I See by My Outfit (Article) (1989) – Mystery Writers Annual



I See by My Outfit


I see by my outfit that I am a cowboy.
I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
Go get yourself an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.
______________________The Smothers Brothers

I see I am here as a mystery writer. That always surprises me somehow, and recently I found myself wondering, well, what is a mystery writer, anyway? A writer (of course) in whose stories the principal action or focus is a felony, usually either murder or robbery. Occasionally arson or treason. Counterfeiting. Very rarely, interference with interstate commerce.

So I did a statistical study of the 34 books published under my name–exclusive of short story collections–and discovered that 27½ of them qualified, which is just about eighty percent. Eighty point three, in fact. So it’s okay, I can stay. (The other 6½ books are about love and families and race relations and politics and art and all that kinda stuff.)

The felonies in these 27½ books only 10 times involved murder. I seem to have a thing for robbery, my characters so far having made off with a castle, a corpse, an entire bank, a train, a movie star and a nun. Probably the most ambitious felony any of my characters committed till now was the armed invasion from this country of a nation friendly to the United States, which is a Federal crime. Under customs regulations, in fact.

Anyway, I’m here as a paper felon, but I was not always as you see me now. I began as a reader, an engulfer, a devourer of all kinds of works of fiction. As a kid, I went through my local library like a carpenter ant, gnawing away, ranging far and wide from the children’s ghetto. And when I was 11 I made that transition from the passive to the active.

I took such pleasure in reading, in following the adventures invented by others, that it seemed to me I’d enjoy even more doing the inventing myself. So I started to write. To try to write. To try to learn how to take a thought from my own brain and transfer it, with as little transmission loss as possible, into the brain of another person.

One of the great clichés of this profession is: Write what you know. But what does an 11 year old know? What he’s read. The movies he’s seen. For the first several years, I was not so much writing as rewriting, replicating. I’m trying not to say regurgitating, but I’m afraid that’s the word. And since I read everything, I wrote everything as well. By the time I was in my late teens, I was writing science fiction stories, slice-of-life stories, mystery stories, poetry, westerns, you name it. I went through an awful lot of self-addressed stamped envelopes in those days, and every one of those envelopes came back.

I was 20 when my first acceptance came. It was a science fiction story, and so was the second I sold; a ridiculous development, since in school I avoided science whenever I could, which, because I was fairly ingenious and sly, was most of the time. Nor was I really comfortable with science fiction; it seemed to me to be the one kind of story that was more about ideas than about people. Still, I tried my hand at the stuff, and a couple of magazines were pleased enough with the result to publish it.

Which, before we get to mystery, is the point I want to make. It is a natural tendency to go where we are liked and avoid places where we are unwanted or unappreciated. I was writing every kind of short story imaginable in those days, and when the science fiction stories began to be accepted, I naturally leaned more in that direction, even though I didn’t feel the mesh was exactly right.

But I went on writing in other directions as well. A playful, romantic boy-girl story sold to a Playboy imitator. And mystery stories? They were selling, too, ultimately more so than science fiction. So, when I decided to try a novel, it was a mystery novel, and Random House took it and published it. So I did another.

But I didn’t think I was a mystery writer. In fact, at first I planned to put a pseudonym on that first mystery novel, because I was going to write real novels later. And for about the entire decade of the 60s, I said–and believed–“I am a writer disguised as a mystery writer.”

But more and more of the work was mystery stories and mystery novels. And my efforts in other directions weren’t applauded, or at least not in any useful way. Early in that decade I wrote a big serious tragic novel about the meaning of memory, and it got just wonderful letters of rejection from some of the major editors in New York, all of whom said, “There’s no way to sell this.” Yet it seemed there was always someone to publish what I wrote in the mystery field.

The pressure created by this self-induced schizophrenia led to an odd result in the mid-sixties. I had started another book for Random House, my sixth for them, a perfectly ordinary young-innocent-on-the-run story, and it started coming out comic. Every time a convention of the mystery form passed by, I stuck my foot out and tripped it. Without particularly intending or wanting to, I was using that book as a combination of revenge against the form that had welcomed me–but had perhaps parochialized me–and a comment on the form from within.

I tried to stop. I tried to do it right, but I just couldn’t. I called my agent. I said, “It’s coming out funny.” He said, “Don’t. You won’t get a paperback reprint sale. You won’t get any foreign sales.”

Now he was talking about half the normal potential income for the book. But I said, “Well, it’s going fast, it won’t take long. I’ll get this out of my system, whatever it is, and then I’ll go back to doing it right.”

Which never happened. That book turned out to be, in some ways, the first novel of my career, and a weird career it is. Somewhere along the line, I accepted the idea that I was a mystery writer, but at the same time I was becoming something else. An antibody within the mystery field, a subversive, a rebuttal. I have made a profession of biting the hand that feeds me.

So am I not a mystery writer? Despite the statistics, am I here under false pretenses? Probably. But if so, you’ll never catch me.


Copyright © 1989 by Donald Westlake


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