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Crime Fiction and Fact: Real vs. Hollywood

If there’s one thing I know about, it’s crime. I’ve dealt drugs, used drugs, been shot at (and shot back), participated in high-speed chases with the cops, and lived with a call girl. I’ve been involved in stabbings, check-kiting, armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2–5 for second-degree burglary.

I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close.

What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (“straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree…to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different from a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then—child molestations, while they’ve always been around, seem to be infinitely more common these days than back then—but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester, and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for.

2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks—at least the professional criminals do—and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and being a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and that is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.

3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint—even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope—they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table—probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is—a story) will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent, and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide.

When Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he admitted he’d never met a Mafioso. He confessed he’d made up just about all the stuff in the book. He had to. He was living in Connecticut, surrounded by life insurance executives and stockbrokers and typing on a door suspended on two sawhorses in his spacious, well-appointed garage. The “sleeping with the fishes,” the horse head stuff, the “hitting the mattresses” stuff, all came out of his imagination.

The truth is, if you put the average cellblock population in a mall food court, nobody would look twice. Most criminals look like your neighbor the accountant in the split-level down the block, but thanks to movies and thrillers, the average citizen is certain that they look like either Steve Buscemi or Samuel Jackson, and that the average warden looks like Robert Redford.

This is why noir rocks. We see a far greater number of realistic characters in their pages. This is also why it has suffered as a genre for so long. It’s too truthful for some. My experience is that the average person is fascinated by criminals…so long as they can appear to get close but get none of that criminality nastiness on themselves. When the criminal mind is accurately depicted, they begin to sense that these guys aren’t as different as they thought.

That’s scary.

And makes for great literature.

Les Edgerton is the author of nine books, including the story collection, Monday’s Meal and the writer’s how-tos, Finding Your Voice and Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, from Writer’s Digest Books. His short story “Felon” recently appeared in the inaugural issue of the national crime magazine, Murdaland. Another short story, “In the Zone” was included in Houghton Mifflin’s “The Best American Mystery Stories of 2001.