Josh Pachter’s story “The Secret Lagoon” appears in EQMM’s current issue (September/October 2019). Readers are often curious not only about where authors get their ideas but about how a story comes together. In this post, we get a look at how Josh’s new story formed in his mind. The name Josh Pachter will be very familiar to most of our readers. He is the author of about a hundred published short stories, many of them in EQMM, and has been translating for EQMM, from several languages, for many years. Last year he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a published writer, and it all began in the pages of EQMM.—Janet Hutchings
All photos courtesy of Josh Pachter.
The Secret Lagoon is a real place.
When we booked a trip to Holland and Belgium in May of 2017, my wife Laurie and I decided to take advantage of our airline’s offer of a free stopover in Iceland, a country neither of us had previously visited. Laurie is the family researcher, and she created a fabulous itinerary for us: the geysers at Gullfoss, Thingvellir National Park, the Skógafoss waterfall, the bright-blue glaciers and “diamond beach” at Jökulsárlón, the list goes on. One of the things we both wanted to experience was a geothermal lagoon, of which Iceland has many, most famously the Blue Lagoon, which is not far from the Keflavík International Airport. From its website and its TripAdvisor reviews, though, it looked to us like the Blue Lagoon would probably be mobbed, and neither of us is comfortable in crowds, especially at times that are by their very nature intended to be relaxing.
So I did a little poking around of my own and discovered Gamla Laugín, the Secret Lagoon, a natural hot spring in the village of Flúðir, about a two-hour drive east of Keflavík, and I booked us a visit for the morning of our arrival.
Our Icelandair flight landed at 6:30 AM local time, and we cleared through customs and picked up our rental car. Exhausted from the overnight travel and jetlagged from the six-hour time change, we endured the drive to Flúðir, stopping briefly in Selfoss to revive ourselves with coffee and pastries.
The Secret Lagoon is as I describe it in my story, down to the “wedding concierge” in his bushy beard and waxed mustache, incongruous tam o’shanter cap, and red bowtie. (I didn’t catch his name, but later selected Þorri from an Icelandic baby book I found on the Internet.)
Laurie and I had the place almost to ourselves that day. I don’t know what she was thinking as she let the geothermal heat soak away the fatigue of our long plane ride, but I remember what was going through my mind:
This would be a perfect setting for a crime story, I thought, floating in the hundred-degree water, my neck and feet supported by long fluorescent pool noodles.
But what would be the crime?
After a while, I found myself remembering a game I used to play with my friends and siblings, many years ago, a sort of you-be-the-detective game in which one of us would tell the bare bones of a puzzling story and the others, by asking a series of yes/no questions, would have to figure out the answer to the story’s riddle.
Here’s an example of the type of thing I’m talking about:
Billy is found dead, an apparent suicide, in the dining room of his small apartment. There is a carved wooden figure of a dog and a set of woodworking tools on the table, and one of the wooden chairs is tipped over. There is sawdust on the floor. Why did Billy kill himself?
Then the questioning would go like this:
Did Billy really commit suicide? Yes. Did he shoot himself? No. Did he take poison? No. Did he hang himself? Yes. Is his profession relevant? Yes. Was he a professional woodworker? No.
And so on. Ultimately, the questioners would either have to give up or figure out that Billy worked in the circus, where he was billed as “The Smallest Man in the World,” and the second smallest man, jealous of Billy’s—ahem—stature, was sneaking into his apartment every night and sanding down the legs of Billy’s dining-room table. Billy, terrified that he was growing taller, couldn’t stand the thought of losing his job and finally hanged himself.
You’ll have to trust me on this, but the game was more fun to play than it is to read about, and we had a great time playing it.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read “The Secret Lagoon” in the September/October issue, you should stop reading this blog post now and not return until you’ve finished the story.
Okay, you’re back? And you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon”? Fine, I’ll take your word for it.
One of my favorite puzzles from this childhood game involved three main characters: Father Frank, Mayor Mike, and Officer Owen. It’s twenty years since Father Frank took over as the parish priest, and his congregation throws him a big party to celebrate the anniversary. A hundred of them gather at the church at the appointed day and time, but Father Frank is at the local hospital administering last rites to a dying parishioner and is delayed. To pass the time while they wait for the guest of honor to show up, Mayor Mike stands and improvises a speech. Finally, Father Frank arrives to great applause and launches into a speech of his own. A minute later, Officer Owen, who is one of the many people sitting in the pews, jumps to his feet, unholsters his gun, and fires a single bullet, which strikes and instantly kills . . . Mayor Mike.
And the question the listener needs to answer is this: Why did Officer Owen kill Mayor Mike?
The answer—you’re positive you’ve read “The Secret Lagoon,” right?—would take the uninitiated a long time to figure out, but is in retrospect pretty simple. When Mayor Mike got up to speak, he began by saying that it was logical for him to be the person speaking, not because he’s the mayor, but because, twenty years ago, on Father Frank’s first day in the parish, he—Mayor Mike—was the very first person to ask the new priest to take his confession. Then, when Father Frank arrives and launches into his own speech, he begins by saying that it’s certainly been an eventful twenty years. In fact, he says, his time in the parish got off to an unusual start when the very first confession he ever heard was a confession of murder.
Mayor Mike was married to Officer Owen’s sister, see, and Officer Owen’s sister was murdered long ago, apparently having surprised a burglar in the act of robbing her house. The murder was never solved, but now, two decades later, Owen puts two and two together and realizes at long last that it was his brother-in-law, not a burglar, who killed his sister, and he takes his long-delayed revenge.
That old puzzle became the jumping-off point for my Iceland story, in which a cocky killer revisits the scene of his long-ago crime, only to find that murder—which Chaucer warned us will out—does out, in this case with equally fatal consequences.
At the end of “The Secret Lagoon,” Emily Norton checks into the Hotel Skógar, within sight of the majestic Skógafoss waterfall. Laurie and I spent our own first night in Iceland there, although our room was on the other side of the building, so we didn’t get to see the falls until the following morning:
Unlike Emily, Laurie and I did go on to stay in Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Hveragerði, to walk on the black sand at Vík and marvel at the beauty of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and its diamond beach.
Oh, speaking of my story’s main character, I should mention that I often like to slip an Easter egg or two into my stories, and that there’s one built into her name.
In my day job, I teach communication studies and film appreciation at Northern Virginia Community College, and my film class focuses on Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane. In that film, Kane’s first wife—played by the lovely Ruth Warrick, who later spent thirty-five years as the obnoxious Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on the daytime soap All My Children— is Emily Monroe Norton, the niece of a former US president. And the protagonist of “The Secret Lagoon” is Emily Norton, nee Emily Monroe. I’ve been looking for a way to slip a Kane reference into one of my stories, and at last I found one!
I’m happy, too, to have found a way to set a story in Iceland, one of the most book-friendly countries in the world, where every December the citizenry celebrates Jolabokaflod,the “Christmas Book Flood.” On Christmas Eve, families give each other gaily-wrapped hard-covered books, then curl up in comfortable chairs and spend the rest of the evening reading.
Now that’s a tradition I can wholeheartedly endorse.
Gleðilegt lestur, allir!
Happy reading, one and all!