Around 1984 I lost my job as the Cabins and Trail Crew Boss for the Forest Service in Sitka. It was a sweet job; Wage Grade, in the federal service, which was very good money, enough to work nine months back then and play for three. Lovely. After I lost that job I spent a while writing a book at the Sitka Pioneer Home, I also got a job working for a young lawyer working as his investigator. He didn't want an ex-cop. He wanted someone he could train from the ground up. He and I were friends and we talked about story telling. We talked about how his job was telling a jury the story of this client's position. It was a true story that the other side had often overlooked. My job was to go out and discover the facts that other people had forgotten to ask about. I became a private investigator. I had a degree in English from the University of Washington. I was dyslexic. I had a certificate in Horseshoeing from Central Wyoming College, I had been a wilderness packer and guide. I could pack a mule carrying a decker saddle and throw a diamond hitch on a sawbuck saddle. I could make sourdough biscuits on a clean shovel in a fire... but I knew nothing about being a Private I. Yet...I was anxious to learn.
I had read Chandler and Hammett. My father and mother were HUGE mystery fans and had talked all my life about Mickey Spillane and Travis McGee. They could down two a week. I started packing a bottle of bourbon in my suitcase. My boss forbade me a gun, assuring me that if I ever...ever shot anyone that I would serve 99 years in prison no matter what the circumstances. NO MATTER WHAT THE CIRCUMSTANCES! Simply by virtue of who I was working for and who I was. The police investigators would cut me no slack what. so. ever.
Soon enough I discovered that the bourbon was cause of headaches and vomiting. It was called being an alcoholic and I didn't like it, I was going to lose my job, I was going to wreck my marriage and my life was going to turn to shit. This didn't work. I quit that and I had good success with the young lawyer...there is enough heartache and suffering in crime without inviting it in by being a drunk. We won cases...well, he did and I helped him. I took on other cases and I helped other lawyers win difficult cases. I discovered something that comes back around the the subject of this blog:
The P.I. of fiction has a proud and long literary heritage. They come to us all the way down from Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, through Lord Byron's rowdy heroes, to Edgar Allan Poe's sleuths: the fallen angels, the tarnished knights, the lonely cowboys turned gunslingers on the wrong side of the line, the hooker with the heart of gold. They come from the shadows...the noir...they are of the shadows...
Now the only point I want to make here is that they ARE A LITERARY DEVICE! They are great devices. Writers love them because you can send a Private Eye anywhere, across class lines, across gender lines, they make great travel guides and great teachers. Private Eyes will go down in that dark basement without question and without straining credibility. They are the best literary device ever!
But when I started doing the real work of gathering, examining, and explaining information to be used in criminal litigation I found that I had nothing in common with the real work of P.I. work and the Literary Device work of Literature. One big difference: real crime was terribly sad. What specialized piece of equiptment do I use most often in my work? The tissue dispenser. Most people cry when they come to my office. Do they deserve it? Who am I to say? I don't know... they are witnesses most of them...family members of the accused....family members of the victims....victims.... I'm not in the business of sorting out what people deserve.
Now, there are folks that don't like my writing that say I'm all hoity toity (sp?) and am too literary and I don't begrudge them that. I think what they mean is that I don't write to the formula of a conventional mystery. But here is the truth and I'm not bullshitting you, I don't know what the formula of a conventional mystery is...I suppose that's a terrible thing to admit. But I've never read what I've considered a conventional mystery, and what I do is the opposite anyway. I'm trying to think beyond the literary conventions in my novels into something new, and I do that because that's the only way I know how to make it interesting. Any other way would be like doing homework, and God knows I've had enough of that.
Wind in the orange groves
rows of trees with heavy limbs:
trying to sweep up.
jhs---Borrego Springs, CA