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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more They Wrote the Crime, They Did the Time
Some writers commit crimes against good taste, decency, and the English language, taking their punishment in bad reviews and lost sales. Then there are those writers who have committed actual crimes, breaking the social contract enforced by society’s legal system. And for those crimes, they do hard time. Read on for a list of wordsmiths—some good, some merely OK—who did the time before they wrote about crime.
Archer’s thrillers and historical sagas sometimes read as though he doesn’t know how to use the delete key; his biography reads as though he doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble. Then again, it might depend on which biography you read: the former Member of Parliament has been frequently accused of embellishing, bending, and downright falsifying the facts of his own story, from his school days to his political career. And it was a version of the truth that ultimately put him behind bars: when a 1986 tabloid story alleged that the conservative politician had paid a prostitute for sex, he sued for libel and won the case, and the editor of the paper was fired. In 2000, he was tried for perjury in the earlier trial, convicted, and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. (Displaying a showman’s flair, Archer, during the trial, starred in his own courtroom play, The Accused, allowing the audience to judge each night whether he was guilty or innocent.) In a career that also includes stints as art gallery owner, PR man, and deputy chairman of England’s Conservative Party—as well as bankruptcy and accusations of lying, charity mismanagement, insider trading, solicitation, perjury, and even backing a coup in Equatorial Guinea (!!)—it’s clear the best-selling novelist has no shortage of drama upon which to draw. Either that or he’s unable to draw the line between truth and fiction. It’s all summed up in the title of his latest book, Be Careful What You Wish For (2014).
Bunker, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, turned to crime early, a consequence of a difficult and deeply unhappy childhood. In and out of juvie from an early age, he soon graduated to real prison and, at the age of 17, had the dubious distinction of being the youngest inmate incarcerated in San Quentin. He began writing behind bars, and showed some raw talent, but fell prey to a pattern of release and recidivism, with convictions for armed robbery, bank robbery, drug dealing, extortion, and forgery. His first novel, No Beast So Fierce (1973), was published while he was in jail, and, two years later, he finally turned the corner—after 1975, he never returned to jail again. His short bibliography is well represented by raw, realistic crime fiction such as Dog Eat Dog (1996), where the influence of his life experiences is clearly evident, and he wrote about his own story in the memoir Education of a Felon (2000). Hollywood, always fascinated with real-life bad boys, proved hospitable to Bunker, and he appeared in nearly two dozen films, including a minor but memorable role as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Doing hard time for armed robbery, Himes used his days in lockup productively, writing short stories that were published in Esquire and other magazines. Paroled in 1936 after serving less than 8 years of a 25-year sentence, he continued to write, and Langston Hughes became an early ally who provided contacts and helped the young ex-con navigate the publishing world. Himes’ first novel, Cast the First Stone, explored his prison time but was rejected by publishers and would not be published until a decade later, in 1952, and only after it had been rewritten in a hard-boiled, first-person point of view. His first novel to be published, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), explored the themes of race and racism that would figure prominently in all his later work. But the novels that made Himes a name still known today were written as an expatriate in Paris, a series of eight crime novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, two police detectives in Harlem. From For the Love of Imabelle (also titled A Rage in Harlem) in 1957 to Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the Harlem novels brought him fame and made him money—not until Walter Mosley published Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) would another black crime writer be so well known.
Hunt’s debut novel, Cuts through Bone (2013), won a contest sponsored by Minotaur Books and the Private Eye Writers of America—but he wasn’t able to answer the phone call telling him he’d won. He was in jail and had been for 25 years, serving a life sentence for murder. (His sister had submitted the book on his behalf.) According to Sarah Weinman’s recent New York Times Magazine article (“The Murderer and the Manuscript”), Hunt’s novel isn’t a case of “write what you know.” As a 19-year-old, he and his brother started two fires to distract authorities from their jewelry-store burglary in Clemson, South Carolina, and one of the fires killed a young woman. His novel, about New York PIs hired to establish their client’s innocence, is set in a world he knows only from TV, books, and an outdated map, and written in a style influenced by Chandler, McBain, and Connelly. Hunt will be eligible for parole in 2019.
Over a career spanning five decades and more than five dozen novels, best-selling author Anne Perry has explored the theme of redemption time and time again. She has firsthand knowledge of moral failure and personal transformation: in 1954, as a 15-year-old girl named Juliet Hulme, she helped her best friend, Pauline Parker, bludgeon Parker’s mother to death. After serving five years in a harsh New Zealand prison, she went abroad, joined the Mormon faith, and eventually settled in rural Scotland, where, under the name Anne Perry, she lived a life of quiet, writerly seclusion. This lasted until 1994, when her true identity was made public following the release of a film inspired by her story, Peter Jackson’s memorable Heavenly Creatures, starring a young Kate Winslet as Hulme. In a 2003 interview with the Guardian, Perry called her time in prison, “the best thing that could have happened,” for giving her a chance to repent. Her most recent work is another entry in her long-running Thomas Pitt series, Death on Blackheath (2014).
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