Monday, November 27, 2006

Giving the Devil His Due

By Libby Hellmann

Probably the most common question we writers are asked is “what made you start writing crime fiction?” I’ve always answered that I can tell you how and when I started writing, but, aside from the fact that I’ve ingested a steady diet of thrillers and mysteries over the years, I was never exactly sure why I felt compelled to write.

Well, thanks to the events of the past week, I think I know. In fact, it’s been one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments.

It was OJ. Or, more accurately, the OJ trial.

I was free-lancing in 1995, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of the proceedings, which began pretty much at the beginning of the year. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict – in other words, everything you could want in a crime novel.

First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor , the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone, the racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, as well as the avuncular king of defense lawyers.

Then there were the forensics. I knew very little about police procedure when I started watching and even less about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the timing – all those issues opened up a new world for me. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled… maybe even manipulated – well, that played to all of my latent conspiracy theories, not to mention my tendency to rebel against anyone in authority.

Finally, of course, there was the denouement. How absolutely noir an ending it was! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn’t have done it better.

I remember how swept up I was in the day to day events. I remember screaming at Marcia Clark to object when Barry Scheck made a salient point….I remembering calling my husband, a lawyer too, to rant and rave ... I even remember the nagging feeling that the real issues were being buried and obfuscated (although I wasn't sure how or why). The only other seminal event I was involved in to that degree was the broadcast of the Watergate Hearings in 1973 (I worked for public television and was part of the crew who broadcast the hearings at night.) In retrospect, actually, I find it curious that I was more emotionally involved in the murder of a woman than in a President who tried to subvert the constitution. But that’s another blog.

I’m sure it was the denial of justice… the fact he got away with it… that justice was NOT served… that stayed with me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but the verdict came down in October of 1995, and by spring of 1996 I’d written my first mystery. It was a police procedural, btw, about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. It was never published, and it shouldn’t be. Still, I kept going and eventually published the Ellie Foreman series.

In a way, I’ve been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? I was thrilled when Fox News (in an uncharacteristically rational move) cancelled the book and the interview. At the same time, I have to admit that OJ had a tremendous impact on me. I can even say he changed my life.

What about you? What inspired you to write – or read – crime fiction?


Michael Dymmoch said...

I was inspired to write my first crime fiction by a very bad movie. I walked out of the theater thinking, I could write a better story. I suspect that many fine books came about in the same way.

I also believe much of the drivel cluttering bookstore sheves resulted from someone reading a bad book and thinking, I could do that.

Anonymous said...


OJ is a minor murdering devil compared to the sheep on the jury who fell for Johnnie Cochran's race-baiting b.s. The whole unethical legal team cared not what getting this murderer off would do for race relations in this country, but only for getting their rich and famous client off and getting their own names in headlines. But what do you expect, this is our justice system.

How about writing a book in which OJ's book and interview did happen and some ordinary citizen couldn't take it any more and offed the "offer."

I know your post was more about what inspires writers to write that it was about OJ, but the fact that he got a book deal is an affront to every legit writer in the world, not to mention a spit in the face of victims and their families. Judith Regan and whoever greenlighted the TV interview should lose their jobs and be forever blackballed from their repsective industries.

Anyway I started writing as a kid to let off steam (can't ya tell) and connect with a world larger than the one I was part of.

Michael Dymmoch said...

The US bill of rights was designed to let criminals go free rather than convict the innocent--the government has to make its case beyond a reasonable doubt. And defendants are entitled to the best defense they can afford. OJ got off because the prosecution screwed up.

We pretty much get the government we deserve if we don't obey the laws we expect others to follow, demand competent judges, and vote for ethical representatives.

Not anonymous,

Michael Dymmoch

Michael Dymmoch said...

"The Machine Stops" is a cautionary tale about over-reliance on technology (published in COLLECTED TALES by E. M. Forster, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947).