08 July 2023

Weapons and What Comes Around

Crime fiction has a weapon. Figuratively, I mean, not pistols, wrenches, or candlesticks. Not mystery, not suspense. I’m talking about something essential about us, a heart and soul thing. Crime fiction asks a particular question set about humanity. What crimes do we let ourselves commit, and how do we justify it? From there, consequences. 

Yes, all storytelling is about characters and the choices they make, or let’s hope. Abstract examinations of being are best left as philosophy. In fiction, character choices are intensely personal—and personalized. I keep reading crime stuff for these particular questions. How far will someone go, whether to commit or solve a crime? Where and why do they draw their line? Are the laws broken truly just? Is the choice self-deceived? What success or tragedy eventually arrives, as it must? Eventually is the magic.

Flashback to 2017, and I was on a plane to Quebec. Because it was there. Seriously. I hadn’t ever gone, and the bucket list item stared me down. I went. Quebec was there. More than there. Montreal was terrific, a true world city, but it wasn’t always the city I’d imagined. For each touch of flair or cool neighborhood, there were blocks and blocks of the usual stores, generic restaurants, and that same old North American hustle.

Quebec City—highly recommended—carried a vibe closer to the Quebec of my imaginings. The backstreets and old fortress gates have the feel of Old Europe. A lingering touch of wilderness rides the air, an apr├Ęs moi warning in that vastness north. If this was a French Canadian bastion, though, it sure drew an international crowd. Gaggles of cruise ship tours clogged the streets and beer gardens.

I try to journal when traveling. Something about being free of the home routine opens the mindset. And, importantly, on the road I have actual discretionary time. On that 2017 trip, I looked out my Quebec City hotel window and mulled over what to write. I remember the moment clearly because cannons along the escarpment were aimed back my way. The old guns are for show, but still, pressure is pressure.

I started wondering about Quebec and my expectations gap. My mind changed that thought toward a comic premise. What if someone followed this same track but for different reasons? And with way more need and expectation pumping up those illusions? I’d come to discover, but what if someone was escaping here? What were they running from, and why Quebec of all places? Americans on the lam have safer refuges.

Fast forward through several days of drafting under a possible cannon barrage. The story wasn’t working. That first pass was part literary abstract, part buddy comedy. I couldn't finagle the perspective to a cogent third-person distance. When this happens, and it does, I’ve been known to give up and run with first person. My stuff usually rewards following a character and their voice. Not an option here. This guy still wasn’t sharing, even as I fleshed out the shape of him. Hell, I gave him my travel itinerary. But no, he was just running around in quiet despair. When he did talk, it was to justify himself. He wasn't such a bad guy, right? 

Fine. It was time for consequences. I became his judge and jury and heaped consequences on his actions, especially his silences. If he want to run, it would exhaust him. If he wanted to keep mum, he would feel alone and isolated. His crime details started coming out: theft, suspicion, fleeing expected justice. Those had consequences, too. Action, consequence, reaction, consequence. Whatever I piled on him, he wouldn’t stop moving, wouldn’t stop looking for respite in Quebec. There was some idyllic point in that deep north forest only he would recognize. 

He did, eventually. Months and multiple rewrites later, he found his somewhere beside a northern lake already freezing over. He opened up to me, or more precisely, he broke down. His big why for running was a far cry from the crime comedy I’d planned. He'd been chasing the greatest consequence—an ultimate judgment on what he'd done with his life.

Back to now and crime fiction’s weapon. My slapdash journal exercise under cannon threat became “Spirits Along the One North Road,” in the current July/August 2023 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And this near-miracle happened because what I love most as a reader bailed me out as a writer. 

Consequences. It’s a weapon better than any candlestick.


  1. I love Quebec City, and find it magical every time I'm able to get there. And I really, really, really liked your story.

  2. I just realized I haven't seen my AHMM copy yet. You story sounds terrific. Thanks, Bob.


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