The issue of EQMM that has just mailed to subscribers (September/October 2014), contains Terence Faherty’s seventh EQMM short story featuring series character Owen Keane. Entitled “Ghost Town,” it is a characteristically thoughtful case for the former seminarian turned sleuth. The New York Times once described the work of Keane’s creator, who is a two-time Edgar nominee, this way: “No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts.” As we discovered from this post, like his character Keane, Terence Faherty is an amateur sleuth with some good detecting genes. His latest novel, The Quiet Woman (Five Star Publishing), is a combination ghost story and romantic mystery.—Janet Hutchings
In my previous contribution to this blog, “Tips and Other Compensations,” March 13, 2013, I wrote about solving a mystery concerning my late father by using that mystery as the starting point for a story. This entry is about the time I solved a real-life, high stakes crime—and in a way that brought to mind my series protagonist, amateur sleuth Owen Keane.
Owen is a failed seminarian who investigates little human mysteries while looking for answers to large spiritual mysteries. He does much better with the former than the latter, but he soldiers on, so far through eight books and over a dozen shorter tales. (Owen’s most recent book-length outing is Eastward in Eden, 2013, and a new short story, “Ghost Town,” is part of the September/October 2014 double issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which is now available.)
Owen is one of a long line of fictional detectives who encourage their opponents to underestimate them. Think Charlie Chan and Columbo. Actually, Owen doesn’t really have to encourage people to underestimate him, since he’s a true amateur, flying by the seat of his pants when he gets off the ground at all. As a result, the official police are prone to look on Owen with jaundiced eyes. But that’s just part of being an amateur sleuth, like the lousy retirement plan.
Now on to my real-life crime saga. My wife and I were vacationing in Texas one spring weekend when we received a phone call from a neighbor back in Indianapolis. A motorist had hit our mailbox very early that morning, hit it so hard that the box was flattened and the metal post was yanked out of the ground, cement root and all. The neighbor had gotten up in time to see a white SUV pulling away in haste.
“Mailbox?” I can almost hear you demanding. “Wasn’t this supposed to be about a ‘high stakes crime?’” Well, it was a very nice mailbox.
We got back to Indy a day or two later. We found the flattened mailbox as promised and the extracted post, which had been dragged across the lawn and driven into a flower bed. What we didn’t find was a note taped to our door or a message on our answering machine accepting responsibility for the loss.
I called the “neighborhood patrol,” a squad of moonlighting local policeman who looked after our development and a half a dozen others nearby. The patrolman I drew was tall and thin and very young. His regular beat was in a small town little way east of Indianapolis. When I explained what had happened, he had a two-word answer: “Joyriding kids.”
I objected. According to our alert neighbor, the box had been struck at two thirty in the morning, late for kids to be joyriding but right on time for an adult leaving a bar around last call. And our road was not a through street; it was a long cul-de-sac. Not the ideal joyriding route. No, I told the policeman, what was needed now was less talk about kids and more APBs.
The young man listened politely without changing his mind. The most he would do was write up a report for insurance purposes. While he was at it, I started cleaning up the debris in the front yard, since it appeared the Crime Scene Unit would not be arriving. Mixed in with the chunks of that very nice mailbox, I found pieces of what appeared to be an even nicer car. All the pieces were white, including the surround from a fog light. It was stamped with a single word: “Lexus.” The one exception to the white color scheme was a black piece of plastic that might have come from an air dam (the plastic apron under the front bumper that scrapes the curb when you park nose in). The fragment bore another clue, a tiny grid with months along one axis and years down the other. A marked box within the grid indicated that the air dam, if such it was, had been manufactured in June 2004.
At this point it might be a good idea to pause for a moment to think about what a tough life mystery writers have. If I wrote a short story in which a detective pokes through half a dozen pieces of broken car and finds amongst them one piece that gives the make and a second that gives the year of the car in question, the average reader would think me one lazy writer and start flipping ahead to the next story. And it’s no good insisting, as I’ve heard beginner fiction writers do in workshops, that such-and-such belongs in a story because it really happened. Unless you’re writing parody or fantasy, your fiction has to be more plausible than real life, as Tony Hillerman and others have pointed out, and there’s no use arguing about it. It’s even worse for writers of mystery fiction, who have to avoid obvious clues and eliminate coincidences—both common in real life—in order to satisfy their readers.
Luckily, I wasn’t writing a mystery that day; I was living one. I marched over to where the patrolman sat sideways in the driver’s seat of his car, his patent leather shoes on our driveway and a clipboard on his knees as scratched away at his forms. I showed him the fog light surround and the air dam fragment and told him he was looking for a white Lexus SUV, probably an ’04 or ’05, and he would find it in one of the garages between my house and the end of the cul-de-sac, based on the direction the car had been traveling when it wreaked its havoc. The deputy nodded politely and went back to his forms, declining the chance to conduct a warrantless garage-to-garage search. In retrospect, I can see that I was a fool not to have mentioned my Shamus award.
By the time he’d finished his paperwork and returned to his patrol, I’d decided—in the best traditions of my genre—to take matters into my own hands. I typed up a short note giving the time and date of the crime and the color and year of the car in question and promising that, if I didn’t hear from the interested party shortly, my next communication would reveal the make and model. I printed a stack of these and stuck one in each mailbox between my late one and the end of the street. Then I picked up my pipe and violin, figuratively speaking, and waited.
In a mystery story using this incident as a starting point, there would have followed a near fatal attack on the writer of the note. The SUV in question would have been fleeing the scene of a murder or some other serious crime on the night it hit the (very nice) mailbox, whose meddlesome owner knows too much and must be silenced. Luckily (again), this wasn’t a story. Within a couple of hours, I received a call from an insurance agent who had a client anxious to pay for a new box. Case closed.
Or not. A day or two later our front doorbell rang. Our caller was the young patrolman. He’d come, he said, to apologize. He’d spotted a white Lexus SUV with front end damage exiting the neighborhood that morning and had pulled it over. The driver, a local resident, had admitted running over the box, but had assured the deputy that his insurance agent had the matter in hand. When I confirmed this, the patrolman took his leave, but not before turning to apologize once more. “I should have taken you more seriously,” he said.
He may have wondered why I smiled so at that. It was because I suddenly found myself in a scene from an Owen Keane story, the scene in which the policeman or woman belatedly realizes that there’s more to Owen than meets the eye. I’d always enjoyed writing those scenes, but now I realized for the first time that Owen must enjoy them, too, that those affirmations might even be a little bit of what keeps him going, year after year.
I didn’t mention any of that to the young cop. I simply touched the brim of my fedora, figuratively speaking, and told him to be careful on those mean cul-de-sacs, or rather, streets.