The bottom line for writing fiction (and I would also say nonfiction) is telling a good story. While Samuel Goldwyn’s advice of “if you’ve got a message, send a telegram” might be true, it defies a long tradition of creating context in crime and thriller fiction. In this week’s blog, author Philip Cioffari outlines his own path for creating relevance of premise in his latest novel Dark Road, Dead End. Using his technique, any story can be taken to a new level of pertinence and—as a result—can resonate to a larger audience, as well as educate and entertain.
Here’s long-time Killer Nashville attendee and instructor, Philip Cioffari.
As writers of fiction, our first (and arguably, our only) obligation is to tell a good story, this notion is an extension of the art-for-art’s-sake view of creative expression. In other words, art needs no justification beyond itself. It isn’t required to serve any purpose other than the pleasure it brings. That being said, I’d like to examine for a moment the ways in which good crime fiction can tell a captivating story at the same time it engages the social issues of the time in which it is written.
One might argue that all fiction, including crime fiction engages—in one way or another—the social order of its time. Most visibly, perhaps, it does this by reflecting moral and philosophical values via a character’s thoughts and actions, the choices a character makes to survive in a world which is almost always—in the case of crime fiction—depicted as harsh, fearsome and unforgiving. So man’s conscience is almost inevitably put to the test in any given story. But there is a strain in crime fiction that engages social issues to an even greater degree. I think, for example, of Jaden Terrell’s new novel, River of Glass, with its concern with the horrors of human trafficking, and Stacy Allen’s new novel, Expedition Indigo, which addresses the need for preserving historic artifacts in the public domain rather than for private gain.
In my own case, I’ve long been a supporter of mankind’s conscientious stewardship of our planet and its resources. I wanted to address that issue in my writing and, because I’m a novelist and not an essayist, I wanted to meld my commitment to being a good storyteller with my concern for the environment. My frequent trips over the years to the Florida Everglades provided me with the setting to accomplish that end.
I was appalled to learn that the trade in exotic and endangered species of wildlife is a multi-billion dollar industry. It stands as the world’s third largest organized crime—after narcotics, and arms running. In the state of Florida, it is second only to the illicit trade in narcotics. Despite an international ban on such trafficking, there are many “rogue” nations that do not enforce the ban and that turn a blind eye towards those who violate it. And to be sure, worldwide, there is no shortage of those willing to engage in wildlife poaching and smuggling. One reason for this is the lucrative rewards for such activities—as one U.S. Customs agent put it, “Pound for pound, there is more profit for smugglers in exotic birds [and other wildlife] than there is in cocaine.” Another appeal to the criminal mind is the low risk of being apprehended. This is a consequence of the fact that most customs agencies are understaffed and over-worked and must turn their attention to higher-profile crimes, like the trade in narcotics and guns.
The way the black market system works is this: animals are poached from all over the world, smuggled illegally out of their respective countries, then shipped thousands of miles via land and sea, and ultimately smuggled into the country of destination. The U.S. and China are the two largest consumers of such contraband. But Southeast Asia and Europe are not far behind.
I wanted to shed light on this situation, to call attention to it and—because I’m a writer of fiction—do so in as entertaining a way as possible, hence the noir suspense/thriller format of my new novel, Dark Road, Dead End. My main character is a U.S. Customs Agent in South Florida, investigating a wildlife smuggling operation based in the Everglades, a nefarious network so large it supplies endangered species to pet stores, individual collectors, and roadside zoos across the country, as well as to “reputable” municipal zoos willing to close their eyes to the illegal source of the animals they wish to exhibit. The danger he faces comes, ironically, from both sides of the law.
The more we know about such illegal operations, the more of a part, however small, we each can play in resisting them: for example, by verifying the legitimacy of the origins of the pets we buy. And the more current issues we include in our fiction, the more relevant it becomes to the readers.
If you would like to read more about Philip Cioffari’s books, please visit our website.
Philip Cioffari is the author of the noir thriller, Dark Road, Dead End. His previous three books of fiction are: the novel, Jesusville the novel, Catholic Boys; and the short story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. Visit his website at www.philipcioffari.com
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