Today's Reading

I didn't get the journalism job but I soon landed the ideal position for a crime novelist: an entry-level spot in DC, the low pay offering just enough struggle-to-survive to be incentivizing. The dullness of my duties freed up my headspace for what I saw as my real work.

The job consisted of thirty-five hours a week writing advertising and promotional copy for a newspaper that could have been written by a gifted six-year-old. Both the copy and the newspaper. My output consisted largely of documenting the paper's circulation numbers, and as those numbers rose and fell, I would be called upon to update the promo copy, in much the way a firefighter would be called to a blaze. 'Over 4 Million Readers' might have to be changed to 'Nearly 4 Million Readers', depending. If I got particularly bored, I might try changing it up to '4 Million Readers Worldwide', but that required approval from marketing so mostly I played it safe. It really was stupendously boring, and only my secret writing life, which began at 4 a.m. each day, saved me.

When the circulation figures fell to 3.7 million and most of my colleagues began openly updating their résumés, I doubled down on my pre-dawn mystery writing. As I had no savings this was a reckless gamble, but by the time the layoffs got started I had landed a three-book publishing contract. I quit the copywriting job and began writing all day in my local library.

This was in the early Internet days, when the library was still a quiet place to work, before programs like Toddler Rock N' Read had been invented, and Barnes & Noble was still a store stuffed with books rather than toys. I spent many hours there, too, or in Olsson's Books & Records, a now-defunct local chain. The word 'Records' in Olsson's title tells you how long ago this was.

By immersing myself in guides and photo books, I was able to create a village in the Dordogne - not too large, as it was necessary to keep the suspects to manageable numbers, and not too small, so there would be a variety of cruel or foolish or plain unlucky people to kill off. This setting gave me enormous pleasure, a place I could sink into, a place into which I could disappear.

The Dordogne, as you probably know, is in southwest France, in a region between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, and famous for its prehistoric cave paintings. That was good; I thought I might work that into a plot one day. Not an art theft mystery - for obvious reasons, stealing cave paintings would be tricky - but perhaps a crotchety misogynistic archeologist might meet his fate in one of the grottos there.

I decided to call my village Villeneuve-Sainte-Marie. Only much later did I realize Carrenac, on which it was based, was in the Lot, not the Dordogne, but no one ever called me on it, proving no one paid much attention to my first book. ('Diverting. Je ne sais quoi. ' -  The New York Times.) I corrected the error in subsequent books without making a deal of it, especially since imaginary villages can be in whatever department they choose. At least Carrenac is (misleadingly, if you ask me) on the Dordogne river, so I was in the ballpark.

Now I needed a Maigret for my village. I knew nothing of the ranks and hierarchies or even the uniforms of the French police; in fact, what little I knew about the police in France was based on reruns of an obscure, trashy crime drama of the seventies called Crime of Passion, where no one was ever given a long sentence for murdering their lover because everyone in France understood a crime passionnel is just one of those things. Shrug. I figured no one outside France knew much about how their murder squads operated, so it didn't matter. It did matter when my books started being translated into French, but I never thought that far ahead. Apparently, gendarmes are not simply promoted up the ranks to detective, as would happen in the US with patrol officers, but are two separate strands of law enforcement. Now you know.

I wanted a fictional detective who was smart or smart enough, without having to grant him supernatural powers. I wanted him to have a family - a large and warm and loving family, obviously the family I never had, and the sort of wife who would worry about him when he was out chasing villains, who would pack him a gourmet lunch and hand him a baguette on his return in the evenings. Or whenever he returned, generally late at night - it's a trope of crime stories that the detective is run ragged, that his office has a small budget and a sadistic supervisor, that one officer is a useless screwup, and so on and so forth.

I named my police detective Claude. I never got round to giving him a first name.

I was inspired not only by Simenon; I read all of Holmes and all the Agatha Christies, beginning with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and going straight through to Sleeping Murder.

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