William Dylan Powell’s Department of First Stories debut, “Evening Gold” (EQMM November 2006), won the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author. The Texas writer is an ad man who managed to make time for his own writing and continues to produce both fiction and nonfiction. He has recently completed a private-eye novel featuring the protagonist of his upcoming EQMM story “The Seagull and the Skull” (don’t miss it in the July 2015 issue) and is currently at work on a book of Texas history. In this post, he explains how he became a rule-breaker in his writing—and achieved success.—Janet Hutchings
The joy of stories that get deadly straight away—and yet still manage to keep the suspense going strong, all story long.
More than a decade ago, I took a creative writing class at a local university. The instructor was a well-read but snobbish academic who proselytized the joys of beat poetry, read Proust in its original French, and rolled his eyes at the James Lee Burke novel I was lugging around at the time. (I still think James Lee Burke’s The Man; living in Houston, I really enjoyed his latest, Wayfaring Stranger.)
On the first day of class, he gave us a list of ten things never to do in a work of fiction. They were given as quite concrete rules. Which was ironic, given his love of beat poetry. But when a person is first starting to write fiction, he or she takes “rules” very seriously. Years later, I don’t remember what they all were. But I do remember the number-one rule he had: “And, lastly,” he said with a dramatic flourish and chuckling a bit, “whatever you do, dear God, don’t just start out the story with a murder. Nobody cares yet!”
His point was that readers need to feel invested in the characters before they care about the murder of anyone. Fair point. Readers need to buy into the main character, and the story, for some reason. But on the other hand, murder is a shocking and scary phenomenon. When we hear a stranger has been murdered, most healthy people are interested to know why, and if the perpetrator was caught. I’d hate to think we live in SUCH a cynical world that the prospect of a stranger’s murder is less interesting than, say, reality television. I mean, I’m a pacifist and I’m pretty sure I’d rather watch an actual murder taking place than an episode of Storage Wars.
So my first night in that class I decided to write a short story that would literally break each of the man’s ten rules, just to see how it would turn out. With a dead body literally falling from the sky straight away, the result of the experiment was “Evening Gold,” my very first published piece of fiction and a proud resident of EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 2006.
Since then, I’ve really come to appreciate stories that start with a murderous bang—and yet still manage to keep readers turning the page. So I’ve thrown together what I feel are a few noteworthy examples of deadly novels that waste no time in filling up the literary body bag. I’m not talking about foreshadowing or a hint from the narrator, but blood-on-the-carpet-holy-cow-obviously-foul-play-call-the-police-chalk-outline-notify-next-of-kin murder. All right up front in Chapter 1, and all with zero apologies.
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, opens up with the murder of a detective agency’s client, Donald Wilsson. The man hires the agency, but is then murdered before our hero gets a chance to meet with him face-to-face. The agency in question, Continental Detective Agency of San Francisco, is based on the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency where Hammett actually worked for some time. Hammett’s hero, known as The Continental Op, spends the book finding out what really happened to Wilsson—and making sure that somebody pays. Red Harvest is a great example of classic American pulp, and was originally released as a serial in the magazine Black Mask during 1927-1928.
The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark
In yet another stellar example of Clark’s masterfully suspenseful storytelling, The Lost Years, which was published in 2013, sports the murder of a biblical scholar right off the bat. The man had recently stumbled across a letter that may have been written by Jesus Christ himself. Stolen from the Vatican in the 1500s, the letter was said to have been lost forever. But now it’s resurfaced—and scholar Jonathan Lyons is found shot to death at his desk. AND, to make matters murkier, his wife (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is found incoherent and in the closet gripping the gun that killed him. The book opens up with the couple’s daughter reflecting on her father’s funeral and spins delightfully out of control quickly from there.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
It’s possible that there are some far-flung uncontacted tribespeople in isolated parts of rural South America who haven’t read Alice Sebold’s amazing novel The Lovely Bones. Other than that, I’m pretty sure everyone else in the Americas has read it at least once. But in case you’re not part of the Sirionó peoples, the first few pages lay out the murder of teenager Susie Salmon as the victim herself narrates; readers are driven for the finish line trying to find closure for her loving family. And the whole thing works so well because of the picture Sebold paints of the hurt, confusion, and resolve that results when reasonable folks struggle with the unreasonable evils of the world.
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
Set in Victorian London, this strange and playful novel not only starts with “Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever . . .” but it also starts with the murder of not-very-likeable victim Cyril Honeyman. While some pedants point out this or that inconsistency or loose end within the story, when it comes to a fantastic Victorian eccentricity-laden, steampunk-bizarro detective mystery, who cares? The Somnambulist is a rich, flavorful, super-fun read that sports a man being pushed out of a window to his death in the first chapter, and follows the investigation of this crime and others by past-his-sell-by-date magician Edward Moon and a giant mute sidekick who really likes milk. What’s not to like?
The Green Rust by Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace
Next consider this work by one-time British super-pulp author Edgar Wallace. Wallace was a writer’s writer at his peak between WWI and WWII. It was once said that at one time, twenty-five percent of all popular novels read in England were his (he wrote 173 altogether). In The Green Rust, millionaire shipbuilder John Millinborn is murdered in Chapter 1—stabbed to death with an ivory-handled knife. The plot that unfolds reveals a madman’s plan to take over the world that’s equal to any Bondian tale of international intrigue. BONUS: You can pick up an electronic version of this free on Amazon. Wallace later moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter and passed away working on the script for King Kong.
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Set in the exotic world of sixteenth-century Istanbul, My Name Is Red opens with the murder of a miniaturist (this is a type of artists who paints a distinct style of traditional Islamic manuscripts and illustrations) in the Ottoman artistic period. The story centers around a Sultan who commissions artists to document all of the achievements he’s accomplished during his time of rule—and to do so in a European style. But since religious traditionalists of the time felt that figurative art could be an affront to Islam, the project was kept secret. Until one of the artists goes missing. The book is thick as a ripe fig with art, sex, power, religion, culture, and folklore—and it all starts with a chapter called: “I am a corpse.”