I Once Saw a Man (by Victor Kreuiter)

After making his debut as a writer in several literary magazines and Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, there was a many-years-long hiatus before Victor Kreuiter finally turned again to fiction writing. He makes his return in EQMM’s current issue (November/December 2021), with “We’re in This Together, Aren’t We?”—a metafictional tale you won’t want to miss. During the long interval between his own fiction publications, he remained an avid reader, though, as is evident from this post.  —Janet Hutchings

I once saw a man get attacked by a coyote. He was a young, husky guy; the attack occurred on one of those rails-to-trails bicycle trails. He was cycling.

A coyote darted out of the treeline on his left, ran him down, lunged at him, knocked him off his bicycle and then – it was something to see, I promise you – that guy grabbed the coyote by the neck, held it down with one hand, kneeled over it, and punched it in the head over and over and over. To this day I can’t say whether the sounds that thing emitted were barks or groans or cries. It eventually managed to escape – it had had enough – and bolted off, lickety-split.

At home, later that same day, I checked out stats for the average coyote in Illinois, where I live and where the incident occurred. Male adult coyotes average twenty-five to forty pounds, are anywhere from three feet to four-and-a-half feet long, and are about two feet tall. Was this particular coyote an adult? I honestly don’t know, but adolescent or adult, that coyote learned a valuable lesson that day.

After the fight, I approached the victor to see if he was okay … he was huffing and puffing and obviously coming down from an intense adrenaline high … and he basically waved me off, saying he was okay. I asked if he wanted me to call police, he uttered a profanity, climbed back on his bicycle and pedaled off. I remember watching him ride away, thinking ‘What kind of guy decides – in a split second – to go ahead and fight a coyote … aggressively, vigorously … ferociously?’ What kind of person does that?

Well, I’ll tell you.

A fictional person does that … fictional, at least, in this instance. It was a fictional coyote. It was a fictional bike trail, too, as well as a fictional bike and multiple vigorous, ferocious fictional punches. The muttered profanity? Fictional. I made it all up. That’s the beauty of fiction … it’s all made up. Almost anything can happen in fiction, and what makes fiction so appealing – at least to me – is that things that are unlikely or impossible in the real world become more likely and absolutely possible in the world of fiction. When I read fiction, I’m going somewhere else, doing something else, being around someone else, and somehow, wonderful and fascinating things will happen. If not, if for some reason I find myself in a fictional world that is not wonderful, not fascinating … uninteresting or annoying or, for whatever reason, not to my liking … I can leave, no problem. I can leave and go looking for somewhere else … or for that matter … anywhere else.

Now … concerning mystery fiction … does mystery fiction differ from the other genres? Eh … I guess so. At least I think it’s supposed to. But mystery fiction must produce the exact same response from the reader as every other genre, and that response is this: the reader must continue to turn pages. That’s it. Pages must turn. Writing that (and, I suppose, reading it as well), it seems as if it’s not that big of a deal, but it is. It’s a Really Big Deal. Pages must turn.

While all genres use character, plot, and setting to entice the reader, mystery fiction has, baked in, a tool by which to hook the reader’s attention, and that tool is showcased in the genre’s name: mystery fiction!

A quick web search produced this definition for mystery:

something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained

I like it. It’s short and to the point. Let’s apply it to mystery fiction.

In mystery fiction people go missing, are attacked, are murdered, are targeted, duped, or victimized in some manner. Valuable things are stolen, frauds are committed, money is embezzled, money is extorted, money changes hand by blackmail, intimidation, bribery … what else am I leaving out here? … and there is collateral damage every step along the way.

Mystery fiction, then, must explain that which “cannot be explained.” Who is missing, attacked, murdered? Why? What’s been stolen? By whom? Again, why? Always, why?

Do awful things happen in other genres? Of course! That’s fiction. Anything can happen. Cowboys battle rustlers, space/time travelers encounter space/time danger, and we all know the second step, the one right after the first – after boy-meets-girl – is boy-loses girl.

It’s the puzzle at the center of every piece of mystery fiction that makes the genre what it is. At the outset, at the very beginning – first word, first paragraph – the reader knows there will be some thing, or things, unknown, and only by turning pages will the thing, or things, be known. The solution may be delivered by a single person, or a team, but it will be human inquiry and human ingenuity that solves the puzzle.

In no way am I bashing those other genres. I read them. I like them. Nor am I bashing the crème de la crème of genres, Literary Fiction. (Well … think back … back into your school days … and try to remember the title of every “important” novel you were assigned to read. Try to remember why it was important. Once you’re done remembering, determine how “important” that novel is to you … today. Write a short essay answering this question: what, exactly, did that teacher mean by using the word “important”?) I am in no way knocking what is referred to as “Literature,’ but in my experience, there are as many turkeys in that field as in any other. I read Literature, honestly, I do. I like it. But the same rule applies: pages must turn.

So when I crack open a piece of mystery fiction, it is under the exact same stress as any other fictional work I attempt to read. It has to induce me to turn pages. I’m willing – happy, even – to accept the one-off, ersatz, curious occurrence, but it must make sense in the fictional world in which it happens. To be honest, what I want more than anything is to be so caught up in the reading I don’t notice (or care about) that little plot glitch, or a character’s sudden out-of-character actions. Let me repeat why I’m reading at all … I want to be entertained.

At some point in human history, the “tale” was birthed. I doubt that boredom was involved, and I suspect entertainment was not the goal.  But tales have been with us ever since … for any number of reasons … and the bottom line is we’re better for it, we’re more human and perhaps even more humanistic and that’s a bonus … at least I think so … for the real world. Reading fiction, we learn things. We travel. We deduce. We meet people we’d never meet otherwise, visit cultures we’d never get to experience firsthand, face challenges that nudge us to examine creaky beliefs and create mental pictures of things that do and do not exist.

Bonus points: it’s fun!

So praise be to fiction. All of it. It broadens our imagination, tests our sympathy and empathy, relieves a bit of stress, engages our memory and provides an escape from that other world, the world where we live most of our lives, the world that regularly challenges our sympathy, empathy, imagination, and memory.

I once saw a man get attacked by a coyote. I’m absolutely certain I’m not the only one who has witnessed something like that.

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