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.

On to Chapter 7.

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.

Murder and the Logging Truck

This story by Joe Johnson, my absolute favorite crime reporter in the state, has all the elements of a classic Georgia crime: entitled masculinity, guns, probably meth (certainly meth), low-wage dangerous jobs, poor marksmanship on the part of police, and “feticide”. Long story short, boyfriend goes nuts, barricades himself inside the house, cops surround it, somehow he gets out, leads them on chase, shoots and mortally wounds his pregnant girlfriend, then throws her out of the car. Just another summer day in Georgia. But then it gets weird:

[Ryan Edgar] Arnold climbed onto a tractor with a scoped high-powered rifle, possibly contemplating making a stand, according to Oglethorpe County Sheriff Mike Smith. Instead, he commandeered the logging truck and at gunpoint forced the driver to drive.

When the driver refused to crash the truck through a police roadblock on a dirt access road at the logging site, Arnold reportedly shot him and took control of the big rig, ramming it into four police cars. Oglethorpe County deputies and a Georgia State Patrol trooper fired upon the truck, injuring and incapacitating Arnold.

You can hear the chase music now. But if they’d only shot Arnold, we’d say a few words of compassion to the family of Haley Hill, whose picture makes her look like too nice a person to date a guy with a dumbass fake teardrop tattoo, and move on. Dramatic in the sense of pulse-pounding action, but not especially literary, just sad. But wait, there’s more:

Mike Ayers, special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Athens regional office, said it was unclear if the driver, identified as 58-year-old Paul Donald Davis of Madison County, was also struck by law enforcement gunfire. Davis’ injuries did not appear to be life threatening, officials said. The trucker reportedly was shot five times.

Agents spent Tuesday at the scene to use bullet trajectories and other means to determine how Davis was shot.

“He could have been shot by Arnold, he could have been shot by law enforcement, or it could have been a combination of both,” Ayers said. “Whatever it is, it’s important to note that this was a lethal situation with involving a suspect in a tractor trailer.”

Oh, wait, hang on: they managed to shoot the poor driver five times? Or really, at least four, since Davis’ son claims one of the shots came from Arnold? Holy cow. Yes, it’s a lethal situation, which is a really good reason not to shoot up the cab of the truck and hit the driver. These clowns don’t even know who shot whom. We can all hear the careful cover-up being stitched together right now, where Arnold, an obvious and unredeemable villain, gets tagged with shooting Davis, which he may have done once but is going to get the rest of the blame for because lord forbid we would hold a rural deputy responsible for blazing away at a moving truck with a hostage inside. Let’s wish Mr. Davis a full recovery and a generous settlement, and fervently hope that the ballistics report doesn’t get doctored.

But Davis’ presence and outcome transform this from the banality of evil to something around which a work of fiction could be constructed. The story has to be told from the POV of our version of the truck driver. Here he is, working his crappy job, moving heavy loads at high speeds on poorly-maintained roads for maybe $15/hr. He’s stressed about bills, about his girlfriend who might be pregnant… or better yet, he’s stressed about something stupid, like his fantasy football team or something bitchy somebody said to him. He’s feeling powerless, frustrated—and then some asshole with a teardrop tattoo, the meth shakes and a high-powered rifle hijacks his truck and makes him run from the cops. He stands up to the guy, and refuses to run the blockade. Vindicated: he has some measure of control back over his life. And then the cops light him up. What are his thoughts in his hospital bed?

Literature 101: Hush Hush

Yesterday I spent a lot of time reading the new novel Hush Hush by Laura Lippman, who in addition to writing very good literary mystery fiction also has an ongoing mystery-thriller series starring PI Tess Monaghan. Lippman’s work is all set in and around Baltimore; like Tess Monaghan, she used to be a reporter for the Baltimore Sun; she is married to David Simon, executive producer of The Wire.

The Monaghan novels are decent but not great, but then again, she sells a lot of them and I’m not in the center of her target matrix, anyway. Hush Hush was well-done, matching a narcissistic, terrible mother up against Tess, who is sure she’s doing a terrible job with her own three-year-old. Right near the end, however, I sat up and took notice when…


…Tess’ daughter and aunt were held hostage by a not-yet-identified guy with a gun. The scene of her sneaking into the aunt’s house and taking the guy out was fine and well-timed. But then the guy turns out to be some dude who was peripheral to another case: he’d lost everything and used squirrel logic to blame Tess, and had been stalking her. He had nothing at all to do with the crimes at the center of the main plot; it was pure coincidence that he showed up on the night Tess was worried someone from the main plot might try something.


None of this is really problematic. The coincidence is at least within the bounds of plausibility in genre fiction, so sure, we’ll roll with it. But what did Lippman fail or refuse to do? Foreshadow this at all. In a properly-written work of genre fiction, that case or that guy needed to have come up somewhere near the beginning of the novel. Maybe only briefly, in a throwaway line or a phone call or a list of office tasks. But the lack of foreshadowing makes me, as a reader, kind of cranky. Wait: this guy hasn’t been in the book yet, and I’m like 85% of the way through the text?

In a class on how to write fiction, this would get flagged. “Link to this in the first half of the book,” Lippman would be told. But she’s a big-name author, so nobody’s going to give her crap. It’s just jarring. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for something that’s more reflective of how real life works than something where I’m warned ahead of time. That says a lot about fiction, if you think about it.