My “Ferguson” Novel
I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, so it’s not surprising that the themes of my early books were dark. They were well reviewed and earned me a lot of fans and invitations to speak around the country, but my editor at St. Martin’s Press, gave me unexpected advice.
“You’re a funny guy,” he said. “Why don’t you write something funny?”
Well, I was a huge fan of crime fiction, and an escaped academic at the point, so I couldn’t imagine a more hilarious setting for a mystery. Academe has the vanity of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the inhumanity of organized crime. It’s a perfect setting for murder and satire.
That turned out to be the right choice, and so was my fish-out-of-water sleuth Nick Hoffman, an Edith Wharton bibliographer from the East Coast who not only felt stranded in the superficially friendly Midwest, but who enjoyed teaching freshman composition, which made his colleagues think he was a freak.
My serious work continued to draw one kind of audience, the mysteries another, including Marilyn Stasio at The New York Times Book Review, who loved The Edith Wharton Murders. That was the first time I was reviewed in the Times which went on to review a handful of my mysteries over the years but has ignored my serious novel. Go figure, as Voltaire said.
I tried out different forms with the series: a corpse in the first line, a corpse halfway through, and even no corpse at all, just general mayhem. I happily attended a slew of mystery conferences here and abroad, and appeared as a panelist or moderator on dozens of panels. But after Tropic of Murder, the seventh book in the series, I ran out of steam. Nick was never one of those sleuths who was untouched by the crimes he encountered; he was battered and beaten down by them as much as he was by academic stupidity and cupidity. He was tired and so was I. What more could I say about academic crime?
Luckily for me, I wasn’t under contract and forced to squeeze out another mystery at that point. I let the series lie dormant while I kept publishing in other genres, and wondered what to do with it. My mid-career breakthrough book My Germany was about the role the country–real and imagined–played in my identity and writing. It generated a lot of interest here and abroad. I spent five years touring with it and learning German, which was a good change of focus for me, and also a healing experience for someone who had grown up loathing the name of the country itself.
As the touring wound down, over the course of a few years I noticed a bizarre trend reported in one newspaper after another: even small town police departments forces were becoming militarized. They were getting surplus assault weapons and armored vehicles from the Pentagon, setting up SWAT teams, and recruiting from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The stories were being written because these teams were being sent on drug raids, or to serve warrants or perform other police duties–and sometimes to the wrong address. They would trash property, shoot dogs, terrify, injure or even kill people. Every story I read chilled me, and reminded me of my mother’s brief allusions to the Nazis bursting into her home in Vilnius, stealing what they could from it, and dragging her father off to be shot. Over-reaction? Not for someone growing up with the kind of family history I had.
So what was behind all these U.S. raids? How had the cops who were meant to protect us become virtual soldiers? I dug around and discovered a really disturbing foundation. Without any public discussion at all, across the country, police forces were widely being trained by the military, which meant that they were coming to see us citizens not as the people they needed to serve and defend, but as potential enemies, as dangerous.
Years ago, my multi-lingual mother who was equally at home with Thomas Mann and Agatha Christie said, “Write something people will want to read.” She meant, kindly, a lot of people as opposed to the audience for short stories, which was what I was focused on at the time. Well, this militarization struck me as a terrific subject, so I started Assault With a Deadly Lie over three years ago.
America was really at war with itself, a slow-burning, low-level guerrilla war, maybe. But war nonetheless. And now, for the first time in my life, I’ve actually published a book that feels ripped from the headlines, given what happened in Ferguson and how the country’s been reacting to it. Even more so when I read a few weeks ago about Davis California, a quiet university town like the one in my series, which sent back its gift from the Pentagon, an MRAP. These armored vehicles with turrets have “V-shaped hulls, raised chassis and armored plating,” according to the Marines. What are their strengths? They’ve “proven to be the single most effective counter to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Blast-resistant underbodies and layers of thick, armored glass offer unparalleled protection, while all-terrain suspension and runflat combat tires ensure Marines can operate in complex and highly restricted rural, mountainous and urban terrains.”
Just what’s needed to put down campus demonstrations about reinstating a professor unfairly denied tenure, right?
I’m proud to have started writing about developments like this before they reached national consciousness. Prouder still that my fictional college town Michiganapolis is not sending anything back to the Pentagon. Seriously, where’s the mystery in that?
Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in a wide range of genres. He blogs on books, art, and politics for The Huffington Post. You can read more about him at http://www.levraphael.com.