“What Did You Just Say?” (by Frankie Y. Bailey)

Frankie Bailey’s first short story for EQMM appears in our July 2014 issue, and a podcast of the tale, which she read for us at the Malice Domestic Convention in May, will feature in our podcast series starting this Friday. The story belongs to the Lizzie Stuart crime-historian series, which includes five novels. Minotaur Books also recently released her new police procedural novel, The Red Queen Dies (2013), which is set in the near future. Booklist called the book a “strong start to a projected series.” The next in the series, What the Fly Saw, will be published in March 2015. Fiction-writing, however, is only one of Frankie Bailey’s careers. She is a professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, and her knowledge of crime history is evident in this enlightening post.—Janet Hutchings

Place: Fast food drive-through in upstate New York. I swerve my car away from the drive-through window and jump out. As the guy in the window stares as me with mouth open, I reach through his window and grab him by the collar of his uniform. Dragging him toward me, I explain to him in cold, precise language exactly why “Here you go, sweetie” is not an acceptable way to complete a transaction with a customer. As he struggles in my grasp, I point out that if he had been observant enough to notice the gray in my hair, it might have occurred to him that I might be one of those Baby Boomer feminists who consider being called “sweetie” by a strange male a sexist insult. Or, if he called me “sweetie” because he did see that gray in my hair, he might have considered the fact that I am not his grandmother and might not be in the mood to be patronized after spending ten minutes in a fast-food drive through. And—although he might not have gotten this if he didn’t recognize my Southern accent—it might also have occurred to him that someone who grew up in the South, where a waitress calling you “sweetie” as she brings your order to your table can make you feel like you’ve gotten a great big hug, might be offended not only by his “sweetie” but by the bland way in which he’d delivered it. As his eyes bug, I tell him that he is no Southern waitress. And, by the way, buster, “Thank you” is what you say. Not “Here you go.” I let go of his shirt collar and dust off my hands. I get into my car and check my order to make sure I’ve been given salad dressing, utensils, and napkins. As the police car responding to the call about an assault in progress turns into the parking lot, I drive away. The cop barely glances at the calm-faced woman in the gray sedan leaving the scene of the crime.

Okay. This happened only in my Wanda Mitty daydream. The truth is, I didn’t even utter a sarcastic “You’re welcome, darling” in response to that “Here you go, sweetie.” I may even have mumbled “Thank you” as I accepted my bag through the window. But the exchange did provide food for thought (you may groan). I, who have never been in a fight, who shudder at the thought of causing a scene, had fantasized about “breaking bad” on a guy in a drive-through window. Back at the office, as I sat at my desk eating my salad, I began to think about acts of violence—real and fictional—that might grow out of an annoyance or perceived insult. That’s what you do if you’re both a criminal justice professor and a mystery writer. You think, “That’s really interesting. I should see what research has been done on that.” And then you think, “Hey, maybe I can work this into a story idea.”

Historically, “insult” has often been linked to “honor.” Edgar Allan Poe—raised if not born in the South—opens “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) with these words: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Montresor, the narrator, never reveals the nature of the thousand injuries or the final insult. But he perceives himself as the victim of conduct that must be avenged. The nature of his retaliation (walling the unsuspecting and inebriated Fortunato up alive in a crypt) suggests the cunning Montresor is a madman. Even though he explains that he must escape punishment or the wrong will be unredressed, what rational man could carry out such a diabolical plan as his victim begs for mercy? Moreover, Montresor has engaged in private treachery. In Poe’s nineteenth-century South, a “gentleman” affronted by an insult and concerned for his “honor” might have been expected to challenge an equal to a duel or to deliver a sound caning or whipping to an inferior. From the perspective of the “culture of honor,” Montresor is a coward because he does not engage Fortunato in a public confrontation.

The tendency to link honor to manhood and insult to potential loss of reputation was not confined to the South. In the era between the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War, antidueling reformers waged a propaganda campaign aimed at upper class men in both South and North who engaged in duels that the reformers argued were ritualized murder-suicide. The reformers pointed to the infamous case of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr who met in Weehawken, New Jersey to settle their political and personal differences. According to the antidueling propaganda, Hamilton, who was killed, had committed suicide.

Whether the story that Hamilton had fired into the air rather than at his opponent was true or not, Hamilton might have both saved face and avoided the duel. During the negotiations leading up to a duel, the person accused of the insult could offer a carefully worded public (and published) apology offering his regrets about the misunderstanding. When men chose to fight, they saw the duel as an opportunity not only to avenge an insult, but to display their own sense of self-worth and courage by risking death. Whether fighting a duel—or engaging as lower-class men did in “no-holds barred” fights that resulted in the loss of an eye or an ear—nineteenth-century men were willing to fight to preserve status and reputation. In the twenty-first century, violence in response to perceived insult is still common, particularly among young men. In our modern world, an insult may result in a “war of words” among those who consider themselves too civilized for fisticuffs or weapons. But the connection between insult and aggression remains.

Writers know this. Since the birth of “tough guy” crime fiction in the 1920s, how many guys have walked into how many bars in how many books, short stories, and movies and gotten into a “beef” with some other guy? Sometimes the insult is related to clumsiness on the part of the offender (e.g., a spilled drink) or a remark to or about a woman. Sometimes one guy challenges the other guy’s right to be there. In crime fiction, insults happen and characters respond. Occasionally—if the insult comes from someone they know and cuts deeply enough, a character may respond with a carefully thought-out scheme.

Research on the topic suggests that if an aggrieved person has some time to “ruminate” on a public insult, the next person who gets in his or her way may suffer the consequences. Scholars call this “displaced aggression.” Back in 1945, writer Ann Petry depicted this kind of displacement in a short story titled “Like a Winding Sheet.” Although not genre fiction, the story ends in violence—domestic violence. The story opens with the line, “He had planned to get up before Mae did and surprise her by fixing breakfast.” By the end of that day—after the husband has suffered racial taunts from his white female supervisor and what he misinterprets as discrimination when he is told that he will have to wait for coffee in a restaurant—he is tense and angry. When his wife teases him about being grumpy, she inadvertently “triggers” his rage. He strikes her. He sees the blood on her face and realizes what he has done. But he goes on hitting her as he thinks that it is like “being enmeshed in a winding sheet. . . .And even as the thought formed in his mind his hands reached for her face again and yet again.” That’s the last line, but in real life, it would probably not have been the last incident.

In real life—and in fiction—the person who takes offense often perceives the sometimes-unintentional offender as attempting to humiliate and/or dominate. Power differentials, individual characteristics, and the setting come into play. With regard to violence, gender often trumps other factors. From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from Western frontier to urban inner city, being ready to respond physically to an insult has been an aspect of American masculinity. Women may anger, may respond to an insult verbally, but are less prone to physical violence. This, of course, is not to deny the juvenile girls and young women who do answer an insult with a punch.

I didn’t grab the guy in the fast-food window by his shirt collar. But my character in my story might do that and end up in jail. And then what? Or, he or she might go back to work and spend the afternoon ruminating on that insult and later have a confrontation with someone else. Of course, one intriguing aspect of an “insult” is that what one person perceives as an insult, another person may take as a compliment. Maybe what my character is annoyed about is that his friend or relative, someone he cares about, doesn’t realize she should be insulted. Maybe he takes action of her behalf . . .

I may actually get a story idea out of this. But that’s what writers do, isn’t it? We put the things that annoy us to good use.

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2 Responses to “What Did You Just Say?” (by Frankie Y. Bailey)

  1. Robert Lopresti says:

    Good piece. brian Garfield once had a bag of clothes he was taking to Goodwill stolen from the bsck of his convertible ( they sliced through the old roof he had already purchased a replacement for.). He took his outrage at this inconsequential theft and turned into the novel DEATH WISH.

  2. Frankie Y. Bailey says:

    Glad you liked it. And thanks for the story about Garfield. I hadn’t heard that one.

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