Native New Yorker Ann Aptaker has earned a reputation as a respected if cheeky curator of art during her career in museums and galleries and as an Independent Curator in New York. She brings the same attitude and philosophy to her first love: writing. Her fiction has appeared in two volumes of the FEDORA anthology series before that series’ unfortunate demise. She has also had short stories published in the Punk Soul Poet e-zine, as well as numerous curatorial essays published by museums and galleries in conjunction with their exhibitions.
~~~ CRIME TIME by Ann Aptaker ~~~
Writing crime fiction is fun. Writing crime fiction from the criminal’s point of view is even more fun. Taking the opposite tack from singer-songwriter John Mellencamp’s classic lyric, “I fight authority; authority always wins,” writing from the criminal’s point of view gives me, the writer, and you, the reader, the satisfaction of authority NOT winning, affording us the vicarious opportunity to tell authority to piss off, something we’ve all daydreamed about from time to time, even in our otherwise law-abiding lives. Who doesn’t want to tell off the teacher who wouldn’t pass you for the semester, even though you were one measly point shy? The meter maid who writes you a ticket when you show up at your car one lousy second after the parking meter’s time has expired? The boss who bleeds your energy dry, or the jerk who didn’t hire you in the first place, hired his idiot nephew instead, even though you really needed the job? In my world of crime fiction, these and other of life’s irritations, minor or major, are of little or no consequence to my criminal protagonist, the dapper art smuggler Cantor Gold. She’ll live life her way. The risk of capture pales in comparison to her thrill of owning her own life, and ignoring authority.
But writing from the criminal’s point of view also brings up serious questions about crime itself, about the morality of disobeying the Law, even of accepting violence. Aside from the fact that there really are some very evil, greedy, or unstable people out there, not everyone labeled “criminal” is heinous, and it is there that the issue of morality becomes murkier. Just what is crime, anyway? Why do people commit crime? Why do some make a career of it? We know some of the answers: poverty, oppression, lack of opportunity in the larger society, among other triggers. And so sometimes, in some circumstances, committing crime is the most immediate way to put food on the table and keep a roof over one’s head. After all, why obey authority if authority and its systems denies you the means of basic survival, or doesn’t even listen to you when you plead? Crime, then, for some, is not only an economic activity, it becomes a way to tell authority to piss off. Crime fiction, told from the criminal’s point of view, lets us experience that sassy victory.
Writing historical crime fiction is fun, too. My Cantor Gold stories take place in mid-20th century New York. The first, “Criminal Gold,” is set in 1949; the second, “Tarnished Gold,” releasing in September, takes place in 1950; and the third, a work currently in progress, takes place in 1952. The series will move through the 1950s. So the period is very recent history, which means that primary source material (newspapers, magazines, recordings of radio programs and music, videos of early television shows, even people who were there then) is readily available. And New York City, my hometown and where I live, has terrific research facilities where much of that material is maintained. Researching crime and its 1950s milieu is a juicy experience, with stories often “straight from the horse’s mouth.” The city’s tabloid newspapers, available in the New York Public Library’s microfilm room in the main branch (the one on Fifth Avenue with the famous lions out front), loved to splash crime stories and photos across their pages, with columnists attending every trial, and writing about the proceedings in their colorful big-city lingo. These stories, often with statements by the gangsters themselves, revealed an entire world living right beside us but unseen, until the violence of that world exploded into view.
And what a world it was! Well dressed. High living. Bold. Arrogant. And dangerous. Cops? Bought off. Judges? On a crime lord’s payroll. For criminals who managed to evade the Law, life was good at a time when New York City was a golden place, the heart of art, culture, and money. But for many, New York, like the rest of post-World War Two America, was also a place of conformity, of fitting into the accepted standards of life and family: a 9-to-5 job for the husband (even if he hated it), a wife in the kitchen (even if she hated it), and two scrubbed kids. If that paradigm was too tight a fit for you, too bad…unless you had the nerve to tell the civic and cultural authorities to piss off. Some did: avant garde artists, political outcasts…and, yeah, criminals.