The Three A.M. World


What if I told you there was a dark and foreboding world just outside your doorstep?

The image above is of the painting Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.  I discovered it during an art appreciation class in college and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since.  I responded to the tone of the piece, and its setting.  These are people who are weary.  They’ve been up all night.  You don’t know what their burdens are, but you can see the weight of those burdens in the way they hold their head and shoulders.

I’ve always loved that element in my favorite movies and books:  a lived-in world.  A world with pre-existing damage.  The teasing allure of stories untold, but that had profound effects on the world and characters before this story even started.  The reader or viewer is given a peek into an unknown world and has to piece together if not the precise details of what happened before, at least a glimpse of the effects.

We at pride ourselves on being writers with authentic experiences.  So when I began writing I asked myself:  what authentic setting can I offer?  What secret worlds do I know about?  What settings are evocative, but known only to a few?

One obvious answer is the world of private investigations.  I’ve done this work for many years and can lift the veil for readers.  Another obvious answer is the rural but Gothic world of the Gulf Coast South.  Everybody knows New Orleans, but few people know Biloxi.  Or Mobile.  Or the deep swamps of Cajun Country.  Mystery novelist, writing instructor and friend Susan Breen helped review the opening of my novel when I first began writing, and she remarked to me that as a native New Yorker, the Gulf Coast to her was as exotic as China.  

Certainly these were options for me, and some I’ve attempted to capture.  But as I think of the painting, one other setting comes to mind.  I think of the Three A.M. World.

As a private investigator, I’ve stayed up all night more times than I can count.  I’ve come to observe that, generally, there are distinct phases of the overnight hours.  The energy changes with these phases, as does the nature of those populating the night.  At midnight, the hard-partying are still at it.  Music blares from cars and clubs, and the occasional shout of the “woo!” girl punctuates the night air.  At 2:00 a.m., last call has come and gone.  There’s a brief surge in the population as weary people exit the clubs and slur their goodbyes and stumble home.

Conversely, 4:00 a.m. is a surprisingly industrious time.  Bakeries begin working, and the enticing smell of bread and donuts fill the air.  Deliveries are being made as garbage collectors and street sweepers beep and rumble through the streets.  The very first of the day workers have emerged.

But right in the middle is the Three A.M. World.  People who are up late have already gone to bed; people who rise early aren’t up yet.  The only people up at three a.m. are the ones who meant to be.  And it’s a fascinating cross-section of humanity.  Police officers and medical personnel.  Long haul truckers and taxi drivers.  People of varying degrees of social skill and emotional stability.  People who don’t quite fit in with other parts of society seem to flock to this in-between time.

Perhaps then it is no coincidence the reputation the Three A.M. World has throughout our culture.  It’s known as The Witching Hour, when the dark supernatural forces are at their strongest.  I once conducted surveillance on a coven of self-described Dark Witches who held ceremonies at three a.m.  The hour between 3:00 and 4:00 is known in apocryphal Catholic texts as The Dead Time:  no services are ever to be held at that time.  It’s also called The Devil’s Hour, as some think it to be a mockery of the precise time at which Jesus died.  Clearly, there’s more to three a.m. than my observations.

The Three A.M. World is a surreal place.  Time slows down, and there’s a languid quality in the air.  There’s also a palpable sense of foreboding; not of imminent danger, but the potential for some hidden darkness hiding just around the corner.  To a man, each of the most dangerous people I ever encountered in my career were all night owls, predators cruising in the dead of night.  Even Matchbox Twenty says of three a.m. that they “can’t help but be scared of it all sometimes.”

It’s a rich world, unseen by most.  I can’t say I’d recommend you visit it, but for writers looking for an authentic setting for a compelling mystery or thriller novel, you could do a lot worse than brewing a hot cup of coffee and taking a drive at three a.m. to observe.  

Just be careful.

-Ben Keller


10 thoughts on “The Three A.M. World

  1. So very true, Ben. I worked the midnight shift (midnight to 8 AM) as a young officer and later in my career as a patrol sergeant. We always said that nothing good happened on the streets after midnight. Sure, on Friday and Saturday nights, “normal” people partied until 2 AM, but on “work nights,” most people out after midnight were up to no good. And when I worked homicide and my home phone rang at 3 AM, it was never good.


  2. Great post, Ben. You succeeded in conjuring up images from my own late-out shifts. I remember clearly the many burglaries in progress to closed businesses and the smell of fresh bread emanating from the J.J. Nissen Bakery or the baked beans from B & M Baked Beans as I traversed Tukey’s Bridge.


  3. There is indeed something mystical and menacing about the 3am world. And especially so in the deep, moss-covered South. This is a great post, Ben. It cast a spooky shadow over the evening. And Night Hawks is a perfect companion image.


  4. Ben, you captured what I call the thinnest hours of the night perfectly. Having been a nurse early in my professional life, I know the 3:00 a.m. world only too well. Perception plays games on you, nothing feels quite the same as it does when the sun rises. Those night critters Edward Hopper painted have dark stories to tell. Great post and a reminder to once in a while take a ride when you have insomnia!


  5. Loved the post. I’ve been trying since Monday to come up with my best 3:00 AM anecdote. But, as a courthouse guy, I’ve spent my career working when the sun was up. As a result, I’ve seen 3:00 AM so infrequently, from either side, that I just don’t have a story. (I guess that goes to your point.).


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