Author of the bestselling Dave Gurney thrillers

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Why I Write the Kind of Stories I Do

Living is about discovery — moving from our original view of something, through a process of conflict and enlightenment, to a clearer view. It’s about figuring out what’s really going on, separating truth from illusion. It’s about what detectives do in the stories I like best. Good detective stories are ultimately about real life. They’re about us. They are illuminating magnifications of the learning we engage in every day. I’ve always felt that the most satisfying novels are those that mirror life’s dangers and tragedies clearly — the risks we take, the painful collisions, the frightening unknowns, the hidden evils that enter every life — and provide reasonable resolutions.

Mystery stories mirror our mental processes of data-discovery and dot-connecting. Our physical and emotional environments contain hidden areas that we have a natural urge to probe. The detective in a mystery novel reflects our natural curiosity. In fact, the mystery novel structure itself seems to me to be a grand metaphor for the way our brains work.

Mystery novels mirror the complexity of relationships. We all have secrets, and none of us is completely truthful. Yet we want to know the truth about others.

We want others to be transparent, yet fear that we ourselves may be too transparent. We expect others to trust us in ways we do not trust them.

Unconsciously I make irrational distinctions between my motives and yours. If I speed past you on the highway, it is excusable because of my driving skill or my need to arrive somewhere at a particular time. If you speed past me, it is because you are a reckless fool. My questionable behavior arises from the pressure of my circumstances, while your questionable behavior arises from a personal flaw. It would seem that one of the cornerstones of self-deception is the self-protective creation of false differences.

The cost of deception is tremendous. We become what we hate. (Don’t we all hate liars?) Moreover, our own secrets and lies isolate us. And the byproducts of isolation are anxiety, anger, resentment, and depression.

Secrets and lies arise from a desperate attachment to goals. From desperate desire. And desperate desire is the parent of deception. We lie for more love, more sex, more security, more freedom, more control, more power. We lie whenever the net benefit to be obtained exceeds, consciously or unconsciously, the value of our integrity.

We also have an appetite for believing certain lies because they provide explanations that are less threatening to us than alternative explanations. Perhaps the greatest cost of believing lies is that we lose contact with reality and are deprived of options for solving problems.

Some ironies surrounding deception: It is a solution that creates greater problems. I lie for security, and I am made less secure. I lie for acceptance, but it is a fictional character who has been accepted, and I am more isolated. I lie to avoid pain, but I create the pain of guilt and fear. I lie to avoid criticism by others, and I end up thinking less of myself. I lie to find a desirable place in the world, and I find myself among strangers. I lie for closeness, and I create distance. I lie to control my external environment, and I create internal chaos. I lie to preserve the structure of a relationship, and I poison its soul and extinguish its light.

I lie to have more, and I end up being less. The structure of the mystery novel offers a simple, powerful way to explore the tragedies produced by desperate desire. This structure involves the development of two stories — the story of the criminal endeavor, which at the outset is generally hidden from view, and the story of its discovery and exposure by the detective. I often visualize it as an archeological process — the workings of the hidden city on the one hand, the painstaking process of excavation on the other. Another image that works for me divides the two sides of the novel into foreground and background. In the background is the criminal endeavor, the deception, the mystery, the hidden city. In the foreground is the exploratory effort of the detective — conducted in the context of his daily life, relationships, and conflicts.

I believe that one of the key elements that determines how we feel about a mystery novel is the nature of the relationship between foreground and background — specifically, the ways in which the two stories echo, contrast, and intersect with each other. My stories are not simply about the architecture and inhabitants of the hidden city or about the investigative activities and life of the detective, but also about the areas of resonance between background and foreground. Issues of empathy, guilt, parental responsibility, the impact of false narratives — these are embedded in both the foreground and background of my books, and the resonance between the life of the hidden city and the life of the excavator constitutes the final “message” of each story.

One last point in favor of my favorite genre:Detective stories are essentially moral in their orientation — not just because the good guy wins, but because the structure of the form tends to value objectivity above convenience and truth above personal gain.