Yesterday, EQMM’s final issue of the year, November/December 2019, went on sale. It contains Richie Narvaez’s first story for EQMM, “None of This Is on the Map.” The New York City teacher and writer is the author of the collection Roachkiller and Other Stories, which received both the 2013 Spinetingler Award for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection and the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Best eBook Fiction. His debut novel, Hipster Death Rattle, appeared earlier this year. Although he is already becoming known in the wider world of crime fiction, Richie’s work may be new to many EQMM readers, so his topic for this post—what drew him to crime fiction—was of particular interest to us.—Janet Hutchings
“What drew you to write crime fiction?”
That’s a question that gets tossed at a lot of crime-fiction writers. It’s a good softball query that usually gets answers such as “Oh, I’ve always loved reading mystery stories, so . . .” or “Nancy Drew” or “I didn’t even know I was writing crime fiction!”
But some crime-fiction scribes answer the question the way I would. They say crime was or had been a part of their lives, and so they had a familiarity with, some might even say a fascination for, things beyond the strictly legal. For me, I grew up around crime. This was mostly because my father—a handsome man who resembled Guy Williams and loved bawdy jokes and afternoon drinks—was a criminal.
That’s a tough sentence to write. It sounds judgmental, negative, a flat label. I never thought of Pop as a criminal and I still don’t. But, by the letter of the law, yeah, he was a lawbreaker.
Oh, nothing crazy, nothing true crime podcast-worthy, like a hitman or bank robber. Sorry if that’s what you were expecting. If it were anything like that, don’t you think I would have done a true crime memoir by now?
No, Pop was a numbers runner.
This was back in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the ’60s and ’70s. I was a child at the time. My father didn’t live with us. My parents had never married, but they had decided on an arrangement—that Pop would be at our apartment every afternoon while my mother was still at work, so my sister, my brother, and I would not be latchkey kids.
My father would make us lunch—he was a master of grilled-cheese sandwiches—but the kitchen was also his office. There, he’d sip grapefruit juice and gin or have a few beers. We kept a glass for him in the freezer. He had a set chair at the kitchen table, right by the phone, and nearby in the cupboard was a pleather folder with all his papers, paper clips, his fancy metal pen.
And every day, at about two o’clock, the phone would start ringing.
For the uninitiated, the numbers racket is similar to the lottery, just, um, unregulated, therefore, untaxed. To play the game, you call in your three-digit numbers to a bookie, placing bets on each number, indicating whether you wanted to be on the number straight (261) or combination (all the six variations of the numbers 2, 6, and 1, thereby increasing your chance of winning but lowering your winnings).
As a bookie, my father had a set amount of people he called “customers.” He’d take down their numbers and write them into neat columns. His handwriting was neat, confident, efficient. He used onion-thin paper, folded in half with a carbon paper in between. To this day, the scent of carbon paper, of ink always reminds me of my father.
In case you’re interested—and if you’re a crime fiction writer (or reader), I bet you are—the number winner for the day was determined by using the last three digits of the track handle at the local racetrack. The handle is the total amount of money wagered in a day, inevitably a six- or seven-digit number, and this was conveniently printed in the back section of the Daily News.
The numbers ran every day. But on Saturdays, my father took one or all of us for a drive. He drove a black van with no air conditioner and a custom-installed horn that played the theme from The Godfather. La da da di da dum dum dum dum dum.
We thought it was fun to hang out with Pop, because that usually meant getting pizza on Grand Street or hot dogs at the cart next to the BQE. On these drives my father always made stops. Most times he’d tell us to wait in the car, to sit still, and he’d run into buildings for a few minutes and come right back out.
In time I realized that on these stops my father was either picking up money owed him or dropping off winnings. He got a small percentage of anyone’s winnings. and years later he told me that his numbers earnings had gotten him through many hard times.
When I was a bit older, in high school probably, my father took me on one of these drives, and after he came out of one place, he tossed a brick of money on to my lap. He said, “You ever see $10,000 at one time before?”
What do you think my answer was? Exactly. And not since either.
Back then, every once in a while, Pop took us to what he called “the clubhouse,” the headquarters for the local bank. This is where the bookies hung out, dropped off bettings, picked up cash. There were arcade games upstairs, but sometimes we would go downstairs and in the basement there were shelves and shelves of empty cages that Pop told me was once used for cockfighting. At the clubhouse, I got to meet many of my father’s let’s say cohorts, who seemed like regular people to me. Although later I did find out there were men there who would kill people for as little as a six pack.
With all this exposure to crime, it was certain that when I first picked up a typewriter I would turn out . . . it was a horror story about dinosaurs that take over the world, actually. Michael Crichton’s people still owe me a residual check for that. But that was in third grade. Later, in high school, without realizing it, every story I turned in to my creative-writing class was about crime.
And now while I write in genres literary, horror, and speculative fiction, I maintain a special affinity for crime fiction. I don’t mean to romanticize the criminal world, by the way. I understand that laws are laws, and there is an ugly side to all crime. It is just that for me that world is not alien. It is almost comfortable.
What draws any writer to a particular genre anyway? Perhaps many horror writers did see ghosts as children. Perhaps spec fic writers were stung by radioactive scientists. For me, I guess something of my father’s lifestyle, something of that past stuck. Perhaps—not to get too Freudian—crime fiction is my way of maintaining a connection to my father, who while he was a charming rogue, was also distant and hard to know.
Years later, after he had retired to Florida, my father told me that he was still taking numbers and calling them up to a bank in New York. It supplemented his Social Security. And even though doctors had warned him against it, he told me he was still having his drinks every afternoon.