Why I Write Murder Mysteries

The other day at Peet’s Coffee on Broadway in the town of Sonoma, I had a conversation with a young woman I have known for years, but have never really gotten to know. Let’s call her J. She is white, tall, fit and single, though her hard-working parents live close by. J has four jobs to make ends meet; all of them require physical labor, some more than others. She also interacts with people at all of her jobs. That means that she has to have communication skills and be savvy about human relationships.

At one of her jobs, she’s a caterer for a large catering company. J prepares food, serves food and cleans up after every event, which is usually in a private home. “It’s all old money,” she told me. A friend who was sitting next to me smiled and asked, “Do you get a chance to talk to people at these parties?” J raised her eyebrows and responded, “No, not at all. I never speak to anyone, unless someone speaks to me first. That’s one of the biggest rules. I’m there to do what I’m told to do. I show up. I work. I leave. I have no personal relationship with anyone, except to pick up after the hosts and the guests, take out the garbage and go home. These people would never think of touching garbage.”

When J. left Peet’s with her iced coffee and made her way to her next job, I turned to my friend and said, “I can’t write about J’s experiences with old wealth families in any of the newspapers or magazines around here. I’d have to smuggle her, under a different name, into a novel.” My friend said, “Yes, if you want to keep your job you’ll have to fictionalize.”

J is way savvier about life in the Valley than most of my friends. She knows that there’s “old money” and “new money.” That’s big.

For the past three years, I have been writing fiction about old money and new money in “The Valley” where J lives and works. My novels are noir murder mysteries in the vein of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Some of the characters are inspired by rich and powerful people in the Valley, though at the front of the book there’s the customary advisory, “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

Recently, I managed to persuade one of the reporters for the Valley’s main newspaper to insert an announcement for a reading I was to give at the public library. Though I didn’t ask him about his job, he must have sensed what I wanted to ask and hear. “There are a lot of scandals here, but we’re not allowed to write about them because this is a family newspaper and family newspapers don’t write about scandals,” he said. There are more than just scandals. There are also real crimes—murders, sexual assaults, fraud and more—though ask citizens who live in the Valley about crime in the Valley and they invariably say, “There is no crime in the Valley.”

In my experience, when my neighbors talk about crime and corruption they point to Washington DC and to big, distant cities. They don’t point to their own backyards and their own newspapers, wealthy families and civic institutions. They are in denial. If you want to see the corrosive impact of wealth and power by all means look at Washington, DC, but also look at valleys where women like J don’t speak unless spoken to, and where reporters don’t cover scandals because they work for a family newspaper.

I have lived in and around the Valley for 45 years. The Valley is the first place where I heard the expression: “It’s all good,” uttered without irony or sarcasm. Soon after I heard it I repeated it to friends in New York. The immediate response was, “No, it’s not all good.” 

A month ago, while back in New York again, and having lunch in a restaurant, I played the part of the reporter and asked the waitress how she was. “Livin’ the dream,” she said sarcastically and added, “Someone else’s dream.” In the Valley where I live, work and write, citizens think they live in a paradise, though the real life, nearby town of Paradise recently burned down in a huge fire.

The Valley is a good place to write about precisely because behind the white picket fences and the mansions with their green lawns and swimming pools, you will find the kinds of human dramas that inspired Hammett, Chandler and Dorothy Hughes, another great California mystery writer who ought to be better known than she is.

My Valley is a feudal society, with brown skinned people (and some whites like J) at or near the bottom. The higher you go on the social ladder, the whiter the color of the skin, the older the money and the larger the sense of entitlement.

The Valley’s oligarchs give millions to charity, perhaps to assuage their sense of guilt, perhaps because they wish to be perceived as good folk who care about those less fortunate than them. The Valley newspapers and magazines I write for rarely rock the boat. The wine, the weed and the tourist industries float the publications. Editors and publishers are disinclined to bite the hands that feed them. And, wouldn’t you know it, some of the same people who own the hotels and the wineries also own the newspapers and magazines that cater to the tourists and show them where to spend their money.

I’m working on my next murder mystery now. The first is “Dark Land, Dark Mirror,” the second “Dark Day, Dark Night.” I think I’ll call the third, “Dark Page, Dark Rage.” I expect there’s going to be a rebellion in the pages of the next novel. And who knows? Maybe it will inspire citizens to rise up in anger.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)

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