There is no formula for writing a crime novel, no matter what anyone thinks. Yes, some novels in the genre are formulaic, but there are formulaic novels in every genre—including literary fiction. (“Isn’t that a determination for others to make?” my sister wondered just this week, having read an interview with a genre writer who announced her next book would be literary.)
Anyway, after years of attending conferences and talking to other crime writers, I don’t know two people who do it exactly the same way. Some head out with elaborate scenarios; others outline diligently. Some just leap.
But once the first draft is done, I believe most crime writers spend subsequent drafts making simple stories seem complicated. My memory isn’t great—or so I’ve decided after reading numerous memoirs in which the author can recall paragraphs of direct quotes and what people wore every single day. However, I do remember the single sharpest thing I’ve heard on the subject of plotting. It was uttered by Dennis Lehane and it marks my third Chinatown reference of the week. So if you’ve somehow made it this far—in life, in this diary—without figuring out the big secret in that 1974 film, let me issue the obligatory SPOILER ALERT here.
“Chinatown is a very simple story,” Dennis said, “once you realize that Evelyn Mulwray slept with her father and had his child.”
Yes. Bingo. Absolutely. Dennis’ insight has the same lovely aha! zing as the line from another favorite movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension: No matter where you go, there you are. Crime writers know where they are headed, but the reader does not. It’s not that every story has a twist in the final chapter. Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, to name two of the best, have written books where the end is not particularly surprising, but the journey is wonderfully serpentine.
There was much I couldn’t control about this week. I didn’t know how the labor talks at the Sun would progress, for example. I didn’t know the mystery world would lose a beloved editor. But even if I didn’t know the path, I was pretty sure of the destination: Viva House, the Southwest Baltimore soup kitchen run by Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham.
Viva House represents one of exactly two New Year’s resolutions I kept this year. (The other was to get more calcium—hence all those skim milk lattes.) A bit of a procrastinator, I didn’t start volunteering until March, but I’ve been there almost every Thursday since, helping serve a hot lunch between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
In June, Viva House switched to bag lunches for the summer months. This gives the volunteers more time to become acquainted with one another, but it’s just as much work, especially as the month goes on and demand grows. Last week, we made 275 sack lunches and went back to the kitchen twice, ultimately dispensing 302, according to the penciled notations Brendan keeps on a bulletin board in the kitchen.
“We need to make 300 today,” Brendan said, which meant 1,200 sandwiches. I joined the salami squad—Adele Levine, Peggy Patti, and the mother-daughter team of Ann Watson and Whitaker Cohen—while another group assembled chicken-salad sandwiches. Of course it would be unseemly to be competitive in such a setting, but … salami rules! In your face, chicken salad! We bagged the sandwiches with Utz potato chips and fruit. At 3, Brendan began calling people by number. Some had waited in the backyard for up for two hours, despite the almost 100-degree temperature.
“Makes you feel good, doesn’t it,” a regular challenged me earlier this year. No, that’s not the reason. I’m not there to feel saintly. Other volunteers have asked if I’m researching a novel. That’s not it either. I do this because it’s tangible, because a day spent making 1,200 sandwiches is a day without existential dilemmas. Brendan and Willa have been feeding people in Southwest Baltimore for 35 years, and they can go another 35 without the likes of me. But on Thursdays, I’m glad to have something besides a word count to show for my day.
Yes, there are people who conform to the worst expectations about those who rely on handouts—drug users and scammers who put more energy into finagling seconds than looking for work. But they’re the minority. One out of six people who come through the line are children—some with their families, some on their own.
And that’s the end of the matter. All has been heard, to quote a favorite passage from Ecclesiastes, which provides the epigraph (and title) for my next novel. I set out this week unsure where I might go. But I knew I would end, as I almost always do, with a hug from Ethel Rumsley, who loves the Viva House chicken salad. It’s a very simple story: on the boiling continuum used to rate crime writers, I’m a three-minute egg.