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Amy Halloran

The Crime of Writing

The best crime writing I'm reading today is one screenplay long, and the man who wrote it is dead. Dennis Potter wrote The Singing Detective, which was produced by the BBC in 1986 and later aired in America by PBS, and now is available in libraries and video stores that still rent videos. Potter died suddenly in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. British and even American tv aired a last wild interview with him, where he was equipped with coffee, cigarettes, and a glass full of liquid morphine, to ease the pain of his condition.

His condition - at least his physical one, if not his mental one - had been intermittently painful throughout his life. Long before he had cancer, he had a rare disease called psoriatic arthropathy, and this same disease afflicts the main character of The Singing Detective, Phillip Marlow.

The miniseries is complex and intentionally confusing, a postmodern layering of the mysteries of Marlow's writing and his life. Marlow is on a ward with other immobile men, among them cardiac patients, one of whom is reading the crime novel Marlow composed, also titled The Singing Detective . The book is crime fiction, but the movie has as much to say about the crime of writing as crime writing itself. I identify with Marlow on two levels, as a fellow sufferer of an at-times awful skin condition, and as a writer guilty of murdering real people to put slices of them under the microscope of the page.

Marlow's raw skin is on show to the audience of the ward unless the curtains are drawn around him, and a nurse is greasing him with salve. He escapes the place by sliding into images and imaginings of the text he wrote, of a rich British fellow and his wartime intersections with callgirls who might be Russian spies. The plot involves unsolved murders, and there are lots of shootouts in places both shadowy and bright.

Intermingled with these exits, Marlow remembers his childhood in the Forest of Dean, a country place with its own dialect of English in the south of England. The adult Marlow's joints are nearly paralyzed by the disease, but he manages to fit a cigarette in the clenched claws of his hands. Hallucinations from high fevers are another complication, and as the program progresses the text of the book overlaps with his thoughts on his real-life, or rather the people in the life he has lived beyond the hospital.

I have seen the series three times, and each time I've had a different impression of it. The first time I was blown away by the pomo layering of possible activities, and the ward patients, doctors and nurses bursting into song. The second time I saw The Singing Detective I was recovering from my own agonizing bout with ezcema. Mine case was not nearly as extreme as Potter's or his Marlow's. Ezcema doesn't cripple movements, so I was allowed to put pen to paper, but at night I wore pajamas with socks sewn over my hands so I might allow some healing to happen before morning. I shared with the narrator Marlow a deep suspicion of life and my ability to live it, and a wonder over my role as a writer vs. my role as a person in the life I was staging. How dare I tell people's truths in supposed fictions?

In the miniseries The Singing Detective's book characters eventually question Marlow's treatment of them. "You can't do that," they say when they are about to be killed. In another scene, where the writer is playing a word game with his psychiatrist, he says, "Liar," when prompted by the word "writer." During my second viewing, I felt ruined by my desire to compress real lives into fictions. It didn't matter that I wrote non-crime related stories, that I wrote fairy tales of places that were not quite here nor there. I still used people, their emotions and their situations, and toyed with them God-like on the page. I knew my soul was as disfigured as Marlow's face and fists, plus the rest of him, the rest of me. We itched to get out of our skin.

The third time I saw this production, I was eight years away from my big battle with ezcema. I saw the things I'd seen in my first two viewings, but I also saw things I hadn't noticed at all. For instance, the writer walks out of the hospital, his condition vastly improved. He leaves smiling. Maybe the writing he's done in his head in his bed has led him to solve some of the mystery of his being, as all writing can do for the writer, regardless of he genre.

What I wonder is why did I never see Marlow's happiness before? Perhaps I didn't want to, or perhaps I was more interested in sheer entertainment, and then, in finding out about the crime of writing. I still commit the crime of writing, and try to tread carefully on the lives I know and use within my writing.

I try to stay away from reading crime writing because I know it is like junk food, food that leaves you hungry for more food. When I first moved to Seattle I happened upon paperbacks about Ted Bundy. I sat alone in my apartment and devoured them, walking warily to the supermarket when I could stand the growls of my stomach no longer. I couldn't understand why the clerks in the market were so friendly. Did they want something from me? Were they charming me to make me a victim? It is too easy to increase my suspicions of the world by reading about lots of nefarious folks.

Isn't the overwhelming success of The Lovely Bones part of this need to know the bad side of humanity? The main character was raped and murdered, and while the act was not described too luridly on the pages, the reader gets enough information to whet his or her appetite for the horror of the act. I felt soiled after I spent so many pages with that book, waiting for the wonder so many readers apparently found in the novel. Wouldn't it have been better to just describe heaven, and skip the stuff about earth, if concern for the dead's death and afterlife were the goal of the writing?

I come at this suggestion with books from the late 1800's that delve into the subject of heaven and hell. In one there is a beautiful description of heaven's rooms for little children. Those prematurely removed from earth wallpapered heaven with real roses. This made a pretty picture in parents' minds., which made sense when infancy and childhood were such unlikely things to survive. I don't know how fascinated the reading public was with gruesomeness at the time of these books -- likely everyone was reading about Jack the Ripper with lust and disgust -- but today the apetite for crime and the knowledge of crime's ends is greater than our hunger for beauty. Why would we want to believe in beauty when death is so much more likely?

Just this week I handled hundreds of crime titles at a used bookstore that is reorganizing its contents. It was my job to decide what books were thrillers and what were mysteries. (I didn't have to touch the ture crime; their place in the book world did not need my sifting. True is true, right, and needs no more categorizing?) If the word suspense was included on the back cover, or spy, I put the book in thrillers. If the words crime fiction described the book, it went in mysteries. I was tempted to take some mystery classics home for a while, or even sample the modern favorites. But I was afraid I'd feel compelled by the compelling writing, and have another habit to try to keep under control.

So for now I will stick to Dennis Potter's huge stab at crime writing, and its examination of the crimes of the writer.


Amy Halloran lives in upstate New York with her husband and son. She is working on a fiction project about the demolition of downtown Troy in the urban renewal phase of the last century, and wonders how she will manage to make the wild facts of that era a fiction.

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