Terence Faherty’s fiction has earned a number of honors, including multiple Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America. He writes both contemporary and historical mysteries for EQMM, mostly in two series, those featuring Owen Keane and Scott Elliott. Both series also have a number of novel-length entries, the latest of which is a case for Elliott, Dancing in the Dark. Recently, the New Jersey-born author, who is known for the highly reflective nature of his prose, has been producing Sherlock Holmes parodies, one of which appeared in our February 2013 issue. Another will follow late this year and a third in early 2014. He’s in a reflective mood again in this fascinating essay on one of the rewards of the writer’s life.—Janet Hutchings
Some time back I was asked to do a one-day writing program at an Indiana library for a group called the Midwest Writers. I showed up at the right place at the right time with my part of the program (there were two other writers on the bill) prepared and perhaps even over-prepared. I’d noticed on the schedule I’d been sent that there was to be an introduction, and I’d thought it would consist of giving name, rank, and serial number, smiling throughout. But when I was seated on the dais, I learned that I was expected to speak for ten minutes on some aspect of a writing career.
Luckily, I didn’t go first. The writer who preceded me mentioned the financial compensations of writing (no doubt disparagingly), and that inspired me to talk about the less tangible compensations of the writing life. As I’m a mystery writer, the compensation that came to mind was the chance to occasionally solve a mystery in one’s own life.
I told the group about a mystery concerning my father, who had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and subjected to radiation treatments. This was back in the 1970s, when those treatments were less precisely focused and very intense. When my father was released from the hospital, he wasn’t himself for a time. Early one morning, about two, he got up, dressed, and announced that he was going to the hardware store. No amount of argument or pointing to the clock would convince him to go back to bed. He wouldn’t say what he wanted, beyond wanting to go to the hardware store.
My sister, who was still living at home, dutifully drove him the three or four blocks to Cryer’s Hardware, which was locked up tighter than Jack Benny’s vault, as a ’40s P.I. might put it. Nevertheless, my father got out of the car to peer in the store’s windows and rattle its front door. While he was at this, the police showed up. My sister explained the situation to them, and they persuaded my father to go home and come back when the store opened at nine.
He did go home, but at nine he had no interest in hardware stores. He wouldn’t say what he’d been after at Cryer’s at two. He never did say, if, in fact, he knew himself.
The question stayed with me for years. To try to answer it, I wrote a story called “A Sense of Link.” The title was from a remark made by my wife, who, tired of some complaint I was lodging against teenagers, blurted out that I lacked a “sense of link” with other people. We laughed about her phrasing, but it was a serious charge to make against a would-be writer, as I then was, on the order of accusing a would-be composer of tone deafness.
I based the protagonist of “A Sense of Link” on myself, gave him a perceptive wife like mine and a six-year-old daughter, based on one of my nieces. (I have eleven and can’t imagine making do with fewer.) I set the story on a Saturday morning on which the protagonist and first-person narrator announces he’s going to a hardware store. He has a specific purchase in mind, but his perceptive wife knows that he’s also hoping to get away from his Saturday-morning duties for a time. So she sends the daughter along to keep an eye on him.
The pair make several stops and eventually land at Central Hardware. There the protagonist falls into thinking about his cancer-victim father, who had once made a two-in-the-morning hardware run, like mine, and wondering what his father had been after. It occurs to him that anything he sees on any shelf he passes might be his father’s holy grail.
Eventually, the narrator accidentally stumbles upon what he himself came after, ending the getaway. As they’re pulling into their driveway, the daughter thanks her father very formally for a nice time. The narrator realizes that he’s had a nice time too. It was a simple, ordinary morning spent with his daughter, but he’s enjoyed it. In that realization, he has the answer to his father’s mysterious hardware-store trip, and I had mine.
What the father had been after was a simple, ordinary, throwaway day, something you have by the hundreds and even thousands prior to a diagnosis of inoperable cancer but can never have afterward.
Was that the actual answer to my father’s mystery? I’ll never know. I know it satisfied me as a writer in a way no provable answer could. It gave me the kind of moment that is the true compensation of the writing life.