08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By

Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.


  1. Oh, the Old Curiosity Shops - always, endlessly fascinating. And I think eavesdropping is something everyone does, or at least used to before texting took over talking. I think of "The Enormous Radio", "The Lives of Others", "The Conversation", "Rear Window" - all of which start with the basic premise that once you start listening in / watching, you won't be able to stop. Reality TV before it was invented. Enjoyed your story very much, BTW.

  2. Great story, Joe, and interesting story-behind-the-story! I love to hear what stories/movies/novels/authors serve as inspiration to writers. (I also have that Cheever collection, having gotten hooked a long time ago on "The Swimmer," one of his stories that was later a movie with Burt Lancaster.) Again, loved the column. Best to Denise.

  3. A charming account of how stories are really made!
    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Joe, I enjoyed your story in AHMM.

  5. I love those mysterious shop stories, including yours. Our own Janice Law modernized it a bit in 2018 with a man selling items from a little stand on a street in NYC. https://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/2018/02/the-crucial-game-by-janice-law.html

    And thanks for reminding me of the movie "The Conversation." An underrated flick, I always thought. And, like "Blow Out," very much rooted in the sixties flick "Blow Up."

  6. This is interesting. Don't know if you remember Harlan Ellison's HUGO and NEBULA AWARD winning short story "Jeffy is Five" about a boy who never grows beyong the age of five and has a radio that plays old time radio shows. Wonderful story.

    Nice posting.

  7. Loved this, Joe! There are at least a couple of anthologies devoted to the "odd little shop" trope. And there was one T.V. series ("Friday the 13th the Series.") I've been bumming around knickknack shops since I was a kid! If you do another column like this, post your sketch of The Blue Onion at Christmas, I'd love to see it! (I've got to see N.J. someday; it IS "The Garden State" after all!)

  8. Here is a long page about the Old Shop trope. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLittleShopThatWasntThereYesterday

    One they don't mention is Jean Shepherd's "Scut Farkus and the Murderous Mariah," in which Ralphie (the hero of the movie A Christmas Story") discovers a store called TOTAL VICTORY NEWSTAND AND NOTIONS, where he buys a fighting top...

  9. I seem to have a lot to say about this, don't I? I meant to mention that one of the many things I love about AHMM is their willingness to publish the occasional western, fantasy, or science fiction story if it has the proper mystery element. I sold them three stories last year and one of them is arguably science fiction and another has a touch of the supernatural.

  10. I liked the story very much, although I'm not usually big on non-real stuff. It caught and held my attention. Glad to know the background!

  11. <- I have a touch of
    the supernatual, dear.
    Im a NDEr.

  12. Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. I would really have to dig to see if I still have any of my old sketches of that shop, but there is a portfolio of my old art in the basement, so who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky.

    And yes, Rob, I think that's the cool thing about AHMM. One thing I might add that would only be of interest to other writers:

    This story had one of the shortest acceptance times from AHMM in recent memory (109 days) and in accepting it, the editor said she knew that she'd read it out of order, and would get back to my others in the pipeline eventually. That's never happened to me.


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