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.

It Was a Cold and Stormy Night

Mysterious Books 042914 for Launch PartyIt was a cold and stormy night. A steady rain turned the New York streets slick and pattered the spring leaves. Cabs sloshed past office workers huddled in raincoats hurried home. The rain kept on, in streamlets down into the subway stations and turning the air into a glistening haze.

Perfect night for spies.

Or, in my case, perfect weather for launching an anthology about spies. On April 29, I was privileged to attend the official launch of MWA‘s Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War at Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Bookshop. Editors and collection architects Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson hosted a wonderful night of conversation and signing. And more book signing. After which we signed more still. It was a dream to meet fellow mystery lovers and share a table with such accomplished talent as Deaver, Benson, Gayle Lynds, John Sheldon, Alan Cook, Brendan DuBois, Katia Lief, Vicki Doudera, Jonathan Stone, Gigi Vernon, Joseph Wallace, and Katherine Neville.

Official pix here.  The signed copies available for purchase here.

Yes, it was a cold and stormy night…that this guy will never forget. My enduring thanks to MWA, the folks at Hachette, and the Mysterious Bookshop.

 

Show Some Love for Effie Perine

Dashiell Hammett earned his place in literary lore many times over, for amazing fiction but also for presenting the quintessential “lady walks in” opener.  The Maltese Falcon kicks off with a scene borrowed into cliché. Secretary Effie Perine leans into PI Sam Spade’s office and says:

“There’s a girl out here who wants to see you.”

Plot summaries barely mention Effie, and when they do, usually it’s about her loyalty. As wholesome. Her Goodreads character profile is blank. The Wikipedia entry mentions her all of three times.

Wholesome? Afterthought? Effie commits at least that many felonies:

  1. She harbors Bridgette, a suspect in the murders of Archer and Thursby.
  2. She aids Sam in tampering with a crime scene and not reporting a murder (Captain Jacoby).
  3. She conceals key evidence in multiple homicide investigations – the Falcon itself.

Tack on abetting Sam’s affair with Archer’s wife, the jealous Iva, and the biggie: lying to her own mother. Loyal? Too loyal for her own good.

Dig into the story, and Effie becomes more than someone to light Sam’s smokes. Without her, Sam is locked up for Archer’s murder in Act Two, or if he cracks foxy enough to beat the rap, is offed by any of several conspirators with no reservations about killing over the Falcon.

Is she still sounding wholesome?

Effie could not exist in Sam’s world if she were wholesome. She’s a good person trying the best she can. For me, this provides the novel’s moral touchstone: Effie’s tortured and wavering morality highlights the raging amorality of the other characters, most of all Sam. He grows more excited, and entangled, as his grand game progresses, but Effie grows more horrified. She takes any opportunity to remind him of the risks and the costs he’s piling up. After Sam gives her a glimpse at his scheme, Effie makes a pitch-perfect reply:

“You worry me.”

The end of the novel leaves her faith in Sam shaken. The greatest price Sam pays for success may not be a dead partner or a lost chance at fortune or love forsaken.

Maybe it’s Effie.

Masters of Voice: Donald E. Westlake

I wish I had discovered Donald E. Westlake years earlier than I did. He is a writing hero for his ability to tell a story and to make it zing. His The Ax is as terrifying a novel as I’ve ever read. His Parker character is legendary, but it’s the Dortmunder crew I love most.

Here are some favorite examples of his distinctive wit:

They, all of them, the men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy was no longer an option. In short, the place looked like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.

– Watch Your Back (2005) Continue reading “Masters of Voice: Donald E. Westlake”