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Joseph Koenig on False Negative

Published on 18 May, 2012

Authored by Joseph Koenig

FALSE NEGATIVE, my new novel for Hard Case Crime, centers on the experiences of a young reporter/editor for the last of the true crime pulp magazines. It's based, in part, on my own career at Front Page and Inside Detective, and later for Official, and Master, and True detective magazines. Because fiction has to be believable, something readers don't demand of non-fiction writing, I had to tone down much of what really went on on the dick books.

I was hired as associate editor, whose responsibility included writing the letters to the editor that were beyond the literary aspirations of most of our readers. The job had opened up when another editor quit after 20 years. Twenty years was not an inauspicious run on the magazines. A typical sentence for murderers who had avoided the electric chair was twenty years. For an increasing number of them the first stop in the rfree world was at our office.

Few emerged from prison more pleasant than when they had entered. Fewer were better for the experience. Most were convinced that had it not been for the story in our magazine they would not have been sent up the river. As low man on the editorial totem pole, my responsibilities included greeting them. None denied his crimes. But if we #$%^&* journalists had minded our own #$%^&* business, there would have been no #$%^&* problem. "Who gave you the #$%^&* right to write about me?" was their usual opener. "Thomas Jefferson," was the answer. For your average killer that's a head-scratcher.

Prior to going to work at the magazine I don't believe I had known a single murderer. Soon I was on a first-name basis with too many. They weren't original thinkers. All had the same idea stuck in their head, and it wasn't very different than the one that had landed them in stir. Somebody was going to suffer for their misfortune. The nearest available individual would do.

My murderers were not professionals, but garden variety rape-slayers, socially inept men with problematic IQs, and lacking movie star looks, whose best chances for sex were with a corpse, or with someone about to become one. They were not physically imposing. Yet they had killed, many of them more than once, and their good behavior in the office was not to be assumed. Because I didn't care to defend against murder charges myself, I didn't keep a weapon, not even a sharpened letter opener, in my desk. A paperweight, a snow globe that showed the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building in a blizzard when you shook it, was available for dashing their presumed brains. It never came to that. Close calls aren't worth mentioning.

More disturbing than the murderers in the office were those on the streets. The filing system at the magazine in those pre-computer times was rudimentary. After learning of a promising homicide we opened a folder under the name of the victim with a blank space for the killer when his identity was discovered. The information was also recorded on a chart on the wall. When an arrest was made, and we ran the story, the case was crossed off the roster. Over the years, I saw page after page added to the chart, until it included thousands of names, murder victims whose thousands of killers remained unpunished. It gave me a cautious view of the world. To this day it is impossible for me to enter a subway car, or even a crowded room without wondering who--or how many of the people there--might literally have gotten away with murder. And might be planning their next. The magazines are gone. The last of them folded in the 1990's, but the number of murderers on the loose continues to swell. Online dating, when you really think about it, is probably not a great idea.

After several years I grew tired of correcting the mistakes of sloppy writers, and left the editor's chair to become one myself. It was a broadening experience in which I became acquainted with people I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to know. There was the fellow who had slit open the abdomen of a nine-year-old girl, pushed his face into the incision, and eaten the remains of her last meal out of her stomach. Asked why, he was vague, but licked his lips. A gentleman who called himself the Dirty Harry of sex patrolled New England lovers lanes with a .357 magnum revolver which he used to kill young couples. The way he explained it, affection that did not involve him personally rubbed him the wrong way.

I wrote for the magazines for a long time, doing about 70 stories in an average year. My editors never had enough dead bodies. They always demanded more. "What do you want me to do, kill 'em myself?" I often asked. Not one put his foot down against it.

Read an excerpt from False Negative on the Hard Case Crime website here.