The Great Imitators: Life and Literature

I can’t pretend l was surprised when I saw the Times-Picayune story in late October about the Special Victims Section. My law enforcement experience has taught me to expect anything.


Harrison shakeup gives NOPD's Special Victims Section

its third commander in 12 months

 St. Louis Cathedral

St. Louis Cathedral

But the headline made me realize that my instincts as a writer of crime fiction were also implicated. Life and literature are great imitators. One pretends to be the other; or vice versa.

I began developing the story line and themes of my suspenseful novel The Accidental Vigilante about five years ago. By the time I finished in September, the narrative included several special victims, repeat offenders and (ironically coinciding with the recent Inspector General’s report) a police department that failed to properly investigate or classify certain crimes. That’s how my book’s tag line came about: “In New Orleans negligence is a natural disaster.”

To be fair, when a police officer or department head is replaced it doesn’t necessarily mean they are corrupt or incompetent. Maybe they just aren’t the right fit for the job. I’ve learned from my tenure as Harbor Police Chief that matching people to new positions can be tricky. Sometimes the “perfect fit” turns out to be a bust, yet the second or third choice outperforms expectations. Why? That’s life.

One reason I love literature and the writing process is that it allows me to dig deeper than the headlines. I can create a character that perhaps fouled up an opportunity, or has been wrongly judged, and then illuminate the imperfections of humanity. We’re all so complex. That’s the lure of literature: to express the dimensions of good and bad men and women.

I don’t know that I would ever try to create a novel solely by reading the headlines and following the action of an ongoing crime spree or tragic incident. Surely, it has been done — life and lit are imitators.

Yet I believe my instinct would be to start with facts and then improvise, follow some twists and turns that are fabricated. Because, as we all know, the “perfect” crime, all carefully thought out and executed, rarely happens. The same is probably true of many novels, in many genres. You think you know how you want it to happen, and then …

The one obvious gap between life and literature is the real despair and suffering that occurs when we do not provide our citizens with the police service they want and deserve. If the Inspector General’s report is correct, we have failed them twice—not conducting proper investigations; and, failing to properly classify certain crimes.  

So I am well aware that my new book and the next few may not soothe the suffering masses by shedding light on heinous crimes occurring in our city. The books won’t magically cure poverty or hunger but I promise--they will entertain. 

Even so, if I do nothing else, through my writing I hope to serve as one of the many witnesses who can’t help but tell some portion of the great story of our times. Because if crime fiction often imitates life, sometimes life also imitates the miraculous, unexpected turn of events that entertain us in our favorite books.

In closing, I want to commend the men and women of the NOPD who, in spite of the shortage of manpower, continue to do a terrific job. God Bless You All!

Robert Sterling Hecker

Crime fiction author: The Accidental Vigilante