28 September 2012

Borrowing from the Best


by R.T. Lawton

I sold my first story published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine back in 2001. It was a stand-alone set in the backdrop of the Golden Triangle. This story had been conveniently resting in inventory when I went looking for markets and started at the top with AHMM's Writer's Guidelines on their website. In part of her suggested story wants, editor Kathleen Jordan mentioned stories set in exotic locations. With the Orient having often been referred to in literature as exotic, I figured Southeast Asia was close enough for government work, especially since a lot of my story was based on articles from an English language newspaper out of Bangkok, plus some situation reports which crossed my desk over the years, not to mention that close-up experience of the twelve-month, government-paid vacation Uncle said I'd won back in the Summer of '67. Lots of background. Anyway, the story was submitted and bought.

I was ecstatic......for about ten minutes. And then, reality crashed the party. One sold story was great, BUT could I do it again? What if I was only a one-shot, flash-in-the-pan? Circumstances now called for a really good story to send in before the editor forgot me and her last purchase. The Muse of Writing forbid that I should mail in a second rate piece for my second submittal to such a prestigious mystery magazine. My brain turned, desperately seeking an answer as to what could possibly be new, original or even interesting.

Solution?

Borrow from the Best.

I had read Lawrence Block's Ehrengraf series about a crooked lawyer whose clients were always "innocent" of the alleged crimes, mainly because the lawyer did his nefarious and very unlegal work out of court and behind the scenes. This was a good starting point; I'd go with a crooked bail bondsman for my protagonist.

Let's see now, there was Isaac Azimov's Black Widower series and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Excellent, I'll have the proprietor of the bail firm solve the mysteries without ever going to the crime scene. His bail agent will bring him clues like the Black Widower supper group did (unintentionally) for the waiter and like Archie did for Nero. Each story will then be written in three separated parts: the problem, the clues and the resolution.

Since this series will tend towards dark comedy, the bail agent needs to be different. How about a resemblance to Peter Lorre's character in Arsenic and Old Lace? Nice, and I'll give him a broken left pinky finger which wasn't set quite right afterwards and therefore now permanently sticks straight out like an upright flagpole whenever he squeegees his sweating bald head with said hand during tight situations. It will be strongly implied that the proprietor was responsible for the broken pinky after one of the bail agent's indiscretions while operating in the name of the firm. The bail agent's name will be Theodore Oscar Alan Dewey, in which case the acronym speaks for itself.

And then there's Dashiell Hammett who wrote some really good stories. Plus, there's an excellent biography out there with good information about his time working in San Francisco. Seems he knew two brothers who were bail bondsmen. The brothers were also crooks who knew all the other criminals and used them to pull off jobs for the two brothers. Perfect, crooked bail bondsmen, fits right in. Now what brothers do I know?

Of course, the Black Mafia in Kansas City during the '70's had a set of twins who allegedly robbed banks, dealt dope, gambled and committed other illicit activities. Let's see now, their street names were Twin and Twin Brother. After they got arrested, Twin Brother said he would cop to the fall, but then Twin had to put half of the money he made from all his future crimes into a bank account in Twin Brother's name.  That way, Twin Brother would have a bankroll when he got out of prison. Twin agreed to the deal and hit the streets to bring in some dough. That's when me and Twin got to know each other quite well before he went off to join his incarcerated brother.

Great. I'll call it the Twin Brothers Bail Bond series. However, being the criminal enterprise it is, the firm will only take "special clients" who can put up high dollar bonds, usually in the form of stolen merchandise which can't yet be fenced. The majority of these clients will never go to trial. Seems they tend to fall from high places, go deep-water swimming without proper breathing apparatus, are killed by their suddenly enraged partners in crime or get run over by an errant taxi cab… although in all fairness it should be mentioned that the victim was outside of the clearly marked crosswalk at the time. In any case, the client is somehow rendered deceased, yet the bail firm makes an extraordinary profit.

Hope you kept up with all those dark twisted corridors and squeaky closet doors which only get opened by night when the house goes silent and honest folk are fast asleep. Just know that in this series, the Reader ends up cheering for a criminal protagonist, one who preys on other criminals.

By this fashion, "The Bond that Keeps," first in the series, was born. Kathleen bought the story and it appeared in 2002.

Now, you have to wait two weeks for… The Rest of the Story.

4 comments:

Janice said...

Nice. nothing like good reading to produce good writing.

Leigh Lundin said...

Okay, I'm sold. I want to read 'em already.

Eve Fisher said...

Leigh said it: Me too!

David Dean said...

Count me in, R.T.! Enjoyed the article; it's always interesting to read about a fellow writer's artistic processes.