and to Tom Green for setting it up. As for the books, I recommend them unreservedly. False Negative is in stores now, and the Koenig backlist is all newly-available for the Nook and Kindle.
And me, well, I’ll see you next week.