Behind the Short Story: “La Tomatina”

There are rules to the Tomatina.

In their great wisdom, the Spanish have come to publish guidelines for their annual by-the-thousands tomato fight. No whipping soaked tee-shirts as weapons, for one. No throwing shoes or anything of beanball substance. Just squished tomatoes. Those you can throw at anyone in sight. For one hour.

It takes place in Buñol, a small town in Valencia. At 11 a.m. one day each August, 30,000 people–stop and think about that number–crowd into the old town’s cramped plaza and let fly with 145,000kg of squished tomatoes. 145 metric tons. Squished tomatoes, remember, because a whole tomato flung at close quarters is a concussion inbound, if not pushing the non-deadly edge of force. Tomato trucks rumble by, dumping ammo while the palpable hits mount and gutters fill.

At one hour, the horn blows. 30,000 people stop, heart-pumping, sticky, that last unthrown tomato squished in hand. One hour. At 11:59, slopping tomato pulp at someone’s kisser is good fun. At 12:01, it’s assault. At 12:01, you and your fellow combatants Continue reading Behind the Short Story: “La Tomatina”

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.

In Which I Buy a $35 Club Sandwich

No one sets out to buy a $35 club sandwich. You back into that kind of decision later and over time, after long miles journeyed, after tiny losses mounting on your stomach, after foolish choices and opportunities foregone, after hunger sets in and then settles in. The $35 club sandwich is a end-of-the-line choice, almost happenstance, but it happens, and when it happens, it happens all the way.

It was November 2007, and the journey was Venice. A dream city, the Floating City, Queen of the Adriatic. We left Florence on an afternoon train. For fun that morning we                         marched ancient streets and climbed Il Duomo’s 467 stairs–yes, for fun–which had us rushing to the station with train station snacks for lunch. In Italy, the presence of a service, in this case a snack car, never guarantees actual availability. Closed, reason unknown. A three-hour ride later Continue reading In Which I Buy a $35 Club Sandwich