I'm going to follow the recent example of my blogging mentor Robert Lopresti and use the publication of a short story as a jumping-off point for a column. The June 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which, in direct defiance of the calendar, is now available, leads off with my story "The Mayan Rite." It's the latest in my short-story series that isn't a series. That is, it's only a series from my perspective, from the inside looking out.
The Alfred Hitchcock stories, five of which have appeared so far, share no characters or settings. But the stories do have a few things in common besides my credit under the title. Those common features come from the challenge I set myself when I began writing them, which was to try something new.
I'd published short tales before my first Hitchcock appearance, but they were almost all related to my two book series, the Owen Keane metaphysical detective books and the Scott Elliott Hollywood private eye books. It was fun to write about those two characters in a shorter form, but it was also a very comfortable and familiar exercise. For Alfred Hitchcock, I decided to move a baby step or two outside of that comfort zone. So I tried female protagonists and I gave up the first-person point of view. That second change is still such a sacrifice for me that I could use it during Lent. I love first person for the detective story and have ever since discovering Raymond Chandler. There's something about a beaten-up, lone-wolf detective telling me his or her story one-on-one that I find irresistible. Not that the first-person point of view doesn't also have disadvantages, as anyone who has written a first-person whodunit at novel length can tell you. Being limited to one thread of action, the writer has to come up with a pretty convoluted plot to keep the detective and the reader guessing, another Chandler characteristic.
But then, the whodunit structure was another security blanket I opted to set aside for the Hitchcock stories. Instead, I decided to try my hand at suspense, as a nod to the man who had lent his name to the magazine. On the advice of Peter Lovesey, a writer whose advice is well worth taking, I read Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. That book's title suggests that it's a textbook, a how-to-do-it guide, but it's really a how-I-did-it reminiscence, a fascinating glimpse into one writer's writing decisions. Highsmith defined the suspense story as one "in which the possibility of violent action, even death, is close at all times." A "Sword of Damocles" story, in other words, though in a modern take, the sword may only be a paranoid imagining--in the character's head rather than suspended above it. Going with suspense was another potential Lenten sacrifice for me, as it meant giving up one of the compensations of the whodunit: its underlying theme of order restored. So, for example, in "The Mayan Rite," unease and disorder are created but not resolved. The comforting "all questions answered in the end" quality of the traditional mystery is distinctly lacking. In fact, the question of what really happened is one of the unresolved issues of the story.
I said before that my Hitchcock stories don't have a setting in common. But they do have unusual settings in common. Unusual for me, I mean. Owen Keane is a New Jersey guy, like me, and Scott Elliott works in postwar Hollywood, a place I researched and imagined until I felt comfortable there. For this new series that isn't a series, I decided to use a different setting for each story, some spot my wife and I had visited as tourists. So far, I've used Scotland, Wyoming, Cancun, and two islands: St. Simon, in Georgia, and Mackinaw, in Michigan. Setting stories in each of these places was more than a way of putting my vacation photos to work. It was a new (for me) answer to a dreaded but inevitable question: "Where do you get your ideas?"
Brian Thornton posted a great column in this space last week about setting as character. Setting can also function as muse. I decided to let each setting suggest a story to me--or at least suggest the premise of a story. St. Simon Island, where my wife and I stayed in a creaky old carriage house, suggested that I write a ghost story. Scotland prompted me to use Mary, Queen of Scots, who seems to have been a resident or guest at every old pile of stones we visited. Mackinaw Island boasted of its connection to a crazy, not-quite-old movie called Somewhere in Time, and I can never resist a movie tie-in. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where one of my favorite movies, Shane, was filmed, called for a western--of sorts. I worked in a Colt .45, at least.
I found Cancun, the setting of "The Mayan Rite," to be very evocative, especially our arrival there. Our airliner did a low, leisurely approach over miles and miles of jungle. Then suddenly, right along the water's edge, was a strip of beautiful hotels and their supporting community. It seemed to cry out for a story about how thin the veneer of civilization is, not just in Mexico, of course, but everywhere, and about the danger of straying from a safe, routine life.