Read this exclusive guest post from Lance Hawvermale, author of Face Blind, and then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his new thriller!
I haven’t always killed people for a living. For one thing, those people are fictional. Besides, I balance it all out with heroes and heroines who inspire me with their bravery, their ingenuity, and, most of all, by their ability to overcome the incredible forces I send against them.
Those forces are never more potent than in my thriller Face Blind. Whenever I stepped away from the manuscript during the writing process, I went down to my beehive and tried to forget about plotting murders and planting red herrings to distract the unwary reader. That’s my respectable hobby: beekeeping. In the real world, I meditate on the complexity of bee society, which makes me peaceful, but about as exciting as a porch swing on a Sunday afternoon. Nobody wants to read about my moments of tranquil introspection.
So, when I leave the bees and return to my office and its fictitious mayhem, I have to become a participant in a dangerous world. Over there in the shadows, I’m sure I’m guilty of something. Let’s examine the evidence.
Exhibit A: The More Gruesome, the Better
Maybe it says something about our society, but we’ve become immune to horror. Films and television have shown us enough bullet-ridden bodies that exit wounds no longer impress us as readers of crime fiction. Luckily, we’re still titillated by the alien, the unfamiliar, and the downright horrible.
In Face Blind, our amateur sleuth—an astronomer named Gabe—finds a series of bodies, each more terribly disfigured than the last. As Gabe’s revulsion mounts with each discovery, so does ours—and so did mine as the writer. I was forced to research human anatomy and its threshold for pain. What about blood loss? What about amputation? What about even worse things?
All crime writers should live next door to a therapist because there are certain days when you get up from the keyboard and need either a hard drink or a confessional booth.
Exhibit B: Setting is Character
A man murdered in a Detroit alley is nothing new. We’re seasoned readers and we know the mean streets of Motor City well enough to be bored by bodies found in its dumpsters. But, a man murdered in a secret British research facility in Antarctica? We want to know more. Give us an odd locale, and suddenly we’re circling the crime scene, necks straining to see the body bags. We want to be transported when we read, to escape the familiar and spend some time on an Indian reservation, at a NASA laboratory, or in a Mormon temple.
My protagonist, Gabe, works at an observatory in a desert in South America, the driest, most lifeless place on earth. This peculiar setting is not only a metaphor for Gabe himself, but it also allows the murder to seem all the more unusual. But, at the same time, I needed to make it all feel real, and because I’ve never visited that desert personally, I had to take all that desolation inside myself and turn it into words.
Exhibit C: Loneliness is a Virtue
Readers enjoy the banter between detectives and their sidekicks, lovers, and foes. But, despite their relationships with other characters, the protagonist of a good crime story must ultimately be alone.
No one else understands the sense of responsibility they feel toward the victim. No one can crawl inside their heart when they’re leaning from the apartment window at 2:00 a.m., smoking and thinking about the investigation. A sense of isolation drives these heroes and heroines, and Face Blind’s Gabe is no different. In fact, he has journeyed to the desert to separate himself from human contact, so when he realizes he’s the only one who can stop a madman, his first and best resource is himself.
The classic Byronic hero always walks alone, even when surrounded by admirers. Most of fiction’s great detectives struggle with the same self-imposed solitude and its inevitable paradox: If they let someone into their heart, their life will be greatly enriched, but the only way to solve the crime and bring justice to the victim is to keep their hearts at a distance. They sacrifice their shot at happiness due to some misbegotten obligation to the dead.
Exhibit D: The Hunter Gets Hunted
Whether in a book or in film, our detectives usually encounter a common problem at some point in their investigation: they don’t know the identity of the killer, but now the killer knows them. Early in my story, Gabe shows up on the radar of the man he’s hunting, and this terrifies him. At any moment, he might become the next target. The harder he pushes, the greater his odds of turning into a casualty.
Why do writers frequently create this situation?
Because we have one job: to make you want to turn the page. We know that on one of those upcoming pages, the murderer will show up on our detective’s doorstep, and we want to be there when it happens, spying on the scene from somewhere safe behind the hedges.
Exhibit E: Obligation to the Dead
Somewhere along the way, a detective falls in love with the victim. Maybe it’s not literal love—though in some stories this has certainly happened—but our sleuth becomes unnaturally attached to the person he’s trying to avenge, and then everything becomes personal. In the real world, cops maintain healthy boundaries that keep them safe and sane, but we don’t want our protagonists to be safe or sane.
In Face Blind, the force that propels Gabe also pulls him apart. By trying to set things right for a murdered man he never met, Gabe risks his career and, soon, even his life. The karmic knot that ties the detective to the deceased must be unraveled eventually if we’re to have a happy ending, but it’s my job to make that knot so complex and tight that the reader wonders if our hero will just end up hanging himself with it along the way.
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Lance Hawvermale, author of Face Blind, holds a master's degree in English and has worked as a college professor, an editor, and a youth counselor. His fiction and poetry have garnered numerous awards. An alumnus of the AmeriCorps program, Lance performed his service on the Otoe-Missouria tribal lands in Red Rock, Oklahoma. He lives in Texas with his wife and daughter and their cats.