I’ve been fretting a little bit about what to officially open the new mystery blog with. I’d thought i might kick it off with a review of Seeking Whom He May Devour – a Commisaire Adamsberg book by Fred Vargas that i recently finished reading but then i relented and figured something a little more writerly would be appropriate. The Adamsberg review will probably be next week, then. But in the mean time i thought i would do a little bit about the Writers Homicide School, a excellent traveling seminar put on by former Detective Sergeant Derek Pacifico of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s department.
A couple of months ago, in October actually, i had the pleasure of attending the Writers Homicide School in Los Angeles. Seriously, folks. If you intend to write homicide at all, ever, you NEED to take this two day course. It could have lasted another two days and i still would have been sitting on the edge of my seat, furiously writing notes and getting aggravated at the high level of audience participation.
Pacifico is the sort of homicide instructor you want. The guy knows his stuff and he knows how to impart it in a way that is useful to writers, which isn’t always an easy task. Let’s face it – we can be a bunch of idiots. We think we have something great and then it’s off to the races, crafting elaborate byzantine nonsense to back it all up. Pacifico allows us to take a step back and appreciate the craft of mystery and thriller writing not as an exercise in narrative absurdity, but as a job we can have characters do. The seminar, more than anything else, opened up the narrative space of what is usually a very stereotypical process.
Many many years ago now i read the terrific David Simon book Homicide: A year on the killing streets. If you haven’t read it, do. It was followed by a pretty good television series, which gradually turned stupid as the cops got prettier and the stories got more idiotic, but for a while there it was one of the best shows on TV. I say this only by way of introduction because the first thing you get from Homicide is what you get from the Writers Homicide School: that this is a job. It’s a very serious job, at times, but it’s a job. This may sound pretty simple but way too often we watch our cops grimly track down clever, whitewashed bad guys with absolutely ridiculous motives and we get so wrapped up in the story of the plot that the characters themselves become something static and stupid. They are terrible caricatures of people, only interesting insofar as they manage to find the douchebag de jour and invoke their hackneyed sense of sanitized justice.
This can make for some fun nights, and Pacifico isn’t beyond presenting the fun of it – the unintentional comedic menu of detective offerings. He’ll present examples of some of the great travesties of crime writing, CSI, NYPD Blue, and humorously eviscerate them with reality which, as usual, is WAY more interesting and potentially entertaining.
You’ll learn a lot of very specific and very useful information in the Homicide school: Blood spatter, swipes, wipes, how to roughly determine the distance from the wound that a weapon was fired, interview, interrogation, lying, basic investigative procedure, police organization and administration, all the basic things that most of us overlook when we’re crafting our first stories. These are what you pay for. These are the things that make you sign up to begin with. It’s the things that aren’t on the syllabus, though, that really make it a valuable experience – the humor, the grind and the perspective on crime and criminals from a veteran detective that elevate the whole thing to something excellent.
The seminar is loaded with real world anecdotes about the actual day to day job of police work and through them we get the impression of it as a job and a life independent from and including the investigation of untimely death. Shockingly enough, and much like Simon’s Homicide, many of these anecdotes and stories are laugh out loud funny, though always framed by tragedy. There are no grim pronouncements while dramatically whipping off your sunglasses, no blazingly idiotic one liners. There’s a job. I can’t stress that enough. What Pacifico does so well in this seminar is tell you about his job. Like your job, really. Only his involves people dying.
The Seminar is also crammed with audience participation. This was where it bogged down just a little bit, but i think it may have been due to the audience in question rather than any formatting issues. I’m a mild mannered midwesterner. We raise our hands when we have a question. I get the impression that the folks in LA do not have that concept very well ingrained in their behavior. They blurted out questions rapid fire and constantly, occasionally dragging everything down to a still fascinating crawl. It made getting through the material a little difficult, however, and truncated portions of the seminar that i would have liked to have seen in a little more depth.
That said there were moments in which the audience participation was even more hands on and i can’t stress enough how invaluable it was to watch interview and interrogation techniques actually being demonstrated right in front of you and with your active participation. I’ve said it to others and i have to mention it again – i’d take a full two day class about interrogation and interview all on it’s own if it were offered. It was easily as fascinating as all the technical stuff on blood evidence and there’s nothing quite like watching it happen right in front of you on video or in person to hammer all the points home.
In a nutshell, go to this seminar if you can. It’s being held in various locations all over the country. I’d provide a schedule of it but apparently i can’t find one right now. I’d recommend keeping an eye on the offerings for the Writers Store (where i signed up for mine) The Writers Homicide School will also be offering the seminar on DVD soon, from what i hear. I can’t wait. Even though i’ve been there in person (and i fully recommend you go too) i will certainly be buying a copy of it.