Clues to My Crime: Jay Hosking’s THREE YEARS WITH THE RAT

Mystery Month 2017In “The Clues to My Crime,” authors explain the influences behind their latest works of crime fiction. In this installment, Jay Hosking tells us about what inspired his first novel, Three Years with the Rat, named one of Booklist’s best crime fiction debuts of the year.  

 

THE CITY: Every country has its quintessential urban environment: England has its London, Japan has its Tokyo, and the United States has its New York. These cities have so much to say about the psyche of their respective countries, both good and bad.

In Canada, and at the center of Three Years with the Rat, we have Toronto. While it’s not much to look at—there’s a reason it fills in as “anonymous American city” in so many movies and TV shows—Toronto excels in secrets. Whether you’re discovering a secret swing set hanging in a narrow downtown alleyway, or a clandestine concert being held in an abandoned factory, Toronto is a joy to explore precisely because its best parts are hidden. It looks nondescript and relatively clean, but underneath the polite veneer is a city that can only be truly understood if you know the codes and clues. What better city to set a mystery in?

 

Gomez from Fez.

THE MUSIC:  Three Years with the Rat comes with its own handy list of recommended listening in the back of the book. But to sum it up, I was inspired by two musical ideas: the beating heart of the city’s live bands, and the otherworldly moods of instrumental music. When it comes to live bands, no record better encapsulates the Toronto sound for me than Constantines’ Shine a Light: it’s a dozen sweaty, raucous songs with starry-eyed lyrics, clanging guitars, and huge drums. You can’t help but shout along, “Nighttime, anytime, it’s alright!” And when it comes to instrumental music, nothing quite captures the mystery, melancholy, or incomprehensibility of Disasterpeace’s original soundtrack for the video game Fez; it was the perfect music for exploring those places where the known brushes up against the unknown.

 

THE BOOKS: Three Years with the Rat is a book of detective fiction dressed up in literary-genre hybrid clothes. As such, I am most indebted to Raymond Chandler, who showed me that the best protagonists can, like his Marlowe, express their feelings through their behavior instead of lengthy, tedious introspection. The High Window is maybe my favorite of Chandler’s, but I’m an enormous fan of almost everything of his.

Timothy Findley’s Headhunter was also a huge inspiration, and has maybe the best set-up of any book I know: Colonel Kurtz accidentally escapes from page 92 of Heart of Darkness and runs amok in downtown Toronto. It was the first time I had read a story unabashedly about my city, and it was deep, dark, and disturbing.

And it’s impossible to write a tale of urban environments, unraveling minds, and the unknown without giving a nod to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, each section of which left me anxious and mind-blown for a few days.

 

THE SCIENCE: For a book about two scientists, Three Years with the Rat contains surprisingly little actual science. Psychophysics, the branch of psychology that John and Grace study, is real, and it does examine the nature between objective reality and our subjective experience. But rest assured there’s no one out there trying to. . . well, I won’t spoil the book.

A rat.

But the real inspiration for the Rat was, as you might have guessed, the humble lab rat. Rats are far smarter than you might think, and working with them has been the highlight of my scientific career. Did you know that you can teach rats to gamble (and that they’re about as good / bad at it as we are)? Did you know that they enjoy being tickled? Did you know that they display empathy, and will even give up chocolate to help another rat in distress? Rats share a lot of qualities with my favorite people: they’re curious, resilient, motivated, unglamorous, clever, they bond well and, more than anything else, they survive against all odds.

Jay Hosking obtained his neuroscience PhD at the University of British Columbia, teaching rats how to gamble and studying the neurobiological basis of choice. At the same time, he also worked toward his creative writing MFA. His first novel, Three Years with the Rat, was published by Penguin Canada in 2016 and Macmillan USA in 2017. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, where he researches decision making and the human brain.

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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