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.

The Carcassonne Sandwich

To celebrate “The Carcassonne Dream” turning a year old, here again is the recipe for the legendary sandwich that drives honeymooner Dan to desperate measures. As crisis deepens and he closes in on the final ingredients, he ultimately must choose where his fate lies: with his new bride or his dream sandwich.

FULL DISCLOSURE 1: the story isn’t crime like my latest stuff. It’s a blend of satire, adventure and magic realism that–OK, it’s a romp.

FULL DISCLOSURE 2: the local ham is completely made up. If you don’t mind fictional ham, proceed. Otherwise maybe try a Bayonne or Spanish jamon.

THE SANDWICH

Old Carcassonne is Medieval fortress preserved and looming over a modern-ish French town.  Even beset by tourists the place has the grandeur of a tomb and the vibe of fantasy. A place so epic needed a sandwich to match.

I started with the Provence classic pan bagnat. From there, lose the tuna and add some fiction and voilà:

  • Baguette
  • Goat cheese spread
  • Chicken
  • Carcassonne Ham (fictional)
  • Sliced hard-boiled egg from a purebred Marans chicken
  • Red onions
  • Kalamata olives
  • Tomato
  • Cucumber, sliced
  • Arugula
  • Red wine vinaigrette fermented from Languedoc Minervois AOC wine
  • Camarguesea salt
  • Fresh ground pepper

Enjoy!

Behind the Short Story: “Whorling”

Albert Einstein–you know, he of the supercomputer brain–once dished out this observation on the universe:

“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”

Well said, but only half said. Sure, gravity doesn’t make people weak-kneed in love, but some force does, internal or external. Einstein didn’t name the cause because he didn’t know it. No one does. Love, a mystery.

Now that is an idea I could get behind.

And gratefully so could The Oddville Press. I’m proud they’ve included my short story “Whorling” in their grand relaunch.

I wanted to write a love story. A twist on a love story. And I knew just the character to fall in love. I first met Marie back in 2010, as a bit player in the Cathaver (now Cathcart) manuscript. Forensic tech, young and vibrant, inexplicably attracted to the much older Colin. She just clicked, her scenes full of life.

And I needed to write her out.

She was so secondary to the throughline, and so random, that despite working so well on the page, she didn’t serve the story. Out she went, but no worries. A great character in need of a story is a fine problem to have. In she comes to “Whorling,” and at center stage.

Marie 2.0 keeps her strength and spirit. But she is tired, off her center. She hasn’t developed the worldliness her job demands. The inner Marie is still a Kilkenny lass, as up for a Smithwick’s or two as she is scrambling off on classified missions. She needs to share, but her whole life revolves around secrets. Enter Lyon and the mild-mannered improbably spy Colin, the soul of poise and experience. And for the humorous premise, a man boasting the impossible: ten perfect whorl fingerprints. Whorls matching prints lifted from the murder weapon.

Mystery elements abound–forensics, crime scenes, suspects–but, like Einstein, I can’t solve the mystery of love. So I made no attempt to solve the crime. Marie could only explore the clues: the sudden sweep off her feet, her racing thoughts and jealousy, her faith in Colin despite conflicting and circumstantial evidence. Mystery-ish, but about larger mysteries.

I hope folks enjoy Marie for Marie, the Kilkenny lass caught in a force stronger than gravity.

Shout-outs:

  • Burt Bacharach. You read that correctly. Aretha Franklin, too. Writing this, I would listen to her version of Burt’s “This Girl’s in Love With You.” Slow and soulful, but taking on urgency as it builds into almost head-over-heels dreaminess. Exactly how Marie needed to come off.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Hopefully I didn’t trash the stately pleasure dome.
  • Logan and the editors at Oddville. Thanks for challenging the story. Excellent editing.
  • NWMG Mystery Group. Thanks for the early feedback that set Marie on her path. Every month I get a killer chicken parm and your great suggestions.

Caveats:

  • I strived to get the forensics right. Fingerprint results do come back within minutes, but never as an “A Ha!” perfect match. DNA results take much longer, even for a fictionalized super-secret outfit with major resources. And DNA samples are fragile, not something for  mobile unit testing. Research notwithstanding, someone more expert in forensics could likely find errors in how I’ve portrayed the work. To which I’d say: “Thanks. How did you enjoy the story?”
  • Oddville included a not-for-children warning in the preface. Nothing too edgy, but I’ll repeat that here.

Behind: “The Carcassonne Dream”

It is winter. Christmas Eve 2011, and Writer Guy rides the train to Arles. Second class. The South of France trundles by outside, salt flats and olive trees, the mountainside and harbor towns of the Mediterranean coast. I sip my Coca-Cola Lite and return to my laptop.

For in France the writing flows, as fast as the sweeping wind is vicious. I plan a collection, short stories set in different French locales, and the first idea has begun to spill out.

It is about a guy in Provence. On a train. In winter.

Such is my premise. Six words nearly bring the Coca-Cola Lite out my nose: “France Is Continue reading Behind: “The Carcassonne Dream”