When I first got into crime fiction, there were three webzines where I landed. The first was Blue Murder, which was running on fumes by then. Then came Plots With Guns, which took “A Walk in the Rain” for its second issue. And there’s The Thrilling Detective Web Site. Thrilling Detective was different in that it focused on PI fiction. For most people, that meant Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Spenser. For a few more, it meant Mannix and Magnum and Kinsey Millhonne. This particular corner of the mystery genre can get pretty derivative and repetitious. There are the tired tropes: Snappy patter, the lone wolf, the psycho sidekick, and so on. But Kevin Burton Smith loves it all, even when he hates it. Back when building web sites meant throwing together a tacky html page on Geocities, Smith went a little further and built an online encyclopedia of all things PI. Today, someone would build a wiki, but Thrilling Detective is old school. The site is huge and in-depth. There’s even an entry for Nick Kepler who, believe it or not, is not the most obscure fictional PI on the site. The site went live in the late 90s, when building web sites was a novelty. From the beginning, Smith and partner in crime Victoria Esposito-Shea offered fiction where some of the more obscure PIs on the site made their debuts. Eventually, Esposito-Shea had to bow out. Smith recruited Gerald So, a Hofstra adjunct professor, poet, and admitted television geek to take over. It was on Gerald’s watch that I was able to get “Roofies” (the prequel to Gypsy’s Kiss) over the transom. Kevin Burton Smith did accept an earlier story, but the revisions proved to be so untenable that I stripped it for parts and rolled it into Second Hand Goods. Other writers who started out around the same time also appeared in Thrilling Detective, including Dave White, Simon Wood, Ray Banks, and Victor Gischler. But alas, Gerald had other projects he wanted to focus on, and fiction proved to be the something that had to give for Kevin to keep the site going. So in 2009, the last Thrilling New Fiction ran, including my own “Love Don’t Mean a Thing.” The site still runs new nonfiction, and Kevin continues to update the never-ending lists of fictional PIs. Of all the zines I dealt with early in my crime fic days, Thrilling Detective has proven to be one of the most enduring.
When I began writing Holland Bay,I thought about it as 87th Precinct meets The Wire. I had envisioned the detectives of Holland Bay to be like those of the 87th Precinct in that each subsequent book would feature a different detective. When I first described this to another writer at a Bouchercon, he asked me who my Carella was. I said I looked at them all equally. So he said, “Well, there has to be a first among equals.”
But McBain’s detectives, while not exactly perfect, are not also paragons of dysfunction. Carella is tempted by the fruit of a couple of others, but does not stray. Bert Kling has woman troubles. Meyer Meyer must deal with his baldness and his odd name. My detectives are dysfunctional as hell.
But McBain wrote about cops as the everyman. Even the seedier ones like Andy Parker (whom most of us would like to shove under an express train to Calm’s Point) and Fat Ollie Weeks (the 87th’s own bigoted uncle) are humans with flaws and struggles. But McBain also writes about the job of the 87th as a mission. They are the thin blue line in Isola.
But my approach resembled something more recent: The Wire. On David Simon’s masterpiece of a TV series, not all the gang bangers are villains and not all the cops are good guys. In fact sometimes they’re neither. If Steve Carella is the man every other man wants to be, Jimmy McNulty is what happens when they fail. As smart and dedicated as Carella, he lacks political skill and responds to the stress of his job by drinking to dangerous excess and cheating on the women in his life, including his mistress in season 1. Stringer Bell is a shrewd, manipulative criminal not above murder to further his own ends, but you can’t help but rooting for him. Bell is going to college and running Baltimore’s drug operation like a business, right down to branding the dope and holding business meetings with corner boys.
The main difference is the approach of the creators. Simon admits The Wire, along with Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, are angry shows about the decline of the American dream. Quite often the criminals depicted (many of whose real-life inspirations appeared on the show) are actually the ones living the dream only to be killed or jailed when someone lower down the food chain takes them out. Like McBain’s bulls, the cops of the Baltimore PD are flawed, but their flaws sometimes consume them. The cheat on their spouses, drink excessively, lie to their coworkers, and openly try to sabotage the brass, many of whom are barely qualified to carry a badge, let alone run a police department. McBain’s crew is world-weary but conscientious.
It’s this blend that went into Holland Bay. I hope you soon get the chance to see what I did with it.
When I started out, I sent one of the first Kepler stories I’d written to an unlikely zine. Entitled Plots With Guns, it had a simple premise: We want stories with a gun in it somewhere. One story, which wound up in a 2006 collection, centered on a nail gun as a murder weapon. My story, concerning PI Nick Kepler’s efforts to dispose of the corpse of a childhood friend’s abusive boyfriend, had a few aspects that might not have worked in, say, Thrilling Detective. You could feel the damp atmosphere of Nick’s lonely walk along a stretch of rural highway, the anger he had toward the doomed Joe Kopinsky after seeing fellow bar rat Angie’s bruises and black eye. The story also had a back-and-forth narrative, revealing more and more of why Nick was walking along Cleveland’s Route 3 on an April night. That, I did not know, was exactly what mastermind Anthony Neil Smith was looking for.
Neil and cohort Victor Gischler have a deep love of noir (before the term became meaningless) and unconventional story telling. As grad students in Mississippi in the days just before 9/11, they hatched an idea to present these tales of bleak situations, screwed characters, and occasionally novel revenge plots. How unconventional? Consider that Gischler’s debut novel begins with the murder of a gang boss by planting a blasting cap in his cream stick (which is both horrifying and the funniest thing I’d ever read up to that point.) Plots With Guns was mostly Neil. Vic came along for the ride, but Neil needed more hands-on help and recruited various partners in crime. Along the way, he discovered a few writers who’s profiles in the crime fiction community rose in the middle of the last decade, including some idiot from Cincinnati named Winter. But I refer to guys like J. Michael Blue, a refugee from the old Blue Murder zine, Ray Banks, Ed Linskey, and Kent Gowran. It was via Plots that I became aware of an Irish writer named Ken Bruen, who for many years would be a sound friend and mentor.
Neil shut down the zine late last decade, deciding it was time to move on. New zines, like Thug Lit, arose, but the call was too strong. Neil had to resurrect it once his life in Minnesota settled and he reached a groove with his Billy LaFitte novels. Eventually, he recruited new acolytes to run the zine while taking on the role of publisher.
Plots may or may not continue under a new publisher in the coming years. I hope it does. It’s a different type of storytelling, one that would make Tarantino proud. Crime fiction needs a little “Fuck you” to keep it honest. Plots With Guns has always provided that.
This month in Get Into Jim’s Shorts, a suburban mom is sweet talked into running for mayor. There’s a reason she doesn’t trust her would-be campaign manager in “Electile Dysfunction.”
Well, a wise man once said, “Never say never.” (It was Sean Connery, but that was a really bad Bond movie.) Still, this almost was literally the end of Nick.
Right after I finished Bad Religion, when I thought Second Hand Goods might still be published, I sketched out an outline for a new Kepler novel called Suicide Solution, one that saw Nick investigating the wrong doings around an abandoned amusement park. It’s a premise I really want to revisit, but it may end up being something more along the lines of Road Rules if I do it. But the publisher folded. I went off to do other things, and the outline sat on the hard drive ignored and neglected.
Then all the Kepler novels and existing short stories came out via Kindle and CreateSpace. Boom. Done. Could we please get back to trad pubbing where a crime writer belongs? (Note: YMMV.) Well…
I had just redrafted Holland Bay and sent it off to a pal for editing. I finished Dick’s science fiction novel. I wanted to do something else long. So I pulled out the outline to Suicide Solution and…
Nick wasn’t talking to me. He barely talked to me in a short story entitled “Gypsy’s Kiss,” which I’d felt was a bit rushed. And I looked at the outline. It opened with a scene where Nick and his best friend from high school, a girl named Janine, had sneaked into the abandoned amusement park on their prom night. They had a “virgin suicide” pact in that, if neither of them had lost their virginity by the end of their last year at high school, they would do what sexually compatible friends could to solve that problem. These are teenagers. I did not say they were smart. In any event, they are about to do the deed when an arsonist sets the building on fire with them in the basement. They barely escape and avoid getting questioned by a deputy by faking the deed in the backseat of the car. “What? Us? No, officer. Please don’t tell our parents we were too busy deflowering each other to see anything.” Again, I did not say they were smart.
Well, this ended up being another story where Nick mopes about his life, ends up sleeping with his client, and Elaine has trouble deciding if she wants to stay married or be with Nick. I had no interest in writing that.
But “Gypsy’s Kiss”?
I liked the premise, but the execution made it come off as male wish fulfillment. Instead, I wanted it to be a struggle for Nick to actively avoid realizing that this call girl who’d saved his life might have genuine feelings for him. He’s in a weird place following Bad Religion. He’s lost his office. Elaine’s marriage is crumbling, but she seems to only want Nick to be available, not committed. And the business is dying. And here is Gypsy, who is escaping her life of being a plaything for hire. She is free of heroin and ready to start a new life with the money she’s invested. She is also very grateful to Nick.
Nick needs closure. He needs to do something about his agency. He needs to tell Elaine to make up her mind already. And he needs to get out of his rut. For all his problems, it seems like Nick doesn’t even care about his work anymore. He only gets worked up when Gypsy is attacked, and then he does the job for free. Less than free. He rents a friend’s summer cottage out in Lake Erie for a month, pays to go out to that island when access is difficult and expensive. He drives all over Northern Ohio without thinking about mileage or fuel or time. All he cares about is the woman who once took a bullet for him.
But this story defines Nick in a way the short stories and the novels do not. It happens in a scene recounting how he and Gypsy met. Nick was a suburban police officer and sees her come out of an apartment after he fails to find a suspect at home. They have a confrontation where she tries to stab him. Nick decides to try kindness instead of handcuffs after disarming her. He tells her if she wants to talk to him about the suspect, she can stroll over to his car where he’ll be doing paperwork. Dropping her weapon, he tells her, “You dropped your knife.” Gypsy still has that knife, though now it’s in a frame over her mantle.
I almost killed Nick off in this one. Then Jennette Marie Powell convinced me that would be telling the readers “Screw you.” Instead, I leave Nick’s future open-ended. One never knows when the muse – or a publisher – might whisper in my ear to write another one.
The second story in this season’s Winter’s Quarterly stems from a novel called Under the Bridge that never made it past the outline stages. Part of the story concerned Mike Dufford, a Cincinnati police officer who is injured off-duty in a stupid hit-and-run. The events of the book take place while Dufford is on disability recovering from a torn ACL. He lives in a suburb called Mt. Washington, which is, in the real world, part of the city of Cincinnati. I lived in Mt. Washington for ten years, always liked the place, and thought it never really seemed like part of the city. I even had a conversation with Alicia Reece, once the vice mayor. Even she said it was exasperating having to remind city employees and even her fellow elected officials that Mt. Washington was part of Cincinnati.
But I like the idea of it being this isolated small town on the East Side, a bedroom community not all that different from where I live now. And so the wheels began to turn.
Dufford owes his existence to a lady named Jane Chelius, a well-respected agent whose son Mark had taken me on as a client. Jane and Mark could not shop any Kepler stories because, like an idiot, I signed with a small press before Jane had Northcoast Shakedown to read. So I came up with Dufford and tried to do a new story set in the city where I’d lived, at the time, for 13 years. The story didn’t work. I did Road Rules instead. Shopped that with another agent. Went back to Dufford. Still couldn’t get it to work. Wrote Holland Bay. Quit writing. Rewrote Holland Bay. Started writing SF as “Dick.” Dufford still wanted to tell his story.
Over the years, I’d written about other Mt. Washington denizens: The alcoholic and oddly named police chief Tom Jefferson, the corrupt Sgt. Ed McNeely, and even grafted my sexy young lawyer Anne Ripley into the growing mythology around this alternate universe where Mt. Washington is its own town. So finally, I settled on Dufford’s injury and the internal politics that ultimately would push him off the force. And it had a basis in reality.
A few years ago, a Cincinnati assistant chief got into trouble for damaging his city-issued car and improperly reporting it. Newsworthy, but not controversial. Usually, if a senior official makes that kind of mistake, the force just quietly eases them out of their job with a little dignity, keeping the Thin Blue Line intact. Unfortunately, the next guy in line for the job was the commander of Internal Investigations. Can you say “conflict of interest”? Plus there was a racial component to it. The chief in question was the city’s only black senior official.
So I reversed it. I set it up so that the political calculus would leave the Internal Investigations as potentially the only black senior officer. The assistant chief in question? Tragic and in need of a little dignity as his personal life unravels. The II chief? Likeable, shrewd, definitely someone you’d want in charge, but his ethics slipping a bit in the face of his clear ambition.
The real situation sorted itself out with the city hiring an outside replacement under a new law allowing external recruiting. This one? Well, it exists primarily to put Dufford on a collision course with the politics that tangle any police department.
And Under the Bridge? May still happen. We’ll see.
The original plan for Winter’s Quarterly was to post a story every month under Get Into Jim’s Shorts, then take the previous three months’ stories and publish them in a quarterly zine. That’s still the plan, but since I started in September, I thought it’d be a bad idea to give you stories for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in a zine published in January. As a result, “Violet” is the only short that appeared on this site. The other two shorts are originals that I’ll talk about in the coming weeks.
“Violet” is a harrowing tale that has some strange beginnings. Part of it comes from my habit of starting with song titles as the germ of a story, possibly the title. I once recall a rather obnoxious fanficcer who demanded everyone one the usenet forum change all the titles based on songs because “That was clever exactly once.” To which I said, “OK, sweetie. When you’re Kurt Cobain or Patty Smith or Paul McCartney, you can lecture me on clever. In the meantime, why don’t you work on your writing, such as it is.” For this story, I found myself putting Hole’s “Violet” into playlists quite frequently. The lyrics do not sound like a woman trapped in anything more than a relationship she’s clearly putting behind her. (In this case, Courtney Love was venting at former boyfriend Billy Corrigan, a man with no love for Nirvana or the Foo Fighters to begin with.) But the chorus sparked an idea.
“When they get what they want, they never want it again”
In other words, the singer feels disposable, at least in the eyes of someone else. Around this time, a coworker at Medishack told me about her husband, a Cincinnati Police officer who had worked a couple of prostitution stings around town. These were starting to make the news quite a bit then. Both WXIX and NBC ran stories about women coerced or lured into prostitution as virtual slaves. Song title plus dark lyrics plus horrific situation = really dark short story.
And this one really is dark. The situation Violet finds herself in is one repeated over and over around the world. One local church has partnered with an organization in Mumbai, India, to get girls there out of that system. It has a side benefit of leaving a trail for the police to come smashing in doors. So sections of Mumbai are getting cleaned up. Unfortunately, it happens all too often here in America, and they use the cover of “slavery ended in 1865” as one weapon to hide it all. You might have seen the ads. They disguise themselves as personal ads, get the johns to come to a hotel where they think the girl they’re about to sleep with is no different than the one on the web cam. We still, in our society, have visions of call girls pulling down thousands of dollars a night (and they do exist) or street corner girls in short skirts kicking back a cut to a flamboyantly dressed pimp. The latter seems to have gone the way of the VCR and Plymouth cars. In reality, some girls are lured by men who “have a job.” While the most common scenario is a woman illegally in the country and little fluency in English (or even Spanish), women who would otherwise lead a normal life find themselves as easily trapped. The modern “pimp” uses blackmail, coercion, and even outright abduction to force the women to perform. And how much do these women make?
Zip. Nada. These women are slaves. Which last time I checked, had not been legal since, as mentioned earlier, 1865.
So I put the girl Violet into this situation, tried to get into her mind. There’s an Irishman named Paddy, whom her captor clearly fears. Violet decides to let Paddy do whatever he wants because he treats her decently and whispers promises, however false, of taking her into his home for his own. It’s still servitude, but she sees it as a way out, or at least a way to something like a normal life. She fears John more, the man who “owns” her and holds her captive in a place where she can’t tell what part of town she’s in. He’s already killed a girl and made Violet help dispose of her body. So imagine her joy and horror when her father finds her by posing as a john and carrying a pistol.
The ending is horrific. The story, set in a section of the fictional Monticello, may be incorporated into the follow-up to Holland Bay as Paddy is a planned character for the next chapter. It’s dark. That’s why I put it first in this issue.