The First Two Pages: “Something Bad Happened to a Clown” by William Boyle

In April 2015, B.K. Stevens debuted the blog series “The First Two Pages,” hosting craft essays by short story writers and novelists analyzing the openings of their own work. The series continued until just after her death in August 2017, and the full archive of those essays can be found at Bonnie’s website. In November 2017, the blog series relocated to my website, and the archive of this second stage of the series can be found here.

One of the first authors I recruited for the anthology Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Warren Zevon was William Boyle—drawn his way by his terrific essay “Screwball Noir: A Personal History” for Criminal Element. In addition to short sections on actress Barbara Stanwyck and directors Shane Black and Alan Rudolph, Boyle’s essay examines Zevon’s songs as exemplars of screwball noir. “I always find myself compelled to investigate what Zevon leaves out, how his work lives in this hazy middle ground between humor and hopelessness,” Boyle writes, and then praises what he sees in the lyrics as “some quintessential element of screwball noir: laughter serving as some sort of remedy to death and violence in all of their awful unpredictability.”

Several of the songs Boyle mentions in that Criminal Element essay inspired other contributors to Lawyers, Guns, and Money, including the title song of the collection, “Werewolves of London,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Excitable Boy,” and “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” and Boyle himself took on “Something Bad Happened to a Clown,” which he discusses in his First Two Pages post below.

Boyle is the author most recently of Shoot the Moonlight Out (the title coming from another singer-songwriter, Garland Jeffreys), and his other books include Gravesend, which was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in the UK; The Lonely Witness, which was nominated for the Hammett Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, an Amazon Best Book in 2019 and winner of the Prix Transfuge du meilleur polar étranger in France; and City of Margins, a Washington Post Best Thriller and Mystery Book of 2020. You can find out more about him and his work at his website.

In addition to Boyle’s story, the collection—which I co-edited with Libby Cudmore—features a stellar line-up of authors including Libby herself, as well as Gray Basnight, Dana Cameron, Hilary Davidson, Steve Liskow, Nick Mamatas, Paul D. Marks, Matthew Quinn Martin, Josh Pachter, Charles Salzberg, Laura Ellen Scott, Alex Segura, Kevin Burton Smith, and Brian Thornton.

In addition to Boyle’s essay below, please do check out Laura Ellen Scott’s reflections on “Crawling Distance” based on “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” and Nick Mamatas’ essay on “Detox Mansion”—and stay tuned for Alex Segura next week, wrapping up this series. Plus, be sure to pick up Lawyers, Guns, and Money itself—a great batch of stories, though I’m obviously biased!

Please use the arrows and controls at the bottom of the embedded PDF to navigate through the essay. You can also download the essay to read off-line.