“A Break in the Order of Things: Coincidence in Fiction and in Life” by Steven Gore

Steven Gore is a former private detective who told EQMM he spent decades  “investigating murder, fraud, organized crime, corruption, and drug, sex and arms trafficking.”  He has been featured, for his investigative work, on 60 Minutes. The San Francisco Bay resident is equally distinguished as a fiction writer; he’s the author of six well-received novels, the most recent of which, Night Is the Hunter, was released by William Morrow last month. Publisher’s Weekly said of the book: “Gore not only puts a face on the difficulties of serving justice but also illustrates their immensity.” Steven is a newcomer to EQMM—his first story for us will appear in our August issue—but has already established himself in the realm of short fiction too, with a number of stories in our sister publication, AHMM. It’s hard to imagine that any writer could be in a better position than he is to compare real-life investigations to fictional ones.—Janet Hutchings

Readers of crime fiction are dismissive of coincidences: the chance meeting, the overheard scrap of conversation, the two plot lines that intersect halfway through a mistaken left turn. They are also disturbed and angered by them, because such devices seem to violate their experience of life, of the natural sequences of causes and effects, of actions and events, or at least the hope or faith in them and in their power to order the world.

Coincidence is, for readers, like chance is for the innocent victim caught in a crossfire between warring gangsters: The solid ground beneath their feet gives way. Life itself seems to have dissolved into a chaos of mere happenings and there are no answers to be found to the questions of why-then, why-there, and why-me.

For readers, coincidence and chance destroy their suspension of disbelief; for victims, their belief in a rational world. For readers, they are violations of the writer’s contract with them; for victims, they are quakes in the moral landscape.

To both, it feels unfair.

For investigators, on the other hand, coincidence itself can be the solid ground, but if and only if–like a high-wire walker ignoring the hundred foot drop–they don’t think about it too much.

How many crimes have been solved because a detective happened to have been assigned a similar case at the same time and noticed a pattern, or remembered the nickname of a victim from a case he handled years earlier that later provided a lead to a witness, or happened to have run through a building or down a side street while chasing a robber, scenes that would later suggest where evidence of a burglary might be hidden?

If it were not for these kinds of coincidences, many suspects, witnesses, and pieces of evidence would not be found and crimes would remain unsolved, perhaps even be unsolvable. Except investigators call it experience or street knowledge, not chance and coincidence.

And even though there might not be a why to it, coincidence is sometimes that upon which fairness, even justice, depends.

Rather than explanations, here are two examples from my career as a private investigator:

Shortly after I opened my private practice, I was contacted by a criminal defense attorney whose client had been arrested for aggravated mayhem. The victim had been badly beaten and lost part of his ear and underwent hundreds of stitches to repair his torn and slashed skin. The client, like the other three men arrested, denied that he was involved or even present. If convicted, under California law the client faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

The police report said the victim and two women had walked out of a bar and gotten into an argument with four men. The men then assaulted the victim and fled. Police located four men in a parking lot a mile away and detained them. The women were brought to the scene and identified all of them.

The client, held in the county jail without bail, told me he happened to be in the parking lot when four men drove up. He knew two of them and they began talking. One of the four walked off the lot and into the neighborhood. The police drove up, detained the four remaining men and brought the women to the scene. The client assumed he’d be released right then. He wasn’t.

Since the three others were claiming innocence, they refused to tell the client who the fourth man was, both because they were afraid he might cut a deal and inform on them and because they were afraid he might take revenge on them for informing on him. However, one afternoon in the jail exercise yard the client overheard the three talking and learned that the fourth man was nicknamed Boo, that he was a drug dealer, that he was about five years out of high school, and that his mother, name unknown, used to live in a pink apartment building on a wide street in Richmond, California.

I was faced with a number of problems: I didn’t know whether the client was telling me the truth about the event. I didn’t know whether he was telling me the truth about what he claimed to have overheard. I didn’t know whether Boo actually existed and, if so, had really been involved in the crime. And assuming everything the client told me was true, not only were there Boos by the dozen in Richmond, there were dozens of pinkish apartment buildings on the many wide streets in the city’s fifty-two square miles–larger than San Francisco. Moreover, there are many of shades of pink and too often what is described as pink turns out to be a shade of red or brown. Beyond that, even if I found the right building, I needed to find someone who knew Boo’s mother, which meant they’d also have to know her son’s nickname was Boo.

What were the chances of that?

Even as I sat in the interviewing room at the jail with the client I recalled that two months earlier, when I was still working for the county, I had been to a pink apartment on a wide street in Richmond looking for a witness. I drove straight out there and spotted a woman sitting on the steps and drinking a beer. I walked up to her, identified myself, and said, “I’m trying to get ahold of Boo’s mother.”

And she said: “Mary moved away about two weeks ago.”

No reader of fiction is going to believe it.

And something almost as coincidental: I later found she had gotten a traffic ticket in Oakland a few days earlier and the citation showed her new address.

Over the next few days I drove by that address until I spotted someone out front who matched Boo’s description. He was standing with some men about his own age and selling drugs over the low front fence.

I showed up the next morning, hoping to catch him still a little groggy and before his crime partners showed up. A woman who identified herself as his mother opened the door. The fear in her eyes suggested that Boo might be the one. I say “might” because it was likely she knew that Boo had been involved in other crimes and that someone, sometime would be coming for Boo. She stepped back and let me in and said, “I’ll go wake him up.”

I sat him down at the dining-room table, set out my recorder, and the story came out. (The various and contradictory reasons people talk to investigators and confess to crimes is a topic for another time.) He not only admitted to his part and cleared the client, but implicated the other three in a hit by hit, punch by punch, slash by slash account of who did what.

As I was leaving, his mother asked me what would happen next. I told her the truth: that the client would be released and her son would be arrested. I didn’t tell her he would be held without bail and she would not see him outside of a prison visiting room for the rest of her life.

Another example:

I was working on a case in Thailand. I had about a dozen people to locate and interview. The final one was evading me. Thanom was a real-estate developer educated in business administration in the U.S. and, of interest to me, a money launderer. I’d go to his office and be told he was at home. I’d go to his home and be told that he was at his office. I then started having people watch both those places. I tried the country club to which he belonged and the restaurants he frequented. I even tried to use intermediaries to set up a meeting under any conditions he wanted: public, private, even outside of Thailand.

But he knew he could wait me out. I couldn’t stay in Thailand forever.

As I was nearing the end of the two weeks I was in the country, I met an associate of my client for lunch at my hotel. We were sitting at a table in the coffee shop next to a bank of windows facing the swimming pool and trying to figure out how to snag him. After a few minutes, the associate looked over my shoulder and said:

“Thanom is right behind you.”

What were the chances of that?

A city of six and a half million people and he’s sitting two feet away.

Again, no fiction reader is going to believe it.

I got up and slid onto the chair next to him and blocked him in against the window.

Though a coincidence, it is actually, but only slightly, more probable than one might think. One of the reasons I chose that hotel was because it had an international business clientele and I would be less obvious in a crowd than otherwise, and the coffee shop was a favorite lunch stop for members of the Thai commercial and political class. That people like Thanom would show up there was inevitable, that Thanom himself would show was still unlikely, too unlikely to keep the faith of a reader.

It was a very short interview and I found out what I needed to know.

Six hours later I was high in the air, halfway to Hong Kong, and not looking down.

This entry was posted in Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Police Procedurals, Private Eye, Readers, Story, Writers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “A Break in the Order of Things: Coincidence in Fiction and in Life” by Steven Gore

  1. Larque Press says:

    Thanks for another edifying post. I particulary enjoyed the second example illustrating how serendipity may have a role in the elusive interview.

    Thank you,
    Richard Krauss (aka Arkay)

  2. At this point I have heard quite a few detectives speak at crime fiction conferences, and they have all said something along the lines of, “We’d rather be lucky than good.”

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