EQMM’s August issue, which mails to print subscribers a few weeks from now, contains a story set in French Polynesia—often said to be the most beautiful region in the world. Entitled “The Lethal Leeteg,” the story forms part of a series of police and private eye tales that author Hayford Peirce has been writing for EQMM for nearly twenty years. The series’ two continuing protagonists, Commissaire Tama and private eye Joe Caneili, are unforgettably distinctive creations—as notable as the stories’ exotic location. Hayford Peirce also writes science fiction, with work appearing in our sister publication Analog Science Fiction and Fact since 1975. It may be of interest that this master of conveying a real exotic locale is known in the science fiction field for his well-imagined settings. His latest novel is Dinosaur Park (Wildside 2010).—Janet Hutchings
“Write what you know” is probably the hoariest piece of advice given to aspiring authors in English classes and writer’s workshops. But for every writer, or teacher, who apparently believes this, there seems to be an equal number who find one reason or another for pooh-poohing the notion.
In my own case, I’d always vaguely wanted to be a writer—a published writer—first of mystery stories in the grand manner of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, which I discovered at about age ten, and then, after coming across science fiction at fourteen, science fiction novels or stories like those of Robert A. Heinlein. A few years after that, I was enthralled by Evelyn Waugh, the great English satirist, and by Raymond Chandler, the master of hardboiled prose. All of these writers would inspire me to sit down at a typewriter and to pound out a page or two of reasonably decent prose. But, of course, as a teenager, I didn’t know anything about the world.
So what could I write about? I would think of an opening paragraph, maybe, or a character, and that was about the extent of it. Even for modest short stories that I grandiosely envisioned at EQMM or Astounding Science Fiction, two or three pages were the most I could ever manage. I had a beginning but no middle and no end.
So I finished prep school, and then college, and then was fortunate enough to be able to move to Tahiti, commonly thought of as being “paradise,” in 1964, when I was twenty-two. Ten years passed. I amassed thousands of mystery and science-fiction novels, which I read avidly. Then one day, when I was thirty-two, all of a sudden I did think of something to write about. It had nothing to do with life in Tahiti, being a whimsical science-fiction story, but it did contain elements of things I knew about, wine and tea and European politics. I wrote it quickly, sent it off, and soon got a check in the mail. So now I was an official published writer!
But thinking of ideas for stories still was difficult. Even though I was living in Tahiti, where preposterous “only-in-Tahiti” type things were happening all around me on a daily basis, I could never quite put together all the elements needed to tell a complete story. Just knowing about Tahiti wasn’t quite enough. Then one day I caught a brief glimpse of a television show about an April Fool’s joke of someone claiming he was finding gold nuggets in the stomachs of fish caught in the nearby lagoon. With a little difficulty, I managed to plot an entire story, a rather grim one actually, beginning with that as the kernel. And, since I did have Tahiti all around me, I decided that I would try to be as evocative of its lush and exotic surroundings as possible—this was back in the mid 1980s, when Polynesia was still mostly an idealized notion to most Americans. So this is how I began the story:
“Easter Sunday in Tahiti: hot, dry, and clear. A light breeze stirred the leaves of the trees that towered over the blacktop road that wound through the district of Tiarei: mangos and breadfruits, ironwood and mahogany, an occasional avocado or chestnut, and everywhere the graceful arc of the coconut palm. A pitiless sun in a cobalt sky lanced through the foliage to dapple the road, and with it the Tahitian families on their way to church in long white dresses and dark blue serge suits with double-breasted lapels handed down from their grandfathers. Hedges of bougainvillea and hibiscus lined the road, often hastily-cut fence posts that had taken root and flowered in the impossibly fertile soil, their gaudy flowers lilac and orange, pale rose, deep red, creamy white, flaming yellow. Ginger, opui, frangipani, a dozen kinds of banana trees struggled for sunlight and survival. Even at nine in the morning heat waves shimmered on the road ahead, and over everything lay the scent of coffee beans and vanilla, mixed with the cloying odor of drying copra.”
Overdone, probably, but I sold the story, and it set the tone for all the others I’ve laid in Tahiti over the following twenty-eight years. Stories about Commissaire Tama, the Chief of Police, are written in the third person, and I can indulge my descriptive fancies as much as I want to evoke the exoticism of the Islands. Stories narrated by Joe Caneili, my American ex-Foreign Legionnaire, now a private eye, are somewhat more restrained on the lit’ry side. But even here, inspired by Raymond Chandler and all his myriad of imitators, I try to flesh out the story with word pictures of the world Caneili lives in:
“The lunchtime traffic had gridlocked at the intersection in front of the cathedral, so I skipped deftly through it and walked the short block down to the waterfront. This was a four-lane road that ran along the U-shaped harbor of Papeete. Cool-looking shade trees were planted down the middle, arching over on either side. There were shops and travel agencies and restaurants on one side, a parking lot, and the oily water of the harbor on the other.
I could feel my brains sizzling in the heat as I walked across the unshaded asphalt pavement of the parking lot down to where half a dozen small fishing boats were tied up. Across the harbor a big black Russian cruise ship was docked in front of the long, low customs sheds, and a gray destroyer of the French navy was cleaving through the harbor waters on its way to the pass and the open ocean. Hung across the horizon behind all this activity was the jagged silhouette of distant Moorea, looking like Hollywood’s notion of what a tropical island backdrop should be.”
But more important to my stories, I think, than exotic settings and colorful vegetation are the exotic people and colorful activities they get up to. Some of these activities, of course, probably do happen in the United States from time to time—but are seldom noteworthy enough to make the newspapers. In Tahiti they’re all just part of the daily routine that people laugh and gossip about.
One of my stories, for example, revolves around an incident that I first heard about around 1962, when I hadn’t yet moved to Tahiti but was there on school break. A well-known American of the forties or fifties, the story goes, the honorary American consul even, fell deathly ill one day and was rushed to the hospital. Miraculously, he recovered and eventually returned home. Some weeks later a Chinese carpenter knocked on his door—with a wooden coffin by his side. “Who,” said the carpenter politely, “is going to pay me for this coffin that I was told to make for your funeral?” At which point the horrified consul clutches his heart and falls down dead.
A great story. True? Parts of it, I think. But certainly enough to get me started on a story of my own.
Another one involved someone who lived out in the countryside with various family members buried in his/her own little graveyard. Dire events caused the person in question to believe that a recently buried grandfather was causing the trouble—so he/she dug up the coffin to chastise the angry spirit by hiding it elsewhere.
Another Caneili story begins when he returns home for lunch and discovers that his modest bamboo rental house has burned to the ground. His landlady, who lives in the house right next door, has set fire to her own house—because she was mad at her husband over some trifling matter. Tahitians really did set fire to their own cars or houses when they got mad at things. . . .
Interesting people have lived in Tahiti, or visited, over the years: Marlon Brando; the restaurateur Don the Beachcomber; Edgar Leeteg, the black-velvet artist; James Norman Hall, author of Mutiny on the Bounty—all of these and many more are part of the local lore. And ripe to have stories in some sense crafted around them.
Even now, nearly forty years after selling my first story, it still isn’t easy to conjure up new ones—but at least I have a background, the “old” Tahiti of, say, the timeless 1980s, in which to set them. . . . Because, just as the advisors say: I am writing about what I know.