Behind the Story: “Star of Zoe”

I just have to see her.

How “Star of Zoe” first got going, well, it was without Zoe. Not technically, I mean. I was riffing on this idea, this phrase: I just have to see her. So right there comes a She Who Must Be Seen. A proto-Zoe in the mix. My first riff, though, opened with our point-of-view “I” in the equation, our man-on-a-mission. Jimmy.

He’s banging at a door, desperate. In love, still in love. Being denied entry. What door? Who’s blocking it? Didn’t know, but questions like that are why we riff.

I just have to see her.

A relationship. An enduring attachment, however one-sided. Of course, he can’t see her straight out, right? Never give ‘em what they want. The door-blocker formed up as a family member, a protector of an estrangement, and the idea took off: an in-law, which made Zoe a wife. An ex-wife. And Jimmy had to see her.

I liked writing Jimmy. He’s not especially clever but not especially dumb. He’s a petty thief but still an identifiable guy. A big heart, a sense of how to push his luck. And damn, he wanted to tell this story. I turned on that cold riff, and Jimmie started talking and talking and talking. About himself, sure. But about Zoe, too. He spoke of her with real tenderness. As I found his voice, it became clear he didn’t know her. It was like his words formed a loving filter of Zoe, her shape without her inner self.

Anyway, while Jimmy is telling me about the Zoe he’d held onto, what hadn’t formed up yet was Inner Zoe. She waited silently on the other side of that door. Draft one went along with Jimmy trying to jive or bust his way into her hospital room, to no luck. And no reaction from Zoe. Eventually, it occurred to both Jimmy and I why she kept quiet. Zoe was dead.

Say what you will about finality, but it has a way of focusing a riff. The story had a compass now, loss and our reasons for losing. And it found its evitable ending (an essay all its own, but no spoilers for now). Other characters could step forward and eulogize the lost Zoe, even if their own grief painted her a shade too-saintly. In that space Jimmy had to confront how he’d really lost his wife a long time ago. How it she’d never been the better for having met him.

“Star” borrows a caper’s structure, if flipped some. Jimmy’s big plot and grand gesture of love is to give (not take), the Star. He’s breaking into an unusual and well-guarded spot at some risk to himself: a funeral home full of angry in-laws and one mint-dispensing, truth-telling mortician. A trespassing arrest he can’t afford. In the end, like a good caper, Jimmy fails right at the critical moment (again, no spoilers), though I’ll say Jimmy profits by his failure. As a human being scoured of his misconceptions. He can move on, maybe. This editing (and more editing) took a year to riff, write, and edit. Problems solved? All but one. The central one. Dear Zoe.

Four thousand words. Those re-focused drafts ran four thousand words, and we only saw Zoe in her coffin at the very end. I’d held her out as Jimmy’s prize for getting past her family guard. When he got there, it fell flat. The thing was, I’d made the same mistake as Jimmy. In putting her on a pedestal–literally–those drafts only ever showed that shape around Zoe. Yes, people would empathize with Jimmy. We all have friends going through loss. It hits harder when that loss hits home. When it’s family.

So. Zoe. What if she actually participated in the story? We wouldn’t just hear the characters mourn their projection of her. We could meet Zoe for ourselves and judge if she was worth the mourning. I wrote her in via flashbacks timed to the caper’s inflection points: how Jimmy picked her up, how a one-night stand blossomed, how Jimmy’s thieving sent their love story south. And Zoe the actual character burst onto the page, a match for Jimmy. It turned out she had a closetful of pattern nursing scrubs, horrible taste in cocktails, and excellent taste in Elvis impersonators. Zoe became Jimmy’s loss to bear, not that shadow of his loss.

We just had to see her.

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“Star of Zoe” is proudly featured in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March/April 2019.

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”