The Making of "A Dinnertime Mystery"
| I made a major error the other day, a real faux pas. I wrote something that people actually read and liked. Usually "I almost understood it" is the comment I receive when some reader, lost in a thicket, stumbles on one of my monologues. The ‘sound of the tree falling in the forest’ analogy neatly sums up the posting of my works. I might be a 'string plucked by the Zeitgeist', but the year must be 1926.|
There are a few who pat me on the head and tell me how much they enjoy my writing. I think they are trying to make me feel better. My friend Pam praises me and in the next breath tells me that 102 people have already read the first chapter of her latest effort that she began last week. Do I tell her that I declare victory when readership of my postings exceeds ten? Then she lets me know six hundred have checked out another item. Pam could post the telephone book and readers would flock, but she does better than that. She is a real writer. "Invalid Item" and "Where Do Babies Come From?" reflect that gifts of simplicity and friendliness that she communicates to her fans.
She's done it again here. I began talking about my blunder and thoughts of her writing sidetracked me. To make the proverbial long story short, I wrote a variation on The Three Bears for a contest. For the story I created a pair of policemen, Frick and Frack. The City's finest were modeled on Pam and I, but character development was rather foreshortened by the 1000 word limit. It is sufficient to tell the non-reader that Goldilocks turned out to be a serial burglar that was caught red-handed in the Bears’ house.
Writing and polishing the story took little effort. In many ways I resented the time it stole from my major opus, a biography of Boies Penrose, but I persevered and brought the little ship to its port. I borrowed a little from James Ellroy, a little from the old Dragnet show and some more from the fairy tale, and tacked onto the end a paraphrase of the punch line of an old joke: 'B___h, B___h, B___h, I didn't even make the porridge." When I finished I saw that is was very good, and thus I posted it to the contest site and rested.
Every dog has his day. An editor desperate for items to fill a mystery newsletter stumbled on it. Recognizing the juvenility of the piece, he forwarded it to other people grasping for words to fill a magazine for teen readers. They wrote and told me how pleased they were with the Three Bears Mystery and asked if they could use it. I cleaned my glasses to make sure what I was reading was not produced by a smudge and gave them the go-ahead, but with the warning that teen readers would not remember Dragnet and would think I was spoofing the Sprint wireless commercial.
Word of mouth spread. My mailbox began to fill up with comments that I was not used to receiving. I had to can the macro I had created that sent reviewers the pithy phrase, "So's Your Old Lady." Typing the words, "Thank you" felt so funny. The magazine editors wanted to know if there might be more stories of Frick and Frack. I chatted with Pam; we both came up with Humpty-Dumpty. Could the detectives find out who pushed him?
My mind was boggled. To quote Stalin, I was suffering ‘dizziness from success.’ Could Frick and Frack become a series, the successor to Fractured Fairy Tales? Cock Robin's murderer had yet to be found, and surely with Pam's brain she would find other mysteries of childhood. The workers who disinterred Senator Penrose were waiting impatiently for me to give the clearance to put him back in the vault, but after a night of restless sleep, I knew deep inside I could not do it.
I have this aversion to continuing detective characters in books. In old novels they were always so smug and all-knowing, but in the last forty years they have become psychiatric cases, parading their neuroses in front of the readers while solving crimes. Whichever type I read about, I have this secret desire to let them be the next victim. Two, three, four, five more Frick and Fracks? The prospect was frightening, and yet the lure of READERS, REAL READERS, was so damn alluring.
I am not a writer for anything. I knew the solution. Frick, the stupider of the two, had to be eliminated. That would force Frack to retire and the series would end. Poirot and Miss Marple met their demise, and Dorothy Sayers was always talking about getting rid of Lord Peter Wimsey. Memory brought Freeling’s wonderful Van der Valk back to me. I remembered screaming to my wife a third of the way through Aupres de Ma Blonde, “He’s bumping off the detective.” The Dutchman didn’t even attain the nobility of meeting his death at the hands of a master criminal, but rather was the victim of a youthful street gang.
Plot lines began to bubble up in my head. The Red Queen could behead Frick because he was getting to close to the scent. It would work like a charm, and the teen readers would lap it up. After Frick’s execution, Boies Penroe could go marching on. Then it hit me. Killing off Frick was not the answer. I recalled the first of the great detectives to meet the Reaper. His public would not let him stay in the grave. His author brought him back. There were lessons to be learned here. Maybe I could borrow his plot line.
I could see it now. Frick is at the Reichenbach Falls. Frack holds his coat and watches him wrestle the arch-fiend Moriarity. She witnesses the two plunge into the water. After a long wait, Frick’s hat bobs to the surface, but there is no sign of either man. She returns to the City despondent, and retires to write her memoirs. She gorges herself on glazed donuts from the Village Diner as she writes. She returns home one night and opens another box, but this time notices that the clerk has made a mistake. A half-dozen are jelly. She puts on her coat to return them when a voice whispers behind her, “Stay my friend, the game is again afoot.”
Valatie May 23, 2002
[To meet Frick and Frack, go to "FRICK & FRACK" ]