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Crime, Mystery & Suspense France Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Pride Cometh Before the Sale: Behind “Murder on the First Night’s Feast”

There is a C.S. Lewis quote about the blindness of the proud. To paraphrase, someone completely full of themselves is so busy looking down their noses that they’re blind to what’s above them. And what’s above them, of course, is the whole, wide world.

We’re all prideful. Someway, somehow we’re all darn proud of something: kids, cars, bankrolls, something. Hell, writing for publication is itself an exercise in pride. It takes vanity to assume another person would invest their time and money in your words. Yes, we’re all proud because we’re all human, and it’s all healthy enough.

Until it’s not.

I’ve tackled pride as a subject before. In “Crack-Up at Waycross,” (Murder Under the Oaks, 2015) the would-be pecan truck jacker has such a grandiosity complex he’s barely bothered to plan the jacking. “Book of Hours”(AHMM Jul/Aug ’18) is about recovering self-confidence. I’ve even done pride in an amateur sleuth way, one Vi Celucci in “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson” (AHMM May ’15) being too self-actualized not to meddle in a Secret Service investigation. Pride is endless fodder for a humor guy. But I’m not sure I’ve done the whole pride thing as intentionally as with “Murder on the First Night’s Feast” (ahem, proudly included in the November 2019 Mystery Weekly).

Enter Madame Feubert. It’s 1932, the Touraine countryside and the height of French complacency between WWI and WWII. Mme. Feubert and her gown-and-tux cabal are the latest in a line of self-declared gourmands devoted – I mean devoted – to the Sanglier a la Montvaste, a cut of boar served at only one Loire River chateau and only at a presumed peak each October. For centuries, their retconned legend goes, the Montvaste family has entertained Europe’s finest palates for a two-week feast and those-in-the-know soiree.

Categories
France Humor Travel

Mangeot of the Somewhat Nordlands: Among Les Français, 2018

Lately my traveling alter ego Mangeot of the Nordlands has chronicled expeditions through Norway, Quebec, and now France.

Try not to judge him too hard. He means well.

13 April — Tours

We arrive among Les Français (meaning “They who put sauces on anything”) at their chief aerodrome of Paris. It is a grand city of Statuary and much stone and plentiful macaroons. It is neither clean nor particularly well-lit.

There is Much Strife among the trainsmen. We journey forth regardless as far as they will convey us, into the Touraine. We stop at the drizzle-swept outpost of Tours, pronounced “TWO-er” and meaning in Old French “Why are you not smoking?”. The country folk greet us in a State of Ennui until we demonstrate means of payment. Then fine chefs serve us their Kir and Martini Rouge and treat us to feasts of savory pies made with chicken egg and salted pork. They show us all manner of chateau. Over local wine in which the townsfolk take Great Pride, they ask if I have read the writings of their noted author Balzac. “Some,” I say. “Oui,” they say, “you must be forgiven. You who are possibly from the Nordlands.” I nod. “Perhaps less so,” I say. “But still there is this,” they say. “Why are you not smoking?”

16 April — Bordeaux

We cross the Loire and sally forth into the hinterlands. Onward we venture, beyond the cloudy gloom and Lordly Manors, beyond the Signals of Wireless Service under what our quartermaster tells me is an International Roaming Plan. Our party presses into the Aquitaine, which I translate as “We wait until after the nap.”

In these Darkest Wilds we arrive among the Bordelaise. These are a river people who

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Crime, Mystery & Suspense France Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Behind the Story: “Queen and Country”

Lesson one on writing a spider story: Never write a spider story.

Don’t do it. It’s been done. Since mythological times. Spider women. Tangled webs we weave. Innate fears and phobias. The built-in burdens alone will wrap poor writer you in literary silk. See what happens with spider stories? The metaphors have started already.

Lesson two: If you’re going to write a spider story anyway, have a plan.

A better one than I did, when in 2013 I started on something called “Orb Weaving in Wonderland.” There was this professor guy Nick, and he was using a field trip in the French Camargue to romance the fetching young Rachel. The story, soon retitled “Nephila Rachelis,” had it all, if all means an uncentered blech of sci-fi, Western, morality play, and mixed message. 

Lesson three: If you’ve started a spider story, know when to de-tangle and walk away.

The thing was, now “Nephila Cassandris” (Rachel/arachnid, too on-the-nose, that metaphor problem again) had

Categories
Crime, Mystery & Suspense France Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing Travel

Behind The Short Story: “Aix to Grind”

Yes, I was in Aix-en-Provence, and sure, I was studying a Picasso in a museum’s first room, only a token velvet rope between me and it, and okay, I even thought, “man, this is how many million euro hanging how many steps from the door?” But no, I wasn’t casing the joint. I’m no thief. I am a writer, though, and here’s the thing about writers: we dream all day.

The heist was on.

Ahem. The heist story. Story. Yeah.

So. What makes a caper story click? I studied a different artistic master: Donald E. Westlake. My takeaways: Humor, sure. The expert-ish crew, absolutely. Both serve to pull a reader in, get them ready to root for the real driver: audacity. Impossible odds and Improbable success. A big and bold plan. A big and bold disaster.

For “Aix,” one painting wouldn’t be audacious enough. Stolen art devalues remarkably, usually fenced or traded for cents on the auction-value dollar. Not that I’ve done it, mind you, but this story required its share of research. No, audacity demanded a major haul. A retirement-plan haul. I don’t know, like maybe the museum’s upstairs collection of Cézannes.

So how do you knock over an art museum? Well, based on my research, you don’t.

I mean, you can try, but with modern security tech, go ahead and plan on a lengthy prison term. The daring cat burglar and their zip lines and their laser-dodging acrobatics? There’s a reason the Pink Panthers go after jewelry shows, not museums. And the art thieves these days ain’t no gentlemen. “Aix” tries both to honor and debunk the Hollywood-style caper, stripping it down without spoiling the fun.

Where were we? Ah, museum theft. To get the past the video cameras, past the motion sensors, past the alarms, past the watchful docents and the patrolling guards, past the one-way and maze screws securing the hundred-pound frames to the wall, you need real help, not science fiction. You don’t beat the security system. You find someone willing to turn it off.

Enter our anti-hero Ed. A supposed chameleon and cocksure thief, smart enough to see his career winding down but dumb enough not to see how. Then there’s Gustav, his partner, the shady art dealer and master planner. Together they’ve carved out a niche of country chateau jobs, picking off ruined aristocratic family treasures, but their bubble of relative safety is collapsing inside the now-organized world of art theft. Ed talks Gus into going after our load of Cézannes as their ticket to retirement. All they need is…

The insider: Sadie Lannes, blond art student one part Holmes and two parts Moriarty. A natural genius at crime, not that smitten Ed can admit it fully. She proved difficult to write. Guarded, even to the author, and with quasi-Holmesian deductive powers. Whenever she stepped onto the page, I had to fake being as smart as her bent genius.

She can get them in, but how to get them out? Any good job needs a diversion.

Spend a few late afternoons in France, and you notice a pre-dinner rush on fresh bread. In December, the crowds shift toward the Christmas markets. Aix’s market isn’t the most quaint, but it is huge, with carnival rides and food châlets and santon figurine stalls packed along Cours Mirabeau. The Christmas Eve Thirteen Desserts that Gus seizes on is a real and delicious French tradition, and we sampled all baker’s dozen there at the market. I bet the lady who sold me a vin chaud had no clue I was wondering how to use the market to distract the cops. Or maybe she did. Aix is that kind of town.

And now, for the getaway.

In my experience, like a caper the most powerful endings come early in the planning, and I had this one from the first. That freedom let me deepen “Aix” and set up a slam-bang twist finish where–sorry, no spoilers. Buy the AHMM. Hell, subscribe to AHMM. You’d be doing yourself a reading favor. If you want to know more still, buy me a biere belgique sometime. We’ll talk it out.

“Aix” itself is strange to write about. I wrote the first draft riding the trains across France, simultaneously with what became “The Carcassonne Dream” and “La Upsell.” This group has deeply personal meaning, for those weeks of vin chauds and Provencal  towns and Roman ruins that brought them to life.

And then there’s “Aix” catching the eye of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Consider me honored to appear in this latest round in AHHM’s stellar history.

Oh, and to repeat because this kind of important, I never knocked over any museum. Nope. My characters did, though, and I hope you enjoy reading about it.