Detroit freelance journalist Mike McHone started writing short stories in the mid 2000s, but it was only in 2018, after picking up his first copy of EQMM, that he decided to switch the focus of his writing to crime fiction. His work has since appeared in EQMM, AHMM, the Anthony Award-nominated anthology Under the Thumb: Stories of Police Oppression edited by S.A. Cosby, and in a number of other publications. He was the 2020 recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter’s Hugh Holton Award for his soon-to-be-published debut novel You Make Yourselves Another. His new story in the March/April 2023 issue of EQMM, “Carver (and) [Company],” has a most unusual cast of characters. In this post he gives us a glimpse of what inspired him to create them. —Janet Hutchings
If a writer is lucky enough to hang around long enough to see at least a few of their stories wind up in print, it’s inevitable someone will ask where they get their ideas. After my story “Carver (and) [Company]” appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Ellery Queen, I had three people ask me how I came up with the main character and the plot. Since I barely know what I’m doing (with writing, editing, dressing myself, life in general), I’ll try my best to answer.
First and foremost, if you haven’t read the story, well, shame on you. What the hell are you waiting on? I demand you buy five copies of the magazine to atone for your sins. Secondly, I’ll put the plot on a bumper sticker for you, as my hero Kinky Friedman would say. Josephine Carver is a private investigator and like most P.I.s she’s in need of a case to get some money in her pocket. The case she decides to take on involves infidelity. A wife suspects her husband of cheating, so she goes to Jo Carver for help. Jo takes the case and along the way discovers the “cheating” husband is not who he appears to be.
So far, there’s nothing new. Infidelity’s been done a million times in P.I. yarns, and if I had a nickel for every time a cheating case took a weird turn in a detective story, I’d have enough cash to buy a carton of eggs. However, from the outset (and by that I mean the very first line), we see something a little different concerning Jo Carver. She has assistants who help her piece together clues and ultimately solve the case, except her assistants live inside her head.
Yes, dear reader, Jo Carver hears voices.
No, she’s not insane, hasn’t suffered any traumatic event, doesn’t have a split personality, borderline disorder, or any form of psychosis. Her brain, as she says, is just wired a little differently, and because of this, she communicates with two very distinct voices that have been there since she was a child. The first voice is stern, by-the-book, critical, and sounds exactly like her grandmother Gertrude, hence her calling the voice Gertie. The other voice has a laid back, take-it-as-it-comes vibe whose tone reminds Jo of a fat, lazy cat, which is why she calls it Eddie, the name of her grandmother’s tabby.
Even though the voices are foils and the banter between them can be humorous, there was one important aspect that I made sure to implement when fleshing out the details of this story. This piece may be categorized as a comedy, but Jo would never be the butt of a joke. We can laugh at the circumstances she gets herself into, some of the things she says, or the replies from Eddie or Gertie, but we’ll never laugh at her for who she is. That would be cruel, and frankly there’s enough of that nonsense in the world as it is.
When I originally started this story, the main character was completely different. It was a person suffering from PTSD and the voices were quite nasty, but I quickly jettisoned that because I didn’t want to get too dour. However, I found the idea of intrusive narration by way of character interjections interesting to work with, and truth be told, I find the study of auditory hallucinations and disembodied voices fascinating. Historical figures like Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Carl Jung, and Joan of Arc all claimed to hear inner voices. Sometimes, like Joan of Arc, the voices acted as a spiritual guide. Sometimes they were, as in Jo Carver’s case, voices of a relative that could be critical but helpful. According to some of the source material I poured through, many people are in the same situation that Jo’s in. No trauma, no psychosis, just little voices popping up every so often to share thoughts.
Although psychological communities around the world are still gaining perspective on auditory hallucinations, there have been a number of studies and articles done in recent years, some of which can be found here, and I hope you find them as interesting as I did:
So, delving into an unordinary psychological character trait was one reason I developed this character, but the other was to try something I’d never attempted. Basically, I wanted to write a wholesome, good-hearted character who could go an entire story without saying fuck every two seconds. I did it and I now await my Edgar, Anthony, Pulitzer, or Nobel nomination, please and goddamn thank you.
I’ve written my fair share of neo-noir stories and tales that involve killers, betrayers, backstabbers, liars, and warped protagonists with enough baggage to make JFK International jealous. This time around, I wanted to take it in a different direction because, let’s face it, the world of mystery and crime fiction is filled to the brim with hardboiled characters and dicks (pun intended?) who can outshoot or out-think anyone. It’s chock-full of beautiful geniuses with square jaws and barrel chests with wits sharp enough that the Gillette corporation could package them up and send them out to market. They can kick ass, take names, are the smartest smartasses in the room, and look good while doing so.
Jo Carver? She’s not a genius. She’s intelligent, but her cases are solved through hard work, experience, and maybe a little luck but not ungodly brilliance. She’s polite, not sarcastic. She’s ex-military and knows how to handle firearms, but she doesn’t get into shootouts willy-nilly. Taking all of this into consideration reveals the truly odd and sublimely weird aspect of this character that sets her apart from most fictional P.I.’s, detectives, or crime fighters.
She’s a nice person without any emotional baggage who just wants to help people.
In today’s society, where it’s commonplace to argue on social media about quite literally anything from whether or not Coke is better than Pepsi (it isn’t), up to and including if COVID-19 is real (it is) and whether or not the Earth is flat (it’s not, and, please, stop entertaining this bullshit), where shootings in the U.S. are as much a natural, everyday occurrence as wind and sunlight, where self-righteousness drowns reason, where empathy is the most precious of all gifts due in part to its rarity, it’s nice to think that a good person is out there helping people, even if that person is fictional. Yeah, shootouts are cool, car chases are neat, punching a bad guy is badass, but being nice and lending a helping hand in this day and age?
Well, that is strange, isn’t it?
But, sadly, it shouldn’t be.