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"In my case, crime paid by bringing me closer to my mother."
 
 
My parents, Eddie and Rose Muller, partying in San Francisco circa 1946.
 
 
My mother today, at 89 years of age.
  Novelist Laura Lippman asked several writers to contribute an essay to the 2005 Mystery Writers of America Annual, published to coincide with the group’s annual Edgar Award Banquet, held in New York each spring. The subject of all the essays was "How Crime Pays." The following was my contribution.

DIGGING UP THE DIRT
By Eddie Muller © 2005


In my case, crime paid by bringing me closer to my mother. Such a payoff seemed utterly inconceivable when I started working on what would eventually be my first novel, The Distance.

Within the genre constraints of that story exists a familial roman a clef: the characters of Billy and Ida Nichols are based on my parents, right down to a deep, dark secret that for almost fifty years lurked at the core of their marriage. No mention was ever made of it, of course—it was the kind of disgrace Catholics specialized in, but of which they never spoke. Throughout my youth, tiny clues leaked out, only to be promptly policed—leaving this young writer-to-be shrouded in a very influential pall of guilt, shame and mystery.

My father’s death in 1982 lit a fire under me to write a story detailing his life and times as a sportwriter. He’d died without ever discussing the "deep dark secret" (hereafter referred to as the DDS), so I made the momentuous decision to have the revelation of this enigma be an essential part of the narrative. Through fiction, I’d unravel and expose the long-buried truth. Some of what I wrote was factual, learned through my own detective work. Much of it was conjecture, based on (perceived) insights into my parents’ psychology. None of it, of course, was ever discussed with my mother.

(The particulars of the DDS are irrelevant. If you’ve read The Distance, you know. If you haven’t, merely imagine what your own parents would be ashamed of and take it from there.)

As the manuscript evolved, it felt at times like I was building a bomb, not a novel. My mother would surely combust if she ever read it, or, at the very least, she’d disown me. Like a true noir protagonist, I decided to play my hand and let Fate run its course: if the novel was published, well, that would be compensation for having my mother hate me. If, however, it was resoundingly rejected—that meant Fate was in on my parent’s conspiracy of silence, and I should start looking elsewhere for inspiration.

The satisfaction that comes with having one’s first novel published was, in my case, dampened by all this behind-the-scenes drama. Was being validated as a writer worth the wrath to which I’d be subjected? My mother could wholesale wrath like nobody’s business, even at 85 years of age. On top of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a traitor, publicly revealing—even as fiction—a secret she’d been keeping for more than sixty years.

I was driving my mother to a doctor’s appointment a couple of months after The Distance came out when she quietly muttered, "I read your book." My heart stopped. Without looking at me, she said, "You told my story." The four words were freighted. There was, however, no explosion. She didn’t show remorse or resignation or anger or resentment. I don’t know what she felt, frankly. All I knew is that we were both entering uncharted territory.

Like the best fiction, our lives then took a totally unexpected turn. "Let me have some copies of that book," my mother told me. "As many as you can spare." She proudly started handing them out. "My son’s a writer," she’d crow. "Takes after his father. And everything in this book is true. Especially the stuff about me." Far from disowning me, she was proudly telling people that somebody finally had the guts to "tell it like it is."

That’s when I realized she was entering the early stages of Alzheimers. She was still lucid, but on occasion she’d drift off into a world of her own creation. I know the feeling, since it’s how I make my living.

Last year I had to place her in an assisted-living facility. As part of the initiation process, the home’s monthly newsletter profiles every new tenant. Because I was now a "famous writer," my mother requested that I sit in on her interview, to make sure the woman writing her story got the facts straight.

Within minutes, my mother started pouring out the deep, dark secret that for six decades had been coiled like a caged beast at the core of her existence. I sat listening, slack-jawed, as she sailed right past the facts, into a wildly embellished version of the truth. "Clark Gable was madly in love with me, and I had his baby," she told the interviewer, who had no idea if she was hearing fact or fiction. My mother gave me a sly smile and said, "Well . . . should I tell her the whole story?"

At that moment, the last vestiges of guilt and shame and suspicion that had always existed between us fell away. We had more in common than I’d ever realized. "Tell her whatever you want to, Mom," I said. "It’s your story."

And she told a good one, taking a nugget of truth and stretching it, polishing it, exaggerating it for maximum effect. In other words—writing fiction. And she had me on the edge of my seat. The rapt, stupified look on that interviewer’s face is what we, as writers, are all after.

Why let facts get in the way of a good story, I thought to myself, and in thinking it, I felt closer to my mother than ever before.

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