Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 7, Scene 3

TOC page here.

We left off at the proper cliffhanger point last time, with Diana unable to see the action but hearing Sergeant Brown shout “Subject down! All clear.” after firing gunshots at the man who was in the right kind of van and who Officer Slaughter overheard homeless men referring to as the Bread Man.

Now we shift from hearing to vision:

By the time she lurched to the summit, the scene was easy to spot: the two officers’ Maglites illuminating a patch of ground on the far side of the row of trees.

“Report!” she shouted while picking her way down to them, wishing she had a Maglite, then remembering her phone and using its flashlight.

Brown was standing, a little amped, a lot nervous, his flashlight beam picking out a trail for Diana. Slaughter was leaning against a tree, one hand to her mouth in shock, the other pointing the light straight down.

“Guy wouldn’t stop,” panted Brown as Diana walked up to them. “I was catching up. Then he had a gun.” Brown aimed the flashlight toward where a small, dark man in stained coveralls lay prone, a bloom of blood on his back and a cheap pistol next to his outstretched right hand.

Diana relieved Brown of his weapon. “We’re going to follow procedure here. To the letter. You know everyone’s concerned about police shootings. Tell me how it went so I can get out in front of the narrative when IAB shows up.”

Brown took a few deep breaths. “I ordered him to halt, he ran. I chased him back into the trees and up the hill, I started to catch up. He whirled, I saw the light reflecting off the weapon, I fired. Hit him twice, he wavered, brought up the gun, I fired again, he went down.”

Diana turned to Slaughter, who looked like she was about to vomit. “Officer?”

“I was… I was still coming up the hill when my partner fired. I could only see the top of Brown’s head, couldn’t see the victim—the suspect—at all.”

“Did you have the dashcam running in the squad car?”

“Yes, ma’am. Still is.”

“Okay.” She looked back and forth between them. “Right now, I’d say you’re going to be okay. But I’ve been through this four times, and it’s never easy. You want my advice? Don’t volunteer anything.” She looked at her phone. “Let’s bring the circus to town.”

Within minutes, the first of the wagons arrived. A response team, then Crime Scene: she and Keller made sure Brown’s and the suspect’s weapons were transferred into Keller’s possession according to protocol. They took Slaughter’s, too, for good measure. Next came Chief Purcell, who took Diana aside: “Good shooting?”

“None of them are good, sir. Nothing contradicts Sergeant Brown’s story; but there’s no other witnesses, either. Partner wasn’t there, but she looks ill. Which just shows she’s human.”

“Is this guy our Reaper?”

“No idea, sir. I haven’t let Brown or Slaughter out of my sight. You want to be responsible for them, I’ll–”

“Be thorough, Detective. No media: park is cordoned off.”

Good luck with that, thought Diana, as she walked through the trees and down the slope, using her phone to stay just to the side of the footprints in the dewy grass. Behind her, CSI turned on the klieg lights, making her shadow stand out in front of her. She picked her way down, turning around every ten steps to look back up the hill. One phone call to Andrew would get her a military-grade night vision camera, but thinking about that brought up the stirrings of a tension headache.

Looks like a “good” shooting, in the sense that Brown has done nothing obviously criminal. But of course neither Slaughter nor Diana saw what happened, so anything could be true here, and of course in normal literary fashion I’m going to keep it ambiguous until I’m ready for a big reveal. Brown could be telling the truth; he could have fired first and only seen the ground later; he could have thrown the gun down after the shooting, having kept a throwaway gun for just that purpose—this is sadly not unheard of in stories of police shootings.

Note Diana’s tension between protecting a fellow cop, doing what her chief wants, and finding out the truth. But instead of saying she’s tense about this, I have her do what a normal person would do with the tension, which is to shift it to something tense yet familiar. Thinking about Andrew just gives her a good excuse to have that tension headache. What are we going to find on the dashcam? What’s in the van? We’ll have to see.

Another Mass Shooting in Georgia

Right after a loser in Oregon shot up a community college, another one killed his family and himself here in exurban Atlanta:

“No, nothing’s going on,” Rebecca Manning told Forsyth County deputies Tuesday night.

Despite the argument neighbors saw and heard, Manning said nothing had happened between her and her estranged husband, the sheriff’s office said Wednesday. Hours later, she and her two sons were dead and her father critically injured, allegedly because of her husband’s actions, according to authorities.

You can write the story yourself: weak, violent man is thwarted; weak, violent man gets one of the millions of guns just floating around Georgia; weak man kills family and self. Depressing, awful, not even worth writing fiction about, all because it’s the script that weak, violent men act out at least once a day in America.

There are two types of this sort of mass shooting incident, both represented here. The guy in Oregon was the young, awkward but “intelligent” in a very narrow sense guy, whose creepy misogyny drives women away but whose lack of social skills make it impossible for him to figure out quite why. He’s steeped in bad science fiction and fantasy, where the geeky smart guy is ultimately awarded a hot girl, but despite his delusional self-regard, women actively avoid him. He thinks the Reddit Red Pill and Pick-up Artist advice techniques are actually helping. Sooner or later, the cognitive dissonance between his vivid fantasy life and his prosaic real one with its mediocrity turns to violence; and in America, violence means multiple deaths from gunshot wounds instead of “just” a knife or club.

The killer of Rebecca Manning and her sons is the second type: about forty, also pretty much a failure: an angry, stupid and fundamentally very weak man whose masculinity is incredibly fragile. He pushes his way through the weak(er) people around him, but when his personal or legal chickens come home to roost, he lashes out, because he needs to erase the witnesses to his humiliation. And again, since we’re awash in guns, this erasure is permanent in four out of five cases.

Entitled, thwarted beta males are a public health threat of the first magnitude. But what can we do about it? Change models of masculinity, and do something about guns.

With respect to fiction, the only angle I can think to pursue is to tell the story from the wife’s perspective. Why does she fail to protect her children when she has the chance?

Listen to a Story for Free: “Gone Dark”

Here is my Soundcloud file containing my brand-new MP3 of my creepy short story Gone Dark. You can download or just listen. This is a prelude to my upcoming audiobook: I’m mostly just testing the recording quality with this very short story.

Take a listen and leave a comment: tell me what you think about how the recording sounds. I’ll give you the first few paragraphs of the story to entice you:

Just after noon on Saturday, Ben dropped Chuck off at the Fergusons’. He rang the bell, waited, rang again. No answer. With an ear to the door he could hear Bobby’s muffled voice: “Mommy!” No use interrupting them. Chuck stretched his head up for an ear rub, purring at full volume. “Okay, buddy,” said Ben. “You be good, and don’t bite Bobby even if he pulls your tail.”

He hustled back down the street, where Laura was tossing bags into the car. “Let’s go,” she said. “I want to beat the traffic.” And they thought they had; but just like every year, they got stuck in a monumental traffic jam near Dothan, Alabama, along with everyone else from metropolitan Atlanta driving to Panama City.

Sunday was spent on the beach. Monday was Memorial Day. So it was Tuesday morning before Bernice Witherspoon, a 26-year veteran of the US Postal Service, stepped up onto the Fergusons’ porch. She heard the yowling, then caught the smell. Next to the front door was a plastic carrier with a very pissed-off black-and-white cat inside. It put its face up to the mesh and screeched. Bernice didn’t look too closely: she hated cats. Give her a dog any day. A cat will steal your baby’s breath. Not that Bernice was too fond of children, either. But by the time she got back to her truck, she was caught up in a dream of lottery millions and had forgotten all about the cat.

On Wednesday morning, when Bernice returned, the cat was still there, no longer frantic but listless. Bernice grumbled, but it was God’s creature, too. She hustled back to the truck to call it in.

Spoiler: the cat doesn’t kill anyone. You can listen to it here. Enjoy!

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 7, Scene 2

TOC page here.

Diana has just got the call that Sergeant Brown and Officer Slaughter have spotted their quarry:

“Stay on the line.” Diana nodded at the men, got in the car, plugged the phone into the Jack. She put the car in neutral, let it drift backward down Pine, then spun the wheel and started the motor, doing a 180 and peeling down Pine and across Courtland into the more lightly-populated areas surrounding Renaissance Park. “Where are you?” She said to Slaughter.

“On our way down Renaissance Parkway. Turning the corner into the park, and—well, there’s the van, right here in front of us. There’s a couple of guys standing next to it.”

“Ease up on him–”

“Uh, Brown hit the blue lights. Homeless guys are scattering. Coming up behind… aaaand we got a runner. Subject is a small guy in coveralls, heading…”

Diana could hear the thump of the cruiser’s door and Brown’s shout, “In pursuit! APD! Stop!” His voice dopplered off as he ran after the subject.

Slaughter came back on. “Westbound, into the park.” Diana heard Slaughter’s door open. “Backing up my partner.”

Diana looked at the map on her phone. Running west from there had the guy heading straight toward her. She turned onto Piedmont, pulled over, drew her sidearm, got out with the door between her and the steep hill leading up into the side of the park, keeping low enough so if the guy came over the hill he’d see the car but not her.

She waited, in about as dark and quiet a place as was possible a mile from the center of a major city. Nothing. Maybe, on the edge of her hearing, a shout? Maybe something else. No, that was a guy shouting, the tone about right to be Brown. She held the phone to her ear. “Slaughter? Report.”

No reply at first, then a panting Slaughter: Diana could picture her keying her lapel mike while running. “Lost them in the brush—over there! Hey!” Then the mike went dead.

Diana looked up the hill at the trees on its summit. Her knee was going to love this. Then all of a sudden from beyond those trees came Brown’s clear shout, “APD! Stop!” Before Diana could think, she started up the hill, slipped in the wet grass, almost face-planted on the slope.

Then, clear as day, two gunshots in quick succession, then a third. Diana ignored the pain from her knee and charged up the hill, but she only got about halfway up before Brown shouted again “All clear! Subject down.”

Now you and I both know we’re in Act One, Chapter Seven: so the likelihood that this is the guy who killed Alex Dawson is pretty dang low. But we have willing suspension of disbelief, so maybe the rest of the book is going to be about the aftermath? Still, probably not. What we do have is Diana’s knee, which prevents her from getting right in the thick of the action. This is better from the standpoint of character development, but we have to sacrifice a little first-hand action in order to accomplish it.

Note how the consistent take on Brown is that he’s too bad-ass, too interested in being an action hero. Think on how more representative of urban police he is than someone like Diana.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 7, Scene 1

TOC page here.

We left Diana rushing away from her sister Fiona’s narrative about an octopus in a nightclub. Sergeant Brown and Officer Slaughter have heard about a guy in a white van who the homeless call Dread Man:

Diana pulled her car in behind the patrol car on Pine, just as Mustapha had at lunchtime. Brown was on the sidewalk, tapping his nightstick into his other palm, glaring down a trio of homeless men. “Do you really want to be the ones who piss me off?” he growled at them. “Down the block, off the block, don’t even look at the car. Shelter’s already closed for the night. Beat it. Now.”

They scurried off: he turned to Diana. “Sorry, Detective: the real animals come out at night.”

Diana bit back a retort as Slaughter got out of the car. Slaughter said, “I hope we didn’t interrupt you. This guy was handing out food down there, but none of the guys we talked to would admit to being there at the time.” Her gaze flickered to the side for an instant. “I guess some people just don’t like cops.”

Brown rolled his eyes. “How you want to work this, Detective?”

Diana said, “Let’s take two cars, in case we have to chase the guy down. I’ll follow you: do a tour of the various camps around here, maybe find someone who did see the van.”

“Yes, ma’am. Where to, first?”

“Renaissance Park.”

Brown jerked his head at Slaughter, who hopped into the squad car; he got in behind the wheel. As he gunned the engine, Diana took out her phone, caught Slaughter’s eyes in the side mirror, pointed at the phone and put it to her ear. Slaughter nodded: Brown popped the blue lights and pulled out onto Peachtree.

Diana stuffed the phone into her pocket, sauntered over to the three homeless guys. “I don’t have cigarettes,” she said. After coaxing them out into the open, “Oh, hi there, Tommy. Is Sergeant Brown giving you trouble?”

“He’s an angry man. We don’t take it personal.”

“Speak for yourself, Tommy,” said the chain-smoking man.

“God demands I dispense mercy and forgiveness.”

Diana said, “White vans, fellas. Big ones, for delivery, not people.”

Tommy said, “I wish I had something for you, ma’am.”

The tall man said, “We ain’t seen nothing. And we’ve kept an eye peeled.”

The smoker said, “Sad as it is to say, we do indeed fear the Reaper.”

Diana asked, “What are other people saying? About the van.”

“We been here all evening. Everybody know we got to watch for the van.”

Tommy said, “But nobody said they seen it.”

Diana said, “What’s going on in the shelter? Has Claire Longstreet made the place any better?”

The smoker said, “A little bit, yeah. They tightened up on some of the bad shit was going down there.”

The tall man said, “Still ain’t safe.”

“Yeah, but it takes more lookin’ to find trouble, now. That Claire lady, she a witch.”

Diana couldn’t help but ask. “Is she a good witch, or a bad witch?”

Tommy said, “It don’t matter, ma’am. Witches is witches. Stay away, don’t mess.”

“Sensible. Do you guys know what the Lazarus Program is?”

The tall man said, “We don’t watch us a lot of TV.”

The smoker said, “No, Charlie, it’s one of her witch things. She got that boy Red off the streets and back into the human world.”

Diana said, “Does Red have a real name?”

Charlie said, “I’m sure he do, but I never did hear it. Nothing red about him: he as black as Tommy.”

Tommy added, “She got him an apartment, cross town somewhere. We had a farewell party for him at the shelter.” He sighed heavily. “There ain’t nothing more awkward than a room full of people in recovery trying to enjoy themselves at a party.”

The tall man said, “Drive even the strongest to drink.”

Diana said, “Tell me something about him. Birthdate…?”

Charlie said, “He was a preacher, before.”

Before Diana could answer, she heard her phone crackle to life. Slaughter’s voice was tinny and stressed. “Detective Siddal? We’re at North Avenue and Argonne. A gentleman just flagged us down and said there’s a white van in Renaissance Park. Headed there now.”

What do we get out of this? Apparently not much: none of her questions are really answered, and what answers she gets complicate things. But we see the tension between police like Diana, who are respectful and get results (or at least, more questions), and Brown, whose uparmored persona drives potential sources away. Keep in mind, though, that Diana is a detective and therefore probably doesn’t have to spend a lot of time wrestling drunks.

Mostly, however, this scene reinforces the existence and value of the Greek chorus of homeless men who are going to provide a lot of the background in this novel. In Greek theatre, the function of the chorus was to provide conventional wisdom or the general attitudes of society; since these guys are the epitome of marginalization, their function is to critique the conventional wisdom.

But now we know about someone named Red, who was apparently helped by the Lazarus Program. This does not help Diana right now, but it will—or it may.

Read a Story for Free: “Endogamy”

Here is my story Endogamy, published by Eyedrum. An Iraqi-American family seems oddly calm about the death of their cousin. There are thrown donuts; and sex clubs. Enjoy. Here’s the first few paragraphs to get you interested:

Angie took another sip of beer before replying. “You have to understand, I haven’t even seen Emily in, like, a year. And I didn’t know her that well. She was … always really nice. As in, polite. Not high-maintenance: she was a vegetarian, but one time there was only chicken soup and she just shrugged and had some. No drama. But no effort, either. I always got the feeling she’d just as soon be at home reading a book.”

“No, that wasn’t it,” Megan said. “She was just always behind the camera.” She pointed behind Angie, at the plate glass window giving a view onto Flat Shoals Avenue. A typical East Atlanta crowd: two-thirds hipsters, one-third hip-hoppers.

“That’s it. I forgot: She made films. I never saw one.”


This Rapist is the Statistical Outlier

WSB gives us the sort of story that glues eyeballs to the local news, and is the sort of thing most people think about when they consider urban crime:

[East Point, a slowly gentrifying inner-ring suburb] Police are following several leads since they released a composite sketch of a man they believe is kidnapping women at gunpoint, forcing them to drive to ATMs and then sexually assaulting them.

Police think the same man who attacked a teacher last Friday kidnapped, robbed and raped two women Wednesday morning.

Police have released a composite sketch and a flier hoping the images on them will encourage someone in the community to come forward with information.


There’s more detail in the links, but this is the sort of story most of us are at least broadly familiar with, a staple of TV cop shows: woman leaves work feeling confident, hears/sees something suspicious, gets nervous, turns out to be something obviously harmless, laughs it off. Then all of a sudden she’s grabbed by a gun-wielding maniac on a dark city street, and ends up thinking rape and robbery could have been worse. 

We all know how this will end. Someone like this can’t help but get caught, especially since the brutality and perceived typicality of the crime will generate a lot of media and police attention. And to be fair, it’s a brutal crime—but what it isn’t is a typical one. This guy is two standard deviations away from your median rapist. Perusal of rape statistics in the USA is depressing as hell, but also reveals that 80% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 47% by a friend or acquaintance. I’ll wager most of 20% of stranger rapes are not a guy with a gun grabbing her; many of them are drunk/drugged women being preyed upon by predatory men.

So this guy is in no way what we ought to be thinking about when we think “rapist”. He’s fundamentally unrepresentative. It might be exciting and action-filled to write a story narrating the manhunt for him, or to write the psycho-thriller of what goes on inside his rapidly decompensating mind. but it would also promote a wildly incorrect stereotype. If we’re really going to tell a rape story, this guy is background, or counterexample, or prelude or interlude. The real story is the Nice Guy friend with a roofie, or the second Tinder date who won’t say no—or the child’s caregiver.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 6b

TOC page here.

And finally, we end this loooong chapter with a shaggy-dog story. Keep in mind that in the final version the chaptering will be considerably different: some chapters I tend to underwrite and others make too long. We get a peek into Fiona’s life:

After both [pie and whiskey] were consumed, Fiona said, “Funniest story from clubland this week?”

“Let me guess: pop star or celebrity has to go undercover?”

“Eh. Those aren’t usually all that funny. Last Saturday night, I’m up in the private club—my private club, not the one people can rent out.”

“Which is different from the regular VIP room, right?” Getting pregnant at nineteen might have made Diana miss out on the nightclub years, something she rarely regretted, but she was a good listener.

“Yep. But it has one-way mirrors that look out onto both of them.”

“Did I know that?”

“Maybe. They’re usually covered with curtains on my side. So Severin and I and some other people are enjoying ourselves with certain enhancements, and watching some wannabe ballers in the regular VIP and in the other private room. People who will pay $600 for bottle service, which it is not my job to understand, but merely to provide. First one is a B-list rapper, second is some sportsball person and his entourage. A white sports person, which is unusual in that white sports people are usually country, not disco. The topic at hand was given the wide variety of furry costumes I have managed to acquire over the years, which one of the ballers belonged in which furry costume.”

She read Diana’s expression. “No, this is not the funny part. This was just a bunch of jaded people amusing themselves. The funny part is that suddenly I’m starving, like I could really go for some barbecue—no idea why. And these enhancements? Are the sort that generally suppress the appetite. I mention this and everyone agrees. We were on the verge of ordering out for dinner at half past midnight. Only then does Severin pick up on the fact that he’s hungry because he can smell barbecue, and we all sit there and start sniffing, to make sure that were not just having some kind of group olfactory hallucination.”

Diana said, “That would have been funnier if y’all were wearing the furry animal costumes.”

“Ooh, you’re right. But we all agree that yes, we can definitely smell barbecue. But from where? Only after a long and tedious discussion about how the HVAC in the club works, does it occur to someone to open the curtains to the other private club, and there framed perfectly in the window is the sportsball guy and his best pal, and they are grilling steaks. Yes. They somehow smuggled a hibachi, charcoal and meat past my security.”

“And these are the drag queens on the door.”

“Of course they were. So I end up having to go in there, and they’re very sweet, but just imagine the hurt look on the fire marshal’s face–”

Diana’s phone beeped three times. “That’s Dispatch.”

“Oh, but I haven’t got to the–”

Diana held up a finger. “Siddal.”

Marlene from Dispatch said, “Detective, I’m patching through a unit from Zone Four, says they have info for you.”

A woman’s voice came on the line. “Detective Siddal? This is Melody Slaughter. Sergeant Brown and I stopped by the camp under the bridge? The highway bridge, where I-20 crosses the Connector? Some of the guys there were saying that a man in a white van was there earlier. Something about the Dread Man. And yes, it was the kind of van y’all are looking for.”

“Thanks for calling, Officer. I’m going to get in the car now: meet me… right by Peachtree-Pine? I’ll square it with Dispatch. Give me ten minutes.” She rang off, grabbed her bag and sidearm. To Fiona, “Got to run. Probably a false alarm.”

“But you haven’t heard about the octopus yet.”

This is mostly just fun. Fiona runs a nightclub, gets to do whatever she wants, but is outdone by someone else who really doesn’t care what other people think. Who’s Severin? We don’t know. Why does Fiona have furry animal costumes? Because she can. What “enhancements” are they on? Doesn’t matter. Adding in details like this and then not referencing them gives the appearance of deep background in Diana’s and Fiona’s relationship; which of course there is deep background there, but it would be intrusive to give it here because it would require one to tell the other things they already knew.

And then we break for the end of the chapter with the actual plot. A van with the Dread Man? Let’s go. Now we’ll move to the final chapter in the act, which will contain a lot of action and adventure and leave little room for conversation.

We will never get to hear about the octopus.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 6, Scene 6a

TOC page here.

Now we have the end of the chapter, the calm before the storm of action that will end Act I of the novel. Diana’s home life is one of the key features of the novels and short stories. We never learn all that much about Mustapha’s, because he’s a private guy. Diana is kind of private, too, but she’s got this vivid family life that keeps her balanced. We’ve already met Grace, twice, and heard about ex-husband Andrew. Now, we get to meet the relative who’s the most fun to write:

Diana opened the gate to her driveway: no motorcycle. She could feel her shoulders unkink at the prospect of a few hours of silence and solitude. Her personal e-mail had a message with a video link from some friends in Chicago: she wanted to watch it over a second glass of wine.

But as she walked up to the front door, the thumping of music from within gradually became louder: her shoulders kinked right back up again. Opening the door sent a wave of disco at her. She rocked back on her heels for an instant, then cupped her hands and shouted “Fiona?”

Fiona was on the living room floor, in the lotus position, her bright blue facial mask contrasting with the black silk kimono embroidered with cranes. Her eyes were closed, her fingertips curled up to meet above her palms over her knees. She wore high-grade noise-canceling headphones.

Diana snorted, walked to the stereo, cut off the music. An instance of blissful silence before Fiona squawked, “Hey! I had me a ticket to Nirvana.”

Diana said, “Isn’t meditation about quiet and inner peace?”

Her little sister took off the headphones. “Where’s Grace?”

“I’ve no idea. I’m not going to drive her away by asking questions. Why wear headphones and then turn up the music?”

“I live above a nightclub. I can’t find inner peace without a beat coming up through the floor. But all the lyrics are so trite I can’t stand to actually listen.” She arose from the lotus position without wobbling. “So he bought himself a cow. I’m happy for you both.”

“You are?”

“Of course. He’ll be busy plowing her fields and will therefore have less time to annoy us both. I wish him the best.”

“You do?”

“Of course not. I’d say I hope his heart gives out while plowing her, but think of the effect on the poor girl.” Fiona went to the kitchen sink, took her time washing off the face mask. “Besides, he hasn’t a heart: he had it replaced long ago by some kind of reactor.”

Diana scanned Fiona’s face for signs of even a hint of laugh lines, but even at thirty-two now, Fiona was fresh as a college girl, eerily ageless. “Thanks for your support.”

“I mostly just thank the fairies that he’ll be further gone from our lives. It’s a dream come true.” Fiona pointed to a green paper bag on the kitchen counter. “There’s pie. And whiskey.”

Fiona comes up in the stories and other novels, but this is our first encounter here. She’s beautiful, brilliant, and entirely self-centered. Unlike Diana, who while very wealthy has a sense of civic duty to do something valuable with her life, Fiona simply doesn’t care. As we shall see, she not only lives above a nightclub but also owns and runs it. Like Grace, she lets herself in; like Grace, she wears headphones; like Grace, she mocks Andrew—though while for Grace it’s mostly loving, it’s decidedly not for Fiona.

Note her arch, mannered way of speaking: he hasn’t a heart, not he doesn’t have one. This plus the lack of aging makes her a kind of faerie, someone whose feet don’t quite touch the earth, in contrast to the very grounded Diana. When Fiona can be bothered, she provides Diana a great deal of insight about the stranger aspects of cases. But she’s a faerie: she’ll only do it on a whim, or if you go through the right rituals.

Later, we’ll get more background about Fiona. She and Diana are half-sisters, not full: Diana’s mother died when Diana was an infant, and Fiona’s mother died when Diana was thirteen and Fiona four. Diana, for all practical purposes, is Fiona’s mother as well as Grace’s. So they’re more, not less, than full sisters. But none of this is germane right now, so we just let them talk.

Literature 101: A String of Beads

Thomas Perry‘s series of mystery-thriller novels stars Jane Whitefield, raised in the Seneca culture and professional disappearer: she helps people get away from real trouble and change their identities, with their pursuers close behind. Neat premise, competently executed for the most part. Not great, but generally good. In the latest installment, A String of Beads, Jane helps her childhood friend Jimmy escape first from being framed for killing a man, then from the Mafia, complete with guys with titles like Don.

One of the conceits of the series is that when Jane sleeps, figures appear to her in dreams and help her solve problems related to the case. Jane, and the dream figures, are well aware that they’re figures of Jane’s imagination, not actual visitations from spirits. It’s actually pretty well-done and works within the context Perry provides. If only someone from my childhood would manifest and tell me where my prescription sunglasses went.

Also throughout the text are allusions to Jane’s past attempts at rescuing/disappearing people, standard for a series of novels like this. Two that keep coming up are one where she was shot (the wound is still bugging her) and another where the guy she was helping to disappear ended up dead. Okay, no problem: it adds flavor and nuance.

But about 85% of the way through the novel, she’s visited by the avatar of the guy who got killed. Again, this is fine within the novel’s context: both the visitations and the existence of the guy have already been brought to our attention. The way it’s done, however, completely breaks the narrative:

Harry stood in the shadow a few feet from her at the corner of the porch, leaning against the redbrick [sic] wall. “Of course you’re dreaming.”

Harry Kemple was the runner she had lost. He was the only one who had been found by his pursuer and killed, and his death had been Jane’s fault. Harry died about ten years ago, and he had visited her in her sleep many times since then. Harry was still wearing the bad gray-green sport coat he wore the first time she’d met him. He had made his living running a floating poker game…

Let’s ignore the verb tense problems and focus on the structure. If Harry is important enough to give background for, the background should have been given back when his existence was noted earlier in the book. We’ve never seen Harry’s name yet, nor any details at all about him; just that he was the one who got away—or rather, didn’t get away. This is fundamentally bad form: this far into a narrative, we really shouldn’t have a new character at all, and if we must, then they need to have been foreshadowed in some way.

Also, a key feature of sloppy writing in mass-market fiction is to introduce a character in mid-scene with a single line of dialogue, then stop the flow dead in the water to give us a paragraph of clunky and mostly-irrelevant background. Show us details about the character, or leave them out, or introduce the background gradually, or do it first, before the dialogue starts. It’s lazy, and it breaks the narrative.

Unbelievably, the backstory continues for another page and a half of text. There’s one nugget of information: the guys who tracked down and killed Harry were Mafia, just like the guys after Jerry, though a different branch of the group. For Harry to reveal this to Jane (or really, remind her of it) is fine, but all of this backstory could be condensed into a sentence or two: “Jane had helped Harry escape after he’d witnessed a Mafia hit; ultimately, a contract killer for the organization had deceived Jane in order to track Harry down and kill him.” See how easy that is? Just enough information to give us the right context for why Harry is there this late in the book. We don’t need the recap of Book 4 in the series, including a long paragraph about just how Harry had been tracked down, because none of it is germane to A String of Beads, book 8, except that they both involve the Mafia.

Resist the urge to fill out a word count by giving too much background; find an organic way to put background in the story if you must.


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