Lee Lamothe on writing: The Building of Murder City, Part 1

There’s something liberating about creating a city. It’s a slow process, much slower than creating the characters who will live there. Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither was Murder City. And once you do undertake fictional city building, you have to populate it with characters. You have to give it weather. A time zone. You have to create the layers of social life, from crime and corruption to poverty and wealth, from a civilized society to the free-for-all of the gutter. It has to be a growing thing: as you add to the population you have to expand the geography.

It has to be no specific city, yet it has to be every city. It has to have the bricks and mortar and cobblestones and warehouses and street life and the gentrification that’s common everywhere to various degrees of success. For my world, for my stories, it has to have cops and crooks and greasy politicians and greedy lawyers and indifferent journalists. They all need police stations to work in, people to rob and plunder – in the case of crooks and politicians, both – courthouses to argue and deal away hope in, newsrooms to reduce people’s entire lives, and deaths, into a column of type between advertising.

But Murder City can’t be hopeless. People there can’t be without any hope all, even the futile hope that keeps them working and trying to eek out a living against crushing odds.

I live in Toronto, so I have a pretty good idea about the kickbacks and backroom deals and cynical ideological corruption that takes place; I was a crime reporter several years ago so I know about the voracious aggressiveness some officers use to get ahead in the police business. These are the guys who applied to city works, fire, and the cops, and the first positive response they got was from the cops so they went for it. But Murder City also had to have real cops, ground pounders and chargers, who, in spite of all the corruption and thievery around them were cops long before they put on the badge. I’ve known a lot of those cops too, but there are fewer and fewer as policing becomes political and budgeting becomes an election football.

I believe I know my cities well, both Toronto and Murder City. I live downtown and have spent much of my life in the Chinatowns, the Little Italys, Little India, out at the Beach. If, when I pass through in the car or on foot I remember having great meals at restaurants, I also remember crime scenes. I spent some time covering murders in the projects; I still, when I pass Jarvis and Richmond, remember when there was a gas station near there, where a man named Wally Muckle was fatally lit ablaze while huffing acetone with some similar minded cronies twenty-five years ago. (Nothing, when you’re writing, goes to waste: in a newer book a cop is named Muckle and he’s interviewing a man huffing acetone.)

Much of my writing is non-fiction. With non-fiction you have to be dead-accurate. This number on that street; this exact phrase used on that specific wiretap. This person shot that person at that time and place with this caliber of pistol. The dead man wore a tee-shirt; the shooter wore size eleven brogans. Accuracy and details. Context. Non-fiction, like all writing, is fun and interesting, but it can be restrictive. You become an oracle for fact. There are lines you have to stay within. Beyond the subject of the book, you have little choice where it will take you. You get buried under facts upon facts upon facts. Analysis has to fit the facts.

Non-fiction sometimes becomes a creative straightjacket, and I turned to fiction the exact same hour I finished a true crime Mafia book and sent it to the publisher. I realized I was tired, but not tired of writing. I was tired of real people in real place doing real things. It was an hour of liberation. I could break from fact.

If writers create characters, why not a city? I’ve travelled a lot and I know the layouts of cities, at least the characters of the cities in my working world. A downtown courthouse in a U.S. State capital might have a different flag and different presidential portraits on the wall, but its function and feelings aren’t different from another. They’re the sausage machine of justice. The walls are green and the light fluorescent and the floor rolled linoleum tile even when they aren’t.

A police station in a small town in Michigan isn’t so different from a police station in a small town in Burma. The same adrenaline and deadpan humour is piped in; you feel comfortable and safe, if you’re a guest on friendly business, but you’re aware of the number of guns and leather straps and buzz cuts and tears that everyone except you seem to have. You know that if a cop walked up to you as you sat in a roomful of other cops and punched you in the face, no one would see it. This is a reality.

City halls, the same thing. Paper shuffling palaces where the walls are painted with bureaucracy, where politicians – probably the lowest form of creature – hide their greed and power appetites behind the cynical veil of public service. They’re corrupt either for financial gain or ideological gain. You have only to hear them on wiretaps speaking to gangsters to know what they are: blustering, fearful, shameful.

So. Creating a town. Put all these specimens loose in there and see how things work out.



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