The following essay is a guest blog post by Heather Harper Ellet, author of the debut novel, Ain’t Nobody Nobody. She will be at BookPeople on October 28th at 7PM to read from, discuss, and sign her novel.
Last week at Deep Vellum Books in Dallas, I read from my East Texas crime novel Ain’t Nobody Nobody (Polis, 2019). Afterward, a man in the audience asked in all polite sincerity, “What is it about Texas? Why do all the weird crimes happen here?” The man was from Australia. Even he knew we were famous for something other than Dr Pepper.
The previous day, my mother’s 1000-person East Texas hometown was a top headline on CNN because a man had robbed the bank there to pay for the wedding he was having that weekend. And if you weren’t the terrified teller, it really was kinda sweet. And proved our Australian friend’s point quite nicely.
Admittedly, the Australian’s question stumped me. The Texans in the audience, native and not, looked at each other with the same befuddled look, as if the answer should be obvious but was not at all obvious at the same time.
“Is it the guns?” someone suggested. It’s a fair question of course. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and there’s a lot I take for granted—the absurd details that blend into the background, the fact that guns are collected like stamps. I can’t get into a family member’s truck without double checking beneath the seat to make sure something doesn’t discharge. (It should be noted my mother-in-law has a bullet lodged in her leg to this day for this very reason.) But I don’t even think about it until somebody asks me to write something like this. We all nodded—“Yes, guns!” —while knowing that this singular fact doesn’t tell the entire story.
I think the flavor of our crimes points to a larger Texas mystique, a brazenness that Texans seem to have in spades. In my small town growing up, a larger-than-life bail bondsman was murdered in his front yard not far from my school during an armed robbery gone horribly wrong. It was incredibly sad and scary but not entirely surprising because even at thirteen-years-old I knew that the victim carried a roll of ten thousand dollars in his boot at all times.
“Maybe it’s the water?” a friend joked later, which is also not far off. I’m reminded of a fascinating 1990 study comparing the trace amounts of lithium in Texas drinking water. The Texas counties with the most naturally-occurring lithium in their drinking water had lower incidences of crime, suicide, and drug addiction. (Also note: my home county ranked on the lower side for lithium.)
Texas’s most bizarre crimes point to a bravado that’s found few other places, I’m told. Funeral director Bernie Tiede kills an unlikeable old woman and the small town of Carthage defends him. A man plants tens of thousands of plants of marijuana in woods that aren’t his. This year alone, I’ve read three stories about crimes involving pet tigers in houses.
As a writer, I have a love/hate relationship with the audacity of Texas. Writing about it is hard because, fair or not, Texas can be a character who takes up too much space in the room. Texas is that best friend you would die for but would think twice about taking to a fancy restaurant in case he gets into a fistfight with the waiter. Texas is like garlic. Even a little bit flavors the entire dish. Texas is so big that sometimes I don’t want to say the word because then, as an author, I have lost all control over the tone of the scene.
Ultimately, it’s that unique Texas audacity that best answers our Australian friend’s question. And I think it is best articulated by the list of stereotypes Lawrence Wright outlines in his face-slappingly brilliant God Save Texas: “cowboy individualism, a kind of wary friendliness, superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority, a hair-trigger sense of grievance, nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood.”
Or maybe it’s the Dr Pepper.
The Australian nodded politely as we Texans outwardly brainstormed explanations for our lunacy as if this were some sort of party game we played often but he didn’t yet know the rules. Afterward, he bought my book, and we chatted about the plans for his trip—a visit to a small town not unlike the one where my mother was raised. I laughed and signed his copy with “Stay safe in Texas!” and as I scribbled the words, writing TEXAS in swirly cursive like a junior high crush, it pained me to realize just how much I really meant it. Stay safe, friend. Then I watched as he disappeared out the front door and into the dark Texas night.
Heather Harper Ellet will be attending our Place & Crime panel October 28th, 7PM, with L.A. Chandlar and Mark Coggins at BookPeople.