Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Un-British viewpoint threatened to derail a new thriller

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By Kevin G. Chapman
Guest Writer

A bowler hat nearly sunk my newest thriller. All British businessmen don’t wear them, I discovered.

No writer is perfect, and once I have completed a second (or third) draft of a book which I think is pretty well finished, I look for help in the form of beta readers, people who agree to read a manuscript and provide comments and suggestions. This is feedback you can only get from the perspective of different eyes.

As I worked on book #4, Fatal Infraction, I had my usual batch of beta readers. But I also had a specific issue with which I needed help. I have a character in the story who is British – an investigator from a London insurance company sent to assess whether an NFL quarterback’s death occurred in connection with criminal activity (or was caused by the beneficiary – his team), which would void payment on a $20 million policy.

The character provided some comic relief because he was clueless about American football, which allowed the other characters to explain things to him – and by extension explain it to any of my readers who were similarly ignorant about football issues.

My British character seemed pretty simple at first. He would be very proper and buttoned-down. He would be a bit of a fish-out-of-water trailing along with my New York City homicide detectives. I pictured him as John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. I gave him a bowler hat and a series of pressed suits with matching silk handkerchiefs. He wipes the New York grime off chairs before he sits.

He was fun to write and was a hit with my early readers. But one of them, originally from London, flagged some issues. You see, my ear for British dialogue is based on watching movies, mostly comedies. It seemed that I had neglected to consider the language a posh English insurance inspector would actually use in dialogue. If I wanted to keep my UK readers from rolling their eyes at the stupid American author, I needed help.

Kevin G. Chapman
Author

I sent the manuscript out to three fellow authors in the UK and asked them to critique the dialogue – to let me know if anything sounded off. Boy, did I get back a lot of comments! It turns out that my character was a total caricature of an Englishman–and an offensive one at that. I got so much wrong, from his title to his wardrobe to his word usage. To an English reader, he was a joke – and not in a good way. It was an education.

As an example, there is a scene in Fatal Infraction where my detectives and my British inspector are watching security cam video as the suspected murderer puts a body in an elevator, then transfers it to a delivery truck and drives away.

It never occurred to me that an Englishman would never say elevator – he would say lift. And he wouldn’t say truck, he would call it a lorry. Small issues, perhaps, but it would drive an English reader crazy, and likely result in a negative impression of my writing (and a negative review).

Those little details can really make a difference and I was totally blind to them.  At one point I had my inspector putting milk in his cup of Earl Gray tea. Egad!  (Brits use milk in tea, of course, but not in Earl Grey.) There were a dozen (or more) such errors in my draft. Thankfully, I had time to fix them. (And when I narrated the audiobook, I had one UK listener tell me that my British accent did not make her laugh – which was high praise!)

The lesson here is that as much as I like to think I have a good ear for dialogue, my personal experience is limited—especially when it comes to British English.  So, admitting what you don’t know, and getting help, can keep you from being gobsmacked.

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Kevin G. Chapman is the award-winning author of the Mike Stoneman Thriller series. Perilous Gambit, the fifth book in the series, will be out this winter. Chapman is an employment lawyer for a major media company.  In Fatal Infraction, controversial quarterback Jimmy Rydell’s body is found naked—on New York’s Central Park carousel. Who killed him? How did he get there two days after he disappeared? Rydell’s football team just wants to move on, but NYPD homicide detectives must find answers to the bizarre facts of the case.

Flash fiction: 100 words of crime

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It’s been a long time since I’ve written about flash fiction here. I’m reminded because my local writer’s organization, High Sierra Writers, asked me to judge its annual flash fiction contest.

This fiction genre is defined generally by length.  But few authorities seem to agree on how long a flash fiction story should be. The 100-word limit I use is common, but a variety of print and online magazines and print anthologies restrict flash fiction stories to 500, 1,000, 2,500 or even 5,000 words. SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal founded nearly 20 years ago, takes its name from the notion that “reading a piece of flash fiction takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette.” The editors limit their fiction to 1,000 words—and note they do not condone smoking.

Twitterature, says Wikipedia, is literature limited to 280 characters, the maximum length of posts on Twitter.com. Writers and editors who try to define or explain flash fiction often cite a six-word story reputedly—although not likely—written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Regardless, Hemingway did actually write some longer flash fiction, so has Lydia Davis and Margaret Atwood, among many others.

Obviously, the shorter the word limit the greater the challenge to tell a complete story.  Some of the shorter flash stories are more collections of thoughts, emotions or observations rather than a traditional beginning-middle-and-end fiction. The best tell a complete story, but require you to think, to fill in some blanks—sometimes obvious ones, sometimes not.  Among the finest of the shorter genre appear in the online journal, 100 Word Story.

My flash stories tend to be more literal than literary, philosophical at times, but more frequently with a punch-line or twist ending.  I write cop stories and other dramas.

Here are two samples.  The first is one of my favorites. It’s buried on my website toward the bottom of the “flash fiction” tab.  Both are taken from my book, Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words—Revised Edition. Each story contains exactly 100 words.

   

On the House

Starting her workday baking before sunrise always made Sophie’s concentration sag by 9 a.m., but looking across the counter at a gun barrel got her immediate attention.

“Gimme the money,” the gunman said.

Sophie glanced over the man’s shoulder, moved toward the cash register—then ducked.

The cop standing behind the robber threw him against the counter, as another officer grabbed the gun.

“You gotta be the dumbest crook I ever met,” said the first cop. “Okay, maybe you didn’t see our car in the lot, but really…”

“Thanks, Kelly,” Sophie said. “From now on, doughnuts are on the house.”

 

Just an Accident

Tim flipped a dashboard switch and a red light blinked. When Larry got in the car, Tim pulled out.

“So,” Larry growled, “whadda want now?”

“You’re abusing her. First, cuts and bruises. Now broken bones?”

“Just an accident. She wants to leave, it’s her choice.”

“She won’t. She’s terrified.”

“Then you stay out of it.”

Tim’s speedometer said 45 mph. He glanced in the mirror, saw no one, then swerved into a concrete wall.

Minutes later, bruised and aching but otherwise unhurt, Tim looked down. “He was my son-in-law. Didn’t believe in seatbelts.”

The policeman nodded. “And his airbag malfunctioned.”

– – – – – – – – –

Links mentioned above:

SmokeLong Quarterly     Twitterature

100 Word Story    Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words

Have you read Lawrence Sanders’ McNally books?

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Review: McNally’s Caper  

Mystery and PI novels often feature clever, sympathetic detectives, people you like or at least respect. McNally’s Caper doesn’t. Unless Inspector Clouseau is your idea of a stylish sleuth.

These are harsh words from someone who has never read any other books by this Edgar-winning, million-selling, near-legendary author. Sanders became famous in 1970 with The Anderson Tapes, a crime novel quickly adapted to film. Before his death in 1998 he’d written more than two dozen crime and mystery novels including The First Deadly Sin.

Published in 1994, McNally’s Caper is one of seven books in the McNally series written by Sanders. Another author continued the series after Sanders’ death. The book stars Archy McNally, son of a wealthy Palm Beach, Fla., attorney. Archy dabbles in detection while he pampers himself with the good life in the Florida sun. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling. Many accomplished amateur detectives were dabblers. Jane Marple dabbled. Archy, however, is a different sort.

The book is written in first person so Archy runs the show, and show off he does. Okay, maybe the comparison to Inspector Clouseau is unfair. Archy is not a bumbling fool but a spoiled, smug, part-time PI. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing items in his colorful wardrobe—such as a peony-patterned sport jacket—and the gourmet meals his father’s chef serves up. (Thirtyish Archy lives at home with his parents.)

Archy suffers no inferiority complex, something he demonstrates repeatedly, and his personality so dominates the narrative that the mystery becomes secondary to the protagonist’s preening and his dashing about South Florida from his club to the crime scene and back again, dressed in an ever-changing palette. 

Archy’s style is difficult to separate from the author’s. Halfway through the book I realized exactly what bothered me. I was reminded of an admonition by Strunk and White in the classic writing manual, The Elements of Style.  Reminder #9 Do Not Affect a Breezy Manner:

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

That’s a description of Archy’s chronicle. I could only see him as a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. Now possibly Sanders was having us on, and he intentionally created a self-indulgent, foppish ne’er-do-well. If so, McNally is a coherent character.  But he’s also insufferable.

Occasionally speaking directly to the reader is a part of Archy’s persona. 

To refresh your muzzy memory [Fern Bancroft] was the twitchy maid who had discovered the half-strangled Sylvia Forsythe…. Do try to pay attention; I hope no more reminders will be necessary.

Inexplicably, women can’t seem to stay away from him.  He beds a few attractive young ladies (one of whom was a suspect in the murder case) while making grandiose pledges of fidelity to his girlfriend Connie.

The plot of this McNally adventure is competently, if predictably, constructed. Archy is summoned by Griswold Forsythe II, a client of Archy’s father, to investigate the disappearance of various valuables from the Forsythe castle-like mansion. Forsythe II suspects someone in the household, servant or family member. The fun-house Forsythes are appropriately dysfunctional as are some of the staff.  When Forsythe II is murdered, his son, Forsythe III, the housekeeper, and a suspicious stable hand are among the suspects.

The denouement is logical and more or less satisfying but hardly worth the journey.

If you have a different opinion of Archy and his hijinks-laden exploits, please let me know.

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