My Life of Crime

02Mar11

[FR : Pour écrire des polars authentiques, il vaut mieux être un criminel et passer des années en prison.]

I noticed a common thread in the crime fiction I enjoy: writers who actually spent time being criminals.

What’s the advantage? The books written by these ex-cons draw heavily on their life experiences to provide a realism that can’t be improvised. When I read, for example, Elmore Leonard (a writer “well-regarded for his gritty crime fiction”) there is something that does not ring true. (I have read “52 Pickup” and “Get Shorty”.) Honestly, Leonard is a dilettante compared to the career criminals listed below. His books read like fiction, or, at worst, like a TV show script.

It comes down to authenticity. A review of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” made a brilliant distinction. Rather than calling the film “authentic”, it specified that the film “gives the impression of authenticity”. This is the key. Most people who watch that film have never spent time in a Bombay shantytown; they can only interpret the film’s content in terms of their preconceptions.

The same applies to crime fiction. Like the preponderance of readers, I have never spent years in prison for a felony, yet I seek a certain sensation of veracity in the books I read, in the situations, plots, characters, language and atmosphere. I find it in these books.

I will spotlight four writers who did time as unintended preparation for their career in literature. (As an extra bonus, some of them have documented their lives with an autobiography.)

Edward Bunker
On the cover of his autobiography, he appears to be at the wheel of a 1963 Ford Falcon (just like me), so I already feel a certain closeness. Bunker spent most of his youth in jail (including San Quentin) and the rest of it committing crimes. In jail, he read voraciously (just like Malcolm X) and resolved to become a writer. He succeeded, in spades. After several failed attempts, “No Beast So Fierce” was published, launching his career. His writing style reminds me of Bukowski, crude and terse.

Iceberg Slim
A career criminal, he retired and wrote his autobiography, titled “Pimp”, followed by a bunch of novels and short stories of varying quality. All of them are filled with intense cultural tidbits. Published by Holloway House (like Goines), Slim’s books became best-sellers to a largely-black readership in the 60s.

Donald Goines
After a life of crime, he settled down to write novels. Although he has no autobiography, this article claims that “Whoreson” is semi-autobiographical. His books are fast reads, of varying quality.

Chester Himes
Less of a career criminal than the others listed here, he still spent years in the pen, and began writing while incarcerated. He stands out from Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines for his more prominent and direct criticism of racism and American society, more akin to Bunker in this way. I prefer his extremely entertaining series of novels featuring Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. I have not read his 2 autobiographies.

Malcom Braly
Braly had spent nearly half his life incarcerated when he was released at the age of 40. He had written 3 novels while in stir. As the story goes, prison officials threatened to revoke his parole when they learned he was writing On the Yard. It’s a good read, notable in this domain for having less concentration on the violence and sickness of life in prison and more concern for the humanity and the souls of the inmates.

Some writers who did not make the short list:

I left out Jim Thompson, as he was not a major jailbird despite having served time. His boring autobiography is covered in a separate blog post.

I left out the Marquis de Sade, who, indeed, wrote a lot while in jail. He has no autobiography, but I will mention “Le Valet de Sade” (“De Sade’s Valet”) by Nikolaj Frobenius, a modern work of fiction that I enjoyed.

I left out Howard Marks, a major Welsh drug smuggler from the 70s (his autobiography “Mr. Nice” is soon to be a major motion picture), because he never wrote crime fiction.

I left out Sonny Barger (founding member of Oakland Hell’s Angels) because I haven’t read his stuff yet.

I left out Malcolm X, because he (unfortunately) never wrote crime fiction either, but “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (actually ghost-written by Alex Haley) is superb, highly recommended, and entirely comparable to some of Iceberg Slim’s best fiction.

I left out Jack Black, who (very unfortunately) did not write crime fiction. I recommend his autobiography.

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3 Responses to “My Life of Crime”

  1. I really loved that book Jack Black book. “You Can’t Win”. Did you ever read anything by Herbert Ashbury? Cheers!

  2. Iceberg Slim’s book Pimp was an autobiography and not fiction. Some details were changed such as names, for obvious reasons. I am the editor of “Iceberg Slim: the Lost Interviews with the Pimp” and have interviewed Holloway House and the immediate family of the author as well as conducted independent research which is all well documented in this new book and also in the recent documentary film recently released.


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