Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 2

TOC page here.

And now we shift back home. The key to good detective fiction is character: it’s great to tell a good story about a crime, but the best-selling novelists have characters we either identify with or want to be. Right now the example I’m thinking of is the series of novels set in rural Louisiana starring ex-drunk Dave Robicheaux and his still-drunk friend Clete, which are wonderful novels with vivid characters but whose author’s name I can’t remember and now have to look up: James Lee Burke is the answer, and he’s a very good writer, but I remember his novels because of the characters.

So here’s Diana returning home to a surprise:

Mustapha got out of Diana’s car, leaned back into the open door. “Over/under on the first phone call about the Reaper?”

“Six-thirty? We leak like a sieve. I’ll come get you after eight.”

“I’ll have the car by then. You want me to come get you?”

“I’ll meet you at the station: I need the walk. And don’t discount your son’s natural charm. That, plus the wounded warrior thing, might keep them out all night.”

Diana sat in the car until she saw Mustapha close his front door behind him, then took out her phone; no messages. Too late to call anyone except Grace, who wouldn’t answer. She sighed and drove back to her townhouse in Midtown’s Ansley Park neighborhood, a mile and a half up Peachtree and a world away from where Alex Dawson had been dumped.

She was half-asleep when she pressed the button to open the gate to her driveway, but snapped awake when her headlights washed over Grace’s motorcycle parked near the steps leading up to the door. Grace herself was at the kitchen table, two laptops open, headphones on over the boy’s short haircut that Diana knew it was pointless to say probably wasn’t inspiring eligible young men not to mistake Grace for a lesbian.

Grace looked up, took off the headphones, stood. The Army-surplus coveralls over her lanky figure probably didn’t help, either. “I’m glad I went out with Dad.”

“Duty called. Did you torture him with vegetarianism?”

“Beside the point. Dad’s getting married.”

Diana searched her mind, looking for a trace of loss or sadness. “I’m guessing there’s an iron-clad prenup?”

“He didn’t say. She was right there with us at dinner. She’s my age. She’ll turn twenty-five a week before me.”

Diana went to the fridge, poured herself half a glass of Pinot Noir, sipped. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Why buy a cow?”

Grace walked to the sliding door that led to the patio and opened it a crack. “What I was thinking. And she is a cow, too. Tell me what a Dad Girlfriend would look like.”

“Scrawny fashion model with an MBA. Oh, and no soul.”

“This one is all curves. Martika, is her name.” Diana’s cat Frey came in from the patio, did a figure eight around Grace’s ankles, purring loudly. “From Estonia: I had to look up where that is. Dad went over there, and had a contest. Like those awful reality shows, with a rose? And Martika won.”

Diana sipped her wine, leaned on the back of the ancient leather couch. “Well, that part is classic your father.” Another sip. “Though the curves do sound uncharacteristic.” Frey hopped up on the couch and curled up right in the middle.

Grace took a fat joint from a case in one pocket of her coveralls, bit off the twist of paper at one end, spat it out the crack in the door. “She’s really a cow. As in, a breeding animal. Dad wants to have more children.”

Diana downed the last of the wine, rested the glass on a side table. “He always did.” She watched Grace light up with a Zippo, take a long hit, hold the still-burning joint well outside the sliding door so as not to let the smoke drift back into the house.

Grace did the trick where she could talk without actually exhaling. “And you never let him. He’s still mad.”

“You’re all I need.”

“I always wanted a baby brother.” She turned her head and exhaled out onto the porch.

Diana shrugged. “Maybe now you’ll have the chance. So, he’s gone and bought himself the best breeding cow in all Estonia.” Grace, who had leaned her head out the door to inhale again, nodded. “I’m surprised it took him this long to think that one up. You realize this will cut into your inheritance?”

“Who cares? It’s all blood money.” Grace exhaled again, bent down and ground out the coal of the joint on the concrete patio. “And infinity divided by a couple of extra half-siblings is still infinity. I’m sure poor Martika thinks she’s getting the deal of the century: pop out a couple of puppies for a ticket out of Estonia and one percent of a defense-industry CEO’s pile of money. But it’s still creepy. I asked Dad why he didn’t just adopt some starving kids from right here.” She put away the joint, slid the door mostly shut, to leave a crack. “You can probably guess his reaction.”

“You got the don’t be a hippie look?”

“That, plus a long lecture on how he’s demonstrated superior fitness and should have his own genes passed on, instead of spending his resources to raise the children of people too stupid to use birth control.”

Diana smirked. “Like, for example, your father and me.”

“Ha ha. Should have thought about that one. I was mostly just glad for Martika that she doesn’t speak much English.” Grace yawned, caught herself. “That was supposed to wake me up. I want to finish editing this film tonight.”

Diana yawned, then yawned again. She shook her head back and forth, quickly. “What’s this one about?”

“Disenfranchisement. How the Georgia Secretary of State’s office keeps losing voter registrations for poor black people.” Grace watched her mother yawn again. “Watch it in the morning, when it’s done. Go to bed.”

“Yes, dear.” Diana began to walk up the stairs.

Halfway up, she heard Grace say, “So who got murdered tonight?”

“A homeless man. It’s going to be a lurid media sensation; and it will become one of those unsolved cases that my captain…” she paused to yawn again. “…will bark at me about at a meeting about a week from now, because we won’t have solved it.”

“Sleep on it.”

But tired as she was, Diana couldn’t fall asleep. She would need rest to deal with the dozens of calls she’d get tomorrow about the Reaper; she wondered briefly if anyone would care about poor Alex Dawson if he’d been killed by a fellow homeless man over a bottle.

Try as she might to will herself into unconsciousness, her thoughts turned to her ex-husband Andrew and his new cow, and from there to her then-boyfriend Andrew, twenty-five years ago, and how at nineteen she ended up pregnant, and at twenty, a married mother, and then spent the rest of her life running from commitment. Without her own family money, Andrew Bascombe would never have been able to found Universal Optics, would never be able to hold a contest for the perfect cow.

She got out of bed. If only weed didn’t make her speedy and paranoid instead of sleepy. But at least there was Benadryl in the medicine cabinet.

Setting, character, theme. Here we are in Diana’s house, of which I show little, but there’s wine in the fridge. We’ll see more of it later. More important is Diana’s attitude about the house, which is that it’s hers alone and her grown daughter—the one with whom we’ve already established she has a troubled relationship—is a visitor, not an ongoing presence.

And speaking of presence, we have the absent one of Diana’s former husband, which the text tells us all we need to know for now. You don’t see educated people in late-20th-century America having children at nineteen, so we know there’s a story there, and not one we have to reveal right away. Andrew’s a bit of a caricature from Grace’s and especially Diana’s point of view, but that’s to be expected. And yet he deserves caricature: a CEO type, holding a contest for the perfect breeding cow? Sometimes writing fiction can be a lot of fun. Andrew’s an occasional character in the short stories, and he’s in both of the other novels, and holding a rose contest is totally in character for him.

Note also how Grace’s character is shown more than told here: she dresses like a boy, she edits social justice documentaries (and as it turns out, directs them), she smokes weed casually in front of her mom, she has a pretty nuanced opinion of her dad’s cartoonish behavior. For Diana, we have more not quite feeling at home, even in her home.


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  1. Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 4, Scene 1b | Julian Cage

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