23 September 2011

It's Friday. Thank God it's … Dixon Hill???

by Dixon Hill

First: For the Star Trek fans among us…

Yes, my name is Dixon Hill. That's not a joke; it's my name.

No, I'm not a fictional character. I am a real person.

No. I did not have my name legally changed from Bruno Jablonski to Dixon Hill after attending my first Star Trek convention--that's a vicious rumor! Dixon Hill is the name my parents wrote on my birth certificate when I was born in Phoenix, in 1963, long before TNG ever made it to the airwaves.

No. I am not related to the actor Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Yes. I know that in the show, Captain Picard's character sometimes enters the holodeck and pretends to be a fictional detective from the 1940's named Dixon Hill.
This is not me.  I swear!

Yes. It so happens that I do often wear a fedora. I've owned one for many years. It's brown, and has a medium-width brown crepe ribbon around the base of the crown. And, it used to hold a feather.

Naturally the hat's a bit worse for wear these days, after having been crushed and stuffed into a duffel bag for trips to Central and South America and West Africa when I was in the army. Not to mention having been used as a Frisbee by my older son when he was a teenager, and my younger son when he was playing Raiders of the Lost Ark last week. (Thankfully, my teenage daughter has spared the hat, choosing to age me instead, by exercising her new driver's permit privileges while I cling to dangling strips of the headliner on the passenger side of our Jeep Cherokee. My wife shredded the headliner with her long nails during an earlier ride with my daughter, and frankly I'm grateful for the resulting handholds.)

However, the fact that I wear a fedora doesn't make me Captain Picard. Not anymore than the fact that I sometimes wear a leather jacket, while wearing my fedora, could magically turn me into Indiana Jones.

It doesn't; I'm not--nuff said.

Ah, good! You got it now, buddy: I'm a guy named Dixon Hill, who wears a fedora and writes mysteries.

What's that? Well… I don't know. Perhaps you're right, angry Trekkie: I may be a jerk. Sometimes, at least. After all, my wife once told me I had all the social graces of an Orangutan on steroids. But, my not being related to Patrick Stewart (or not having been named for a fictional character, or not being that fictional character for that matter) is not what makes me a jerk sometimes.

What occasionally makes me act like a jerk, is that I spent ten years in the U.S. Army--first working as a Military Intelligence Analyst, and later as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant--and even now, over a decade later, I sometimes react to events as if I were still an army sergeant.

Surprisingly (to me, at least) this is not always a good thing in the civilian world, and is also what lies at the root of my wife's "Orangutan on steroids" crack. But, in my defense, it's an automatic reaction, and I work fast to correct it as soon as I realize old habits have kicked in where they don't belong.

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog: "It ain't easy bein' green."

Training that builds such ingrained habits is not easy to overcome. Those habits maintain a strong grip on a person's life, long after their usefulness has faded away. And, I suppose, this is where my writing comes in. Because it's the fourth thing that has such a grip on my life. (My family is the second thing. You'll have to figure out what takes first place--after all, this is a blog for sleuths. Right?)
"But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water."
Not me either. This is Rudyard Kipling
In case you don't know, the quote above comes from the epic poem Gunga Din written by Rudyard Kipling. I first discovered Kipling about six months after completing Basic Training. His words struck me like a cold slap, because they seemed to capture the army life so well.

Since then, I've learned to understand why some revile him. There are those who can only see the racial imperialism that mars his poetry. And, I can understand where they're coming from; I'm not happy with those aspects either. However, I can't help but love them for the truth of the soldier, which runs like a golden vein through so much of his works. Kipling understood the hard, hot back-breaking work that makes up a soldier's existence. He knew it was a life filled with long tracts of boredom, punctuated by brief furious violence and terror.

Still not me.
This is Walter Mosley.
After being honorably discharged from the army, I earned my BA in Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School. But, working for a newspaper quickly soured on me. It's tough to fit the whole truth into eight column inches. And, anything less than the truth... Well, you can decide for yourself. As for me, I didn't want anymore to do with it.

Instead, I decided (and I'm paraphrasing the great Walter Mosley, here) "to write fiction, because I wanted to write the truth." I'm not always sure how to go about doing this, but mysteries often deal in violence. I know the truth of violence, first-hand. And, I also know that portraying violence in a way that makes light of it, or of what it does to a person--the wounds, the psychological aftermath--runs against my grain. I don't believe in adding gratuitous violence to a story, but where violence belongs I think it has to be real. As honestly real as it can be written. Even though this disturbs people at times. (Comments or disagreement concerning that statement are certainly very welcome by the author. And, I should probably warn you that the next few paragraphs deal with my first combat experience, so some readers may wish to skip down to the paragraph beside the next picture, instead.)

Violence damages both victim and perpetrator; if I do my job right, this truth should come out. And violent death is neither clean nor efficient. (It's tempting to write that oft-read cliche that violent death is messy, but I don't really think I can. It's not messy. At least not just messy in a physical sense.) I learned that during my first deployment on an A-Team, which culminated in our participating in Operation Just Cause: the removal of Manuel Noriega from power in Panama. It was also my first time in combat.

It's difficult to put enough words on paper to evoke what it meant to run across a bridge that our side had been holding one end of all night. Running past the crumpled, stiff, bullet and shrapnel-torn bodies of men, whom my buddies and I had worked very hard to kill. And we had succeeded. Their blood lay thick like black rancid jelly, pooled beside and beneath the soldiers' corpses. One dead man's arm stretched stiff against the sky, hand open but fingers deeply curled, as if pleading. I hadn't even known a man could die like that.

But this was my first time, so I made myself look. Made myself see them, instead of turning my head the other way. It wasn't easy to do this while keeping one eye on the far-side bridge abutment, and the jungle beyond, searching for potential danger signs, but I figured they deserved it; turning away felt too much like turning my back on them. Facing them, looking at them: this was the only way I had, to honor their lives. And, let's be honest: these were men who had once been little boys. Maybe they'd played with toy cars, the way I had as a boy--that was the thought that ran through my mind at the time, because I was single (though these days, thinking of them makes me think of my own sons). So I made myself look at them as I ran past.
Yep!  This is me.
I'm not scowling, just squinting
in the bright Arizona sunlight.

And I figure that's what I've got to do whenever violence occurs in a story; I've got to write it in such a way that a reader sees the violence, comes to grips with it and is gripped by it. And gains a better understanding of the way it hurts--everyone involved. I know I don't succeed as well as I wish. But I keep trying.

And, I promise not to bring anymore dead bodies (unless they're fictional bodies) into the Friday blog post, since I'm sure most folks would find it an unsettling way to start the weekend. But--though I'm still trying to figure out what I've got to say, that you'll find worth reading--I also promise to do my best to write what I honestly feel.

Having been so kindly permitted to join such an august group of authors in this blog, I feel a lot like Leigh wrote that he did, when he first joined CriminalBrief: "I'm not sure my colleagues understood they'd invited an occasionally irrelevant, often irreverent rookie…"

I've written a lot of non-fiction, but when it comes to fiction--though I've sold several short stories--I'm definitely still a rookie. And, when it comes to blogging I'm a babe in the woods. I figure the only way I can honor a circle of such great writers, is to write the truth. So, I'll do my best to do that every-other Friday. Preferably, without turning your stomachs.

I'll see you in two weeks. Next Friday, R.T. Lawton will be here. He's my partner and counter-part for this da, and, though we've only recently become aquainted, it's pretty clear that he's a great guy and a fascinating writer--one who will undoubtedly bring you many great posts in the future.

So, until the Friday after next: Keep the faith, Buddy!

Dix

14 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

It's kind of funny, but when I first saw your name on TheMysteryPlace.com,
I wondered if there was a Star Trek connection! But then your writings
set that notion straight.

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon, great intro! May I say welcome when I've only been at this four days longer than you? Friday has been my favorite day of the week for a long time. I look forward to your blogs making it even better.

R.T. Lawton said...

Dix, welcome aboard partner. You and I are gonna get along great. Some fun being on the pointed end of the stick, huh?

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

Live long and prosper!

Robert Lopresti said...

Wow, great piece. Thanks for addressing the TNG thing, siince I wondered too. Orangatang on steroids.. have you by any chance read Terry Pratchett's Discworld books? There is a very important character in them who happens to be an orangatang... and DON'T call him a monkey.

Welcome aboard.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

"Wow" was my reaction too, although neither graphic violence nor war is my bag. The authenticity shone through. And where in West Africa? I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Côte d'Ivoire (currently a mess, alas) in the Sixties.

Velma said...

♫♪ cosies on Mondays… hard-boiled crime guys on Fridays… criminally eccentric on Sundays… ♬♩

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks, gang.

Fran, I was worried folks were gonna say: "Okay, I get the Walter Mosley quote, but what's with Star Trek, Kipling and war stories? Doesn't this guy know which blog he's writing for?" So, you're extrmely welcome to say welcome. And, I'll say a big,"Thank you!" to you and everbody, for being so kind. And, "Welcome" right back at ya' Fran.

I'll have to check out Discworld. I wonder, Rob, if you ever read Dean Koontz's short story "Bruno" about a detective bear from an alternate timeline. Really funny.

R.T.--I think you're right, buddy. And, yeah, being on the pointed end of the stick means never having to wonder where it went--cause you're mounted on it. Saves a lot of search time.

As for Africa, Elizabeth (Liz?), I once walked around on the tarmac of a Côte d'Ivoire airfield while helping a fellow SF engineer offload his team's equipment, while my team was on our way to Ghana. I've also been to--- (Uh, oh. The FBI is here. They've learned that I was going to answer Liz more fully and I have to go answer a few questions now. But, don't worry if you don't hear from me again. I met my wife when we both worked for MI, so she knows which safe to look for my head in, if they decide to cut it off.)

Dixon Hill said...

By the way, does anybody know what the technical probs are over on the forums at themysteryplace.com ?

Louis A. Willis said...

Enjoyed the article. Looking forward to more of the same.

Velma said...

Dell had installed an update to TheMysteryPlace.com's forum software, which wasn't working right. For example, it couldn't display embedded URLs for such sites as, um, SLEUTHSAYERS!

John Floyd said...

Great column, Dix. Welcome to the party.

Dixon Hill said...

Thanks, Louis and John. Humorously enough, my father's name is Louis and his brother's name is John.

And thanks to you, Velma. I should have known you would be the one to answer my question about TheMysteryPlace.com forum. After all, what self-respecting contemporary femme fatale could fail to be "Totally Hacking" with sexy cyber knowledge?

Velma said...

Like totally!