Killing Me Softly
Why did I commit literary suicide in my seventeenth (and last) mystery novel? I had no choice; it was spiritual self-defense.
Why would the author of a successful series of mystery novels featuring himself as the central character want to commit literary suicide by killing off his hero? Is the author, who just happens to be named Kinky Friedman, subconsciously jealous of the fictional fame garnered around the world by the character, who also happens to be named Kinky Friedman? Have author and character melded into a psychotic, schizophrenic entity so clinically ill as to obscure the difference between important clues like cocaine and horseradish? Both of us are glad you asked.
The truth is, by the time you’ve written your seventeenth mystery novel, if you ain’t crazy, there’s something wrong with you. If you happen to be your own main character, it tends to be even worse. There are some things that the two of you may have in common, of course. You both may smoke Cuban cigars. You both may drink Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. But, after a time, the bad outweighs the good. It doesn’t take long to discover, for instance, that the real you and the fabricated you both seem to lust after the same kind of woman. Once a woman’s imagination has been captured by a fictional heartthrob, the flesh-and-blood version has a hard act to follow. This is probably one of the reasons a great mystery writer once said, “If you like the book, never meet the author.”
I’m not the first novelist who’s felt the need to kill a character better known and better regarded than he is. In 1893 The Final Problem recorded the passing of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. The man who offed Holmes was the same man who created him, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Why did it have to end this way, with Holmes and his archenemy, Moriarty, representing the forces of good and evil in the world, struggling in each other’s grasp, then plunging to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls? Was Conan Doyle weary of his celebrated sleuth, or was the author in such a petulant snit about being eclipsed by his invention that he murdered him in a fit of literary pique? Or did Conan Doyle destroy Holmes because, as Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “each man kills the thing he loves”?
The difference between the artist and the murderer, Holmes himself once said, is that the artist knows when to stop. My latest mystery, Ten Little New Yorkers, will also be my last. It’s not that I’m fresh out of mad nights or candle wax or typewriter ribbons; it’s merely that I’m running low on the desperation that makes a writer good in the first place. The mystery field, one quickly discovers, is as narrow as it is deep: The elements that are essential to a mystery are the same ones that often keep it trite and limited. As an author, you’re constantly trying to fool the reader without cheating him. Your best writing is rarely about smoke and mirrors or the corpse in the library. More often it deals with the dreams of a detective who wonders if there’s life before death. The mystery of life, in other words, is a greater and more compelling story than the cheap, dog-eared mystery of death. Life is hanging on tight, spurring hard, and letting ’er buck. Death is merely letting go of the saddle horn.
When I wrote my first mystery, Greenwich Killing Time, in 1984, I never dreamed the series would continue for more than twenty years. Long before that, I suspected, the reader would tire of my cleverness. I hoped, naturally, that there would be more than one reader, and in time my hopes were realized. Today my mysteries have been translated into more languages than there are books in the series, including, recently, Russian, Hebrew, and Japanese. I can’t imagine what these people think when they read them. Then again, I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I wrote them.
In Ten Little New Yorkers, Manhattan is victimized by a string of vicious murders. Not much of a plot, you might say, but when you’ve written as many of these boogers as I have, you begin to understand why plots are for cemeteries. And speaking of cemeteries, it was clearly time to plant Kinky Friedman and his colorful band of flatulent friends. If I didn’t kill him soon, I knew I ran the risk of becoming a literary hack—a bitter, jaundiced, humorless, insular, constipated prig, like most successful authors. I preferred to stay the way I’d always been: obliviously well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
Having decided to do away with Kinky Friedman, one nagging question remained: Which Kinky should I kill? The character, with his bizarre behavior, tediously eccentric mannerisms, and cloying colloquial language, was now locked in such a hopelessly convoluted love-hate relationship with the author that it might require dental records, or maybe a rectal probe, to tell them apart. The last guy with an invention named for him was Dr. Frankenstein, and everybody knows what happened there. I had created a monster, so now I had to destroy it. So Kinky the cat-loving, cigar-smoking amateur sleuth meets his maker at the end of Ten Little New Yorkers. I had no choice; it was spiritual self-defense. Much like the great Holmes, the fictional Kinkster dies in a fall from a bridge while grappling with the murderer. While his death is liberating to me personally, it does not gladden my heart. In an odd sort of way, I was almost starting to like the guy.
If you happen to be a frustrated fan of the fictional Friedman, I can only say that even Conan Doyle was eventually forced by pressure from his readers to bring Holmes back to life. If, indeed, I hear the literary community clamoring for Kinky’s return, I may have to follow suit. Sometimes, in my dreams, I think I hear them beginning to clamor. When I wake up to the nonfiction world, however, I realize it was only the sound of one hand clapping.
Just as my mystery series has come to an end, so, of necessity, must my column—for now. My editor and friend, Evan Smith, has cited that old oxymoron, journalistic integrity, as the main reason I cannot run for governor and continue to write for Texas Monthly. If the campaign should falter, I’ll be back—but it’s my sincere hope that the magazine’s loss will be the state’s gain. My candidacy is not a joke, as some may assume. I’m running in the spirit of Seabiscuit: I do not plan to place or show; I plan to win. And so, my friends, let the race begin.