Behind: “What Settles After the Stars”

IMG_0953One fated French night in 1700 or thereabouts, so the story goes, Dom Pierre Pérignon was stalking his Hautevillers cellar, turning his bottles, and the great monk decided then was as good a time as any to have a taste. And what he tasted went down crisp and bright and bubbly, the first modern champagne. and he cried out, his voice echoing through the chalk caverns, “Brothers, come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”

A great story, if total hokum. Yep, it never happened, but Continue reading “Behind: “What Settles After the Stars””

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: “Uprisings at Cap d’Antibes”

There’s nothing like a good, old-school revolution to get a story going. Great or small, a lightning coup or decades in the making, needed change or epic tragedy. Revolution, for better or worse, is essentially human.

The idea of a revolution wriggled into my brain some time back. In my fiction usually a form of natural order wins out, often crushing a too-bold POV. Later I began wondering about the true insurgent. Sometimes the natural order wins out only because good hearts fight for it.

One idea grabbed me. Not just any revolution but the Revolution. Socialism turned to its extreme. Far too big a canvas for short fiction, unless a very personal uprising set against a revolutionary backdrop. And so, at a fictional tennis academy in the glimmering Cote d’Azur, a revolution begins.

I’m proud to announce my unabashed romp “Uprisings at Cap d’Antibes” is included with other terrific writing in Lowestoft Chronicle #17. It’s my second contribution to Lowestoft, after last year’s “La Upsell.” If you’re not reading Lowestoft, you should, but only if if you love to laugh through far-flung (mis)adventures. Consistently a wonderful read.

Back to the revolution. “Uprisings” goes back to 2011 brainstorming, insurgents overthrowing a neighborhood association. Say it was a gated community, and the association has become bloated and under the thumb of a busybody who frets over nits like shrub height. I even wrote a few thousand words of something called “May Day.” The main character came, a proto-Dasha freaked out over the revolution’s growing interest in her tennis star daughter when the new boss proved worse than the old boss. The story itself never took off,  a too-easy premise and riddled with darlings and design flaws. Point is, the kernel stuck, filed under Good Try.

Last year the idea came back in fits and starts. The opening scene to “May Day” was good, so much so that it bothered me not knowing how things played out for Dasha. The “A Ha!” finally came with seeing the revolution didn’t have to occur in a neighborhood. It could happen somewhere out of Dasha’s element or somewhere she wanted anything but instability. A place. A tennis academy. In France. The Riviera. Feliks the uber-wealthy ex-pro wouldn’t pick the gloomy north to set up shop. Make it Antibes, as swank as it gets, minutes from Cannes.

So. A revolution. Sergei the son and true believer ousts dad Feliks the communist icon turned capitalist mogul. But the story is Dasha’s revolution. Unlike the Karperovs, gentle mom Dasha wants a closer relationship with daughter Hailey (parallelism alert!). She’s a happy second fiddle to her banker hubbie (up parallelism alert level to Orange!) With some massaging, the story fell into line: Dasha must rise up (Parallelism alert code red!). Against Sergei, who wants to claim Hailey as his poster child. Against her jackass husband, who wants tennis stardom for Hailey at any price. Against her meek self, who thought she wanted to breeze through life as a socialite and in the reflected glory of a phenom daughter.

I hope readers take to Dasha. She was fun to write, somebody you’d welcome at a dinner party table. Loving, well-intentioned, wry, but quick to shelther inside her privileged lifestyle. Writing Feliks was a hoot. A man of faded but not lost capability, from whom no combination of words seemed over-the-top. And Hailey is way, way up there among characters I’m blessed to have found me. Machine-focused, except for when she glances needfully at mom in the bleachers. From the mouth of this predatory child could come one-liners and an insensitivity to the contradictions and cruelties around her. She is the monster Tom and Dasha have made. Dasha and Hailey’s mother-daughter moment–after all that it took them to get there–sticks with me as the story’s best moment, maybe poignant in its way. The scene surprised me writing it.

Not to instigate, but I hope folks check out Dasha and her uprising.