Mystery Readers (Volume 29:1) focuses on Environmental Mysteries. Kenneth Wishnia, one of the contributors, appeared at a Literary Salon the other night at my home in Berkeley. With Earth Day right around the corner (shouldn't every day be Earth Day?), I decided to post his Author!Author! essay here.
KENNETH WISHNIA: 23 SHADES OF BLACK
Nobody wants to read a political tract disguised as a novel, especially a crime novel.
But one of the major reasons I was attracted to the crime genre in the first place is its long history of social commentary, going back to Hammett in the 1920s. (One of my favorite quotes from Red Harvest: “The room was as dark as an honest politician’s prospects.”)
So when I started writing 23 Shades of Black, the first novel in my Edgar-nominated series featuring Ecuadorian-American detective, Filomena Buscarsela, the toxic legacy of the Reagan Administration and his Secretary of the Interior, James "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber" Watt, was still fresh in my mind.
Environmental crime features prominently in the series because, obviously, I’m genuinely concerned about rampant environmental destruction. But what makes this type of crime particularly fertile ground for noirish mystery novels is the hardboiled nature of the offense: unlike so many formula-driven mysteries in which an individual kills someone to protect a dirty family secret or some such motive, environmental pollution is usually committed by faceless corporations (or a major branch of government, like the Navy) in ways that make it nearly impossible to isolate a single, guilty perpetrator in time for a nice neat dénouement.
That’s because it’s hard to draw a definite causal link between, say, the toxic PCBs that were dumped in the Hudson River in the 1950s and the cancer clusters that emerged in the surrounding population twenty years later, because it’s easy for the potentially responsible party to claim that other factors could have caused those cancers.
In some ways, that’s my definition of hardboiled: in many traditional mysteries, the guilty party is an individual who no longer pose a threat to society once their guilt is revealed, and we can all rest assured that we are now safe from their depravities (this is why they’re called “cozies,” after all). Whereas in the hardboiled world, guilt and corruption are rampant, and it’s impossible to clean up the whole mess. In such a world, people (and corporations) can and do get away with murder.
And so my mole at the US EPA has been especially useful in providing material for my novels. (That’s right, I’ve got a mole at the EPA. Bwah-ha-ha!) We met in biology class way back in ninth grade and, as members of the Bio-Ecology Club, went on a month-long field trip in July 1975 that stretched from Cadillac Mountain, Maine to Key West, Florida. (Looking back, my heart goes out to the hapless teacher-chaperones who agreed to haul a couple of minivans full of 14-year-olds on a thousand-mile field trip. We sure owe them a debt, I’ll say that much.)
In 23 Shades of Black, my detective acts pretty much on her own against the corporate criminals, with decidedly mixed results. In Soft Money, second in the series, she starts working for a non-profit environmental organization, which allowed me to introduce Gina Lucchese, regional investigator for the EPA, who helps Filomena get to the bottom of some very dirty crimes.
I got access to mounds of EPA documents, which are available, in theory, through the Freedom of Information Act. But it might take a regular citizen months or even years to see them. I got them right away. Of course I had to change the names of the entities involved, but the chemical names and environmental statistics are all taken right from the public record. No need to invent any nasty threats when reality itself is already so frightening.
In The Glass Factory, third in the series, I took on the classic motif of setting the story in a seemingly idyllic American town that turns out to be rotten to the core, both symbolically--with the usual rampant corruption--and literally, when my detective visits her latino cousins, who live in a poor neighborhood across the street from the foul-smelling factory of the title.
In Red House, fourth in the series, I took a case straight from the EPA’s files about an abandoned industrial space that was remodeled for residential purposes, leading to disastrous results due to... well, you get the idea.
Blood Lake, fifth in the series, takes place in Ecuador, and even though there’s no EPA presence in the novel, there’s plenty of environmental damage. I lived in Ecuador for three years and witnessed the devastation first hand--from an earthquake that damaged the country’s sole oil pipeline, spilling untold quantities of crude into the jungle, to floods, hyperinflation and attendant food shortages.
In fact, people who read Red House, which takes place in Queens, often say that the craziness in that novel must be real because it’s so New York, when I actually made most of it up; and people who read Blood Lake say that I must have made all that up because the craziness is so over-the-top, when in fact most of it is true. The damage to the environment and the indigenous communities caused by oil drilling in the Amazon jungle has been carried out in a way that would never be permitted in the continental US.
But it’s not all gloom and doom, of course. My series has been recognized for its humor as well, even if it’s usually cynical, smartass New York-style humor (no surprise there, I suppose). Because once again, no one wants to read a political tract disguised as a novel. But it is our job as authors to write about what makes us laugh and cry, about what thrills us, and above all what makes us angry: What fresh outrages has man created to feed his bottomless greed? This is the stuff of great novels, not just great crime novels. And so we must bear in mind what George Orwell, surely one of the great political novelists of the 20th century, said in his 1947 essay, “Why I Write”:
Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” [emphasis in original]
Tell it, George.
Now, did you ever hear the one about the...?
Kenneth Wishnia has been nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Macavity Awards. He is thrilled that PM Press is reprinting the complete Filomena Buscarsela series, in revised and expanded editions, ending with Blood Lake in 2014.
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