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.

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.

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”