Rob Brunet turned to writing crime fiction after running a “digital-media boutique” for twenty years. His short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including the Toronto Standard, Shotgun Honey, and the latest Bouchercon anthology, Murder Under the Oaks. His first EQMM story, “The Hunt,” appeared in the February 2015 issue and readers will very shortly see another tale from him in our pages. 2016’s February issue, on sale next month, contains “Skinny’s Beach.” Like Rob’s previous story for us, it’s evocatively set in the Kawarthas, in rural Ontario. What impresses me most about Rob’s work is his keen sense of place; his settings play almost as important a role in his fiction as his characters do.—Janet Hutchings
One particular pleasure in writing crime fiction is the opportunity to deliver justice on the page. Think how often you’ve heard a variation of, “Be careful not to tick her off or you’ll wind up murdered in her next book.” But if your writing centers on the criminal’s story, as mine often does, you don’t want to be constantly slamming your characters. And even authors whose protagonists live firmly on the right side of the law work hard to make criminals real and believable—with motivations readers can understand even if they’d never empathize.
I spend a lot of time hanging around in my mind with the kind of people I’d rather avoid in real life. Part of my job is getting to know them, figuring out what makes them tick, and how they rationalize their actions. It could be that’s what makes me look at real criminals a bit differently than I otherwise might. I’m not talking about truly evil people—who I realize do exist—but people who find themselves in situations that drive them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. Or for whom the line between right and wrong has been shifted a bit off-center based on where they live and what they’ve experienced.
Before someone picks up on the fact I’m Canadian, and suggests I must be somehow preternaturally polite and tolerant, I think a quick examination of Canadian crime might be in order. We’ve got our fair share of dark and nasty types, whether you want to talk serial killers, fraud artists, bikers, or street thugs. I won’t start listing them here because they don’t deserve the attention, but a quick online search will be enough to convince people our reputation for rough edges isn’t limited to the hockey arena.
And while one particular big city mayor stole international headlines a couple years ago with antics that would have been deemed unbelievable by any crime-fiction editor, he found himself in good company. Or, bad company, rather. At the time, about a half-dozen other mayors across the country were under investigation or facing charges for everything from raiding the municipal piggy bank to running long-term kickback schemes tied to organized crime. Yeah, we’re all pure as driven snow.
I’m not trying to equate municipal corruption, or the partying antics of our political elite, with the kinds of crime that lands even Canadians in maximum security, but when I’m looking for fodder for a short story or my next novel, the newspaper coughs up inspiration by the bucket load.
And behind each of those stories is a person who made choices, moral or otherwise.
Like the guy who whacked his neighbour—and we’ll never know for sure why—with a baseball bat. He might have got away with it had he not returned to the scene of the crime a few days later to steal what he could from the dead man’s rural home. The car, in particular, looked like it was worth a few bucks. He took a buddy along with him because, as any good thief will tell you, four arms are better than two. When asked before a judge why he’d knocked off his one-time friend, the man explained that he’d taken his bat to defend himself against the man’s dog, and the dead man was just . . . unlucky.
Tell me there’s not a story in that.
If the killing was deemed manslaughter, and I believe it was, the killer is likely out of prison by now. And if he’d like to stay out, he’d be well-advised to give up on thieving. Or any crime where success is based on good decision-making skills.
Of course, apart from the more-accomplished cat burglars, bank robbers, or fraudsters, sound judgment isn’t something a lot of criminals seem to possess. And even the best of them can mess things up pretty bad.
One of my favorite failures in Canadian crime lore happened a couple years ago west of Toronto. Five seriously committed bank robbers spent several nights breaking into a bank vault. Working after bank staff had gone home for the day, they accessed it through vacant office space upstairs. They used acetylene oxygen blowtorches, sledgehammers, and concrete saws to cut through two feet of reinforced floor. They were smart enough to disable electronic security systems and eventually got their hands on the loot.
But what happened next was more like a Guy Ritchie flick.
It seems there was a secondary alarm inside the vault itself—something they’d failed to disarm. Fair enough, nobody’s perfect. The cops showed up and were bewildered. The building was secure, with no evidence of broken glass or movement inside. Still, something had tripped the alarm, so after bank staff showed up and everyone agreed something bad must have gone down, they called in the canine unit.
In no time, the police dog tracked the burglars to their hiding spot. And yes, that’s the right name for it. Like any bunch of kids playing neighborhood hide-and-seek, the bank robbers had hidden themselves up a tree. Beside the bank parking lot. You can imagine them shushing each other among the branches as the cops ran their building checks. Maybe they were planning on going back to work once the heat had cooled? I mean . . . all those safety-deposit boxes . . . all their planning . . . maybe they didn’t want to give up.
The worst part? The tree they were hiding in was next to a railroad track. You know, one of those lines that cuts through a neighborhood that would have let them disappear into the night without walking down the road where, understandably, they might have feared running into a cop wondering what they were doing there, all dusty- and sweaty-like in the middle of the night.
But, who knows. Perhaps these guys were novices. Out-of-work construction workers—a bit of an oxymoron in hypergrowth Toronto these days, but whatever. Maybe they were just a bunch of regular guys looking to make a quick buck so they could send their kids to one of them fancy private schools.
Far less excusable is a major fail by people who call themselves professional outlaws—or, rather, the police call them that. The same week those earnest bank robbers got caught up a tree, two serious bad guys with motorcycle gang ties escaped from a jail north of Montreal via helicopter. No comedy here. This was serious action-thriller material. They swung from a rope dangling from the stolen chopper and were swept away to deep forest north of the city.
Pretty impressive so far. Except what happened next suggests the planners ran out of napkin to write on. Because once in cottage country, they approached a cabin, kicked its occupants out, and . . . and what?
You can imagine the conversation.
“Hey, guys. Welcome to freedom. We brought beer.”
“Great, what’s the plan.”
“You got us out. What next?”
“Next? Talk about ungrateful. You know how hard it is to hijack a helicopter?”
“Yeah, but where are we gonna go?”
“We ordered pizza. Should be here any minute. The kind you like.”
Within hours, they were back in custody. Not that the people they kicked out of the cabin had anything to do with the police finding them.
Stories like this make me curious. What is it that makes criminals, petty or otherwise, take the kind of risks most of us manage to avoid? What would the world be like if more of the bad guys were smarter? Is it only the dumb ones who get caught?
And when so many of them create situations where they’re bound to fail, is it really all that bad if a few of them get away? For the next story, I mean. We all need material.
Fascinating stuff, Rob. I could almost hear Dortmunder’s crew sitting up in that tree, whispering to each other about the mess they were in, and whose fault it might be.
The Darwin factor is everywhere. In Ottawa, where I live, a guy robbed a corner store using a knife. Crossing the parking lot, he tripped over the curb and stabbed himself. Cue the ambulance, which arrived at the same time as the cops. At the trial, defence counsel thought he had a good argument when the store clerk wasn’t sure he recognized the robber’s face, though he did recognize the knife. “How can you say you recognize the knife when it was covered in (the robber’s) blood?” asked the lawyer. Says the clerk, “It’s exactly how I imagined it would be covered in my blood.”