“Murder, He Giggled” (by Jack Fredrickson)

Jack Fredrickson, whose fiction-writing career began in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 2002, has gone on to write a series of award-nominated novels featuring Chicago P.I. Dek Elstrom. He has a distinctive style, creating noir  ambiance with wry prose. Readers can see that style for themselves in the author’s upcoming story for EQMM, “The Ace I” (June 2013), or in his latest novel, The Dead Caller from Chicago (out in April from Minotaur). Humor and the murder mystery may seem strange bedfellows at first glance, especially the noir story and humor, but Jack Fredrickson manages to make them get along just fine, and it’s interesting to see how he came to it all.—Janet Hutchings

I attended a day-long gathering of mystery fans last autumn. Men of Mystery was held in California, several miles—downhill, mercifully—from one of the Pacific Coast’s finest muffin shops. Hundreds of avid readers showed up to see headliners Joseph Finder, John Lescroart, and James Rollins, along with a full passel of other prominent crime-fiction writers. There was even room for relatively unknown tuna such as myself to bob about the proceedings, though I was kept at the back of the great hall, where my table manners at lunch would cause the least distraction.

It was no surprise that it was a large gathering. No matter what or when, folks will always love good, thrilling whodunits.

What did surprise me, though maybe not really, was how uproarious the thing was. Mssrs. Finder, Lescroart, Rollins, and their peers are genuinely funny guys. Even my fellow few bobbing tuna burbled wittily upon occasion.

And that got me thinking, once again, about my own journey into crime fiction, and how I’ve come to depend on humor in my own writing, and not always to disguise what I don’t understand about plotting suspense.

My first attempt at a crime story, “The Brick Thing,” (available as a podcast, if you’re having trouble sleeping) somehow slipped past the almost always-vigilant editor Janet Hutchings, and got published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It presented little humor, other than perhaps the laughable quality of its prose, but it was noteworthy, at least in my life, for what it set off. For I decided that if I could fool Janet Hutchings, I could fool a book publisher. I decided to write an entire crime novel.

It took no time to come up with a surefire seven-word beginning: “It was a dark and stormy night,” nor to craft a dynamite two word ender: “The End.” The rub was going to be the pesky eighty thousand words I’d need to connect the two.

I had some idea how to approach this. I knew someone should die, and that someone else should discover the corpse. A third person should be retained to investigate and point an accusing finger at a fourth person. Beyond that, though, I needed help. Fortunately, someone suggested I attend the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa (I forget who; there were so many people anxious for me to leave town). In Iowa, it was rumored, real graduates of the university’s famed Writers’ Workshop, along with classmates, would “workshop,” or critique, whatever work I dragged in. And that, presumably, would put me on the road to great fame and fortune. All that was required was a small amount of tuition, and the twenty pages of manuscript to be critiqued.

I sent off the tuition, and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And soon, I had twenty pages of widely spaced, widely margined manuscript, dotted here and there with more than several of the eighty thousand words I would ultimately need.

The instructor at my weeklong summer workshop was an esteemed writer of literary fiction. And she was a buckaroo, or rather, a buckarette, since she was . . . well, a she. She was fond of cowboy boots, pearl-buttoned shirts, and especially humor. The woman knew how to laugh.

She began our first session by passing around an enormous bag of M&Ms, that basic diet staple, and asked each of us to, “Tell us about your shoes.”

The class tittered. Being that she was a bona fide graduate of the esteemed Writers Workshop, we figured (a) she was weird, and (b) she might not simply be curious about our footwear and their origins, but instead was seeking to shock us into attention—that basic intention of any writer—right off. I mean, come on, travel all the way to Iowa to meet an established writer, only to begin by talking about our shoes?

As the M&Ms went round and round, the talk, the descriptions—the inventiveness—grew more aggressive and bold. She, and soon enough we, weren’t looking for mere exposition (“Well, uh, I went to Kohl’s, and these were, uh, on sale, and they fit, sort of, and, uh, since they’re cheap vinyl I don’t worry much about cleaning them, unless I step in a mound of, uh . . . ”) No; we were looking for outrageousness, words that would command attention, and it occurred to me then, as I sat with cheeks chock full of M&Ms, that I might strive to use a giggle as well as a gun in my crime fiction for, if done right, both would summon gasps.

The next days brought amplification. Our class transitioned to that other basic diet staple, beer, which required a change of venue. It was in a bar that the instructor parked her boots up on our table, leaned back, and focused on me as best she could.

“As regards your manuscript,” she said.

“Yes; yes?” I leaned forward. Several of the other workshoppers had perked up as well, lifting their heads off the table to see above the pitchers.

“First of all,” she said, “your work is very widely spaced and very widely margined.”

“Absolutely!” I shouted, delighted that she, a credentialed writer, had seen fit to notice one of the first tenets of my writing, the relentless incorporation of utterly blank space.

“That, of course, might reflect an author whose thoughts are also widely spaced apart,” she went on. “Be that as it may, you must offer up more glimpses of your world view.” And then she laughed, and knocked back an entire glass of beer.

The more charitable of my acquaintances try to laugh off my world view as stemming from a cracked prism in my brain, and for sure, the pages I’d brought to Iowa reflected that sensibility, or lack thereof. My protagonist was an odd duck who lived in a turret in a greasy, crooked suburb of Chicago (can you imagine: corruption in Chicago?) and hung around with an even odder duck.

The esteemed published writer buckarette was saying I’d begun too tentatively. I needed to work harder to engage my readers, to make them gasp in fear, certainly, but also from humor. I needed to lob every grenade I could muster.

I left Iowa five pounds heavier from candy, beer, and a sharpened sense of direction that, in a most modest way, has panned out. The New York Times, in its review of my second novel, spent good space on a humorous riff I did on Walmart, and the Wall Street Journal complimented me (I think) by noting that my work is quirky and affecting.

But then came one of those Word-A-Day jobs that gets very widely e-mailed to subscribers. They used my stuff to define the word “noir.”

Go figure; again, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. But I try to tease most of what I write with humor.

And M&Ms. And shoes.

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