Bad Monkeys — the origins of the story

The following essay originally appeared on the Powell’s bookstore web site:

Bad Monkeys’ Bad Girl

As in the case of my second novel, Sewer, Gas & Electric, it started with just a title. The third season of the Comedy Central series South Park featured an episode in which the South Park kids traveled to the Costa Rican rainforest. At one point Eric Cartman began hitting a monkey with a stick, screaming “Bad! Bad monkey!” The phrase stuck in my head.

Not long afterwards, I read David Simon’s Homicide, the nonfiction work that inspired the Barry Levinson TV show. Simon’s book got me thinking about writing a police procedural called, you guessed it, Bad Monkeys. I toyed around with various plot possibilities. In one version, the story was a realistic drama about a series of particularly gruesome crimes, and the title was a slang reference to the perpetrators. In another, the story was science fiction, and “Bad Monkeys” was the nickname of a police division devoted to the investigation of crimes committed by human beings, as opposed to crimes committed by extraterrestrials or machines (those were handled, respectively, by the “Bad Martians” and “Bad Robots” divisions).

I liked the nickname idea, but the notion of an SF cop drama ultimately left me cold. The concept didn’t start to work until I gave it a couple more half-twists: the police department became a secret society, then a possible schizophrenic delusion. I pictured my protagonist in a jail cell, telling a story about a crusade against evil—against bad monkeys—that had somehow gone wrong…

My protagonist didn’t have a name or even a gender at this point; he/she was just The Unreliable Narrator. In conversations with my wife I’d begun referring to Bad Monkeys as “my Philip K. Dick novel,” so I thought about naming my protagonist Phil, and I might indeed have gone that way. But then one day I picked up Lawrence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, and learned something interesting. Phil Dick had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died in infancy.

The one thing cooler than making Shakespeare the star of your novel is making Shakespeare’s sister the star of your novel, so right away I decided: My protagonist was Jane Charlotte.

Now that Jane had a name, she needed a voice. As Bad Monkeys opens, Jane is in jail, charged with murder—a crime she readily confesses to. But because she also claims to be an assassin working for a secret organization, she ends up in a little white room telling her story to a psychiatrist. One of the theories the psychiatrist comes up with to explain Jane’s “delusion” is that she’s trying to atone for some horrible sin in her past. Jane’s description of the dissolute life she led before the organization recruited her lends credence to this theory.

Clearly, we’re talking bad girl here. I have some experience writing about those. One of the most popular characters in my last novel, Set This House in Order, was Maledicta, a member of a multiple personality “household” whose function was to say the things that everyone else was afraid to say. In addition to always sharing what was on her mind, Maledicta swore constantly, drank too much, drove too fast, and went out of her way to pick fights with people. You can see why readers loved her.

Maledicta was an early model for Jane, and for a while my new shorthand description for Bad Monkeys became, “It’s the book you’d get if you gave Maledicta her own novel.” But while I continue to see the characters as kindred spirits, it soon became apparent that there were at least two major differences between them.

The first is that Maledicta rarely lied. Oh, she might fib or break a promise now and then, but her life’s purpose was to tell the truth, in as obnoxious a manner as possible. Jane, on the other hand, really is an unreliable narrator. Not only does she have secrets piled on top of secrets, she’s the kind of unrepentant liar who, when you do catch her in a contradiction, shrugs it off and keeps going, changing her story just enough to accommodate whatever evidence you’ve confronted her with.

The second difference is that Maledicta wasn’t really that bad of a bad girl. Her biggest sins were shoplifting and reckless driving. Jane kills people, and that’s just for starters. Yet at the same time, Jane’s charisma is more than a match for her misdeeds. One of her signature characteristics is her ability to describe the most awful acts in a way that, instead of making you recoil in horror, causes you to lean forward and ask, “And then what happened, Jane?”

I’d love to tell you how I struggled to pull this off, but the truth is, from the moment I sat down with Jane in that little white room, she was a remarkably easy character to write, and a real pleasure, too.

My only moment of doubt—and it was brief—came during the planning of the chapter titled “Malfeasance.” Malfeasance is the nickname of the secret organization’s internal affairs division, and the chapter introduces Dixon, the man who Jane will eventually end up in jail for murdering. Jane meets Dixon after he discovers something potentially damning during her background check and calls her in to rake her over the coals about it.

For the scene to work, I needed to come up with something that Jane had done that even she was embarrassed by. At the same time, it couldn’t be so terrible that it would get her kicked out of the organization. Most important, it mustn’t cost her the reader’s sympathy.

I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what Jane did, but I will say that I was especially worried about that last part. At least, I was worried about it until I started writing. Within a few pages it became clear that this was a woman who could confess to anything, and still make you care about her.

Which is ultimately the point of the whole novel. Bad Monkeys has a lot to recommend it, I think—twists and turns, elaborate action sequences, scary guys in clown make-up, and yes, those clever division nicknames—but it what it’s really about is getting to know Jane Charlotte, and liking her, even though you shouldn’t.

She was a fun date. I’ll miss her.