Behind: “Sparks to the Bear’s Hide”

JANUARY 2013, CRITIQUE GROUP, NASHVILLE

“If there’s one thing I have no business doing,” I told them, “it’s writing a spy story.”

It was a sharp winter’s day, and around our pub table the critique group nodded readily. A little too readily. Crimped in my hands was a draft of the spy story I had been attempting to introduce.

“It’s for Mystery Writers of America,” I explained. “Every year heavy hitters put together an awesome anthology. This time it’s the Cold War, with Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson, the only two American authors ever to pen an authorized James Bond novel.”

Now, it is a fact that inserting James Bond into any conversation kick-starts it big time, no matter how it was humming along pre-Bond. Try it. You’ll see what I mean. On that particular cold Saturday, the group’s nods turned knowing, if at whatever action-packed Bond scene ran through their heads. Echoing through pub you could almost hear the surf guitar opening to Dr. No.

NOVEMBER 2012, THE 12:15 TGV OUT OF PARIS

“Damned British,” I said, scribbling liked mad.

I meant the various grand schemes and counter-strategies John Lewis Gaddis had outlined in his The Cold War, open on my seat-back table. Out our train window morning glimmered over France. Beside me, my wife pretended not to wake up.

“It’s for the MWA anthology,” I wanted to remind her. But I didn’t. I’ve gotten good at staying married.

The train barreled south, into Provence. I read on, well-fueled by inspiration and Coca-Cola Lite. Weeks into research, no writer fed me Cold War perspective like Gaddis or its zeitgeist like John le Carré. Gaddis framed the stakes; le Carré made it human. Both got inside the grand monoliths of East vs. West and showed its reality: fragments and fissures.

I was honing in on the story gold buried in those fractures. The British, a fading power, forever had to calibrate their interests, balancing instinct with how far they dared stray from America. If the British on their isle walked a tightrope, imagine the front lines where East and West truly met. Imagine where the Cold War wasn’t the least bit cold.

Where there was blood in the streets.

DECEMBER 2012, THE STACKS, WILLIAMSON CO. PUBLIC LIBRARY

“Hungary!” I said. All these months later I like to think I declared the Hungary idea. It was worth declaring.

A damning piece of evidence that I only thought it: no librarian asked me to leave. Surely any Eureka!-grade exclamation would have brought at least a curt rebuke.

Already I had dismissed Czechoslovakia. Russian tanks crushing their 1968 rebellion was an iconic if grim image of the times, but the math was all wrong. A lead character had long since begun to form: young woman, no spy training, a gaping wound in her soul where a daddy’s girl used to be. A Czech recruited for a revenge mission set a Prague version in the mid-80s, already the Glasnost era. Not enough boil to the pot.

But the 1956 Hungarian Revolution?

Cue Budapest, 1973. And cue the Bond riff, if that’s your thing.

DECEMBER 2012, THE SANCTUM SANCTORUM (aka my office), FRANKLIN

“Revenge,” I said.

The gray cat in my lap blinked her wet eyes. Either she wasn’t impressed or she preferred her revenge served colder still.

I kept typing–there is no point elaborating to a cat. What I’d meant was, with all that Cold War gamesmanship, a Shakespearian turn of a game upon its players. A pox on both the East and West’s houses. The idea sounds tidy a year later. At the time it was anything but fast or easy, a prying loose of story, of craft vs. impulse. But I’d begun to write, kindled by grainy Polaroids of ‘73 Budapest and launched by a narrator I can’t explain. Helena appeared to lead me before I had its end, before she had the name. But her first words she had a tone.

So did her Budapest. Hungary’s Western connection and tradition of self-determination survived under the Russian thumb. By 1973 socialist ideology had calcified, and Hungary wrangled a degree of political and economic freedom: Goulash communism. “The happiest barracks,” it was said of Hungary, though I read it as a nexus of decay. Corrupt, lip service paid to Communism, ever more overt luxury, but still smuggled goods, still a crumbling one-party state, still a formidable secret police, still a Russian crackdown should Hungary stray too far.

Still more than a few war criminals from ’56 lining their pockets.

Like I said, revenge.

JANUARY 27 (4 days to Deadline), THE SANCTUM SANCTORUM

Great story, Gloria said in her e-mail. But it’s disjointed. And the ending doesn’t work.

The silence that followed was broken only by the Pomeranian snoring at my feet.

I re-read her critique, re-read my story, re-re-read her critique. The truth hit me like where Bond snaps off that hipshot on the poor bastard tracking him in the sniper scope.

Salty words flew.

It took more than one long walk until I got back hammering out a better story. All but the ending. Helena hid it from me until the last minute. Out of love, I’ve wondered. Or fear. The big finish as submitted–no spoilers–was its truest and most painful. And sealing it up for New York, the pages smelled of fresh laser toner. In the end, after all the research and creative agonies, nothing inspires like a ticking clock. Say like all those bombs that Bond defused with the timer stopped at 007.

OCTOBER 2013, CRITIQUE GROUP, NASHVILLE

“Remember a few months back,” I said, “when I brought in that spy story?”

* * *

The Thank Yous
  • To MWA and the Publications Committee, for offering us members at all levels a chance to participate in this amazing tradition. And to Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson for such a damned good anthology idea. Appearing alongside such accomplished talent is an honor that will be with me forever.
  • To Gloria Kempton, a great cheerleader and a clear eye. Her suggestions opened the door to the “Sparks” that made Ice Cold.  I can’t recommend her enough.
  • To Cheryl, Lily, Kathleen and all my buddies at the NWMG Mystery Group. Your support means the world to me.
  • To the Rolling Stones. I mean, why not? And to Ian Fleming, John le Carré and all those masters that built this genre.
The Research

I tried hard to get 1973 Hungary as right as possible. To the extent I got it wrong, I apologize. To the extent I took a liberty here and there, well, that’s storytelling. Know “Sparks” was born from good intentions: honoring the Hungarian cause and its very human place in the Cold War.

The Title

The Hungarian proverb goes: “Ne igyál előre a medve bőrére.” Translation: Don’t drink ahead to the bear’s hide (Wikipedia), or idiomatically, “don’t count your chickens.” I latched onto the double-meaning made of “bear,” the sense of fate balancing out, the Hungarian connection. Sparks, a central image of the story, flung at a bear’s hide would live fierce but overmatched lives, a scorch mark at worst.

“Sparks” is about the scorch marks.

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”