Boat of Three: Part Five

person holding water
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”

“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”

“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of  which way, and how to correct it.”

“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”

“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”

“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”

“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”

“But…what are you saying?”

“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p

“But–but–it’s all that we have!”

“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”

“But there isn’t anything else for us.”

“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”

“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”

Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”

“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”

Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”

“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”

“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”

“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”

“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”

“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”

“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”

“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”

“I don’t see what you mean.”

“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”

“But it was three days.”

“But if it had only been one?”

“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”

Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.

“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”

Bartholomew coughed on cue.

“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.

“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”

Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.

“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.

“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.

“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”

“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”

Bartholomew simply shook his head.

“You won’t tell us?”

“If I tell…you will kill me.”

“What? Don’t be daft, man.”

He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.

“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”

Bartholomew just shook his head.

“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”

“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”

“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”

Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”

Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.

“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”

“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”

“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”

Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.

“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.

Julian simply stared.

“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”

Julian scowled deeply.

The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”

“I’m not a coward!”

“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”

So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.

Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.

“So…” Captain Molley breathed.

The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.

Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.

And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.

Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.

Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.

Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.

On Monday I spoke of stories where characters are at odds with themselves. Julian was my example in this story of a man who undoes himself. He accomplishes this in several ways. Initially he wanted to kill off Bartholomew to better survive, then later Captain Molley. Thus his ever-shifting nature deprived him of any ally. He was so desperate to keep himself alive, that he failed to account for the need of retaining any friends to save him.

But even more than this, he kept undermining his own hopes for rescue. Things were already very strained for reaching the pirate’s cove, but then he was the one that knocked out their guide. He was the one that aggravated Captain Molley into collapse. He was the one that stole food so that they didn’t have enough for them all. He was the one that covered his sins with lies, which lies broke Captain Molley’s hope in their plan. At the end he found himself fighting with Captain Molley and Bartholomew, but they were fights that he had only brought on himself.

Or had he? To an extent he made his own choices…but also he was deeply manipulated by Bartholomew along the way. The pirate sowed discord in the man at every point possible, taunting him into attacking himself, putting into his head the notion that one of their crew needed to die, and leaving poor Julian to carry out Bartholomew’s own dirty work for him. Julian may have been a sinner, but Bartholomew was the devil driving him.

Which ties into my earlier blog post about characters who are harboring secrets. It was stated a few times that Bartholomew was closely watching his companions, and it was implied that he had manipulative intent towards them. But what exactly he was trying to do and how he meant to do it remained a mystery up until the very end. Clearly he wasn’t so weak as he pretended, only acting so until one of the other two men had evened the odds for him.

But even after that much is cleared up, Bartholomew still retains many secrets, and he keeps them clear until the end. Just how much of what he did and said was true? How much of it was just a fabrication to build up tension? And the story’s biggest secret of them all: was the pirate’s cove he spoke of even real or not? Was that just a story to get the other men to see him as essential for their survival? At the very end, as he takes the oars and starts rowing, I came very close to saying whether he kept north towards the promised cove, or if he turned east towards the trade route. I repressed that urge, though., for this is a story about deceit, and so it was only right to end on a note of uncertainty.

Though…to be fair…if you understand the character and the themes, you should be able to tell which of those two endings would be the right one.

Even earlier I wrote a blog post about tension between allies, characters who are momentarily aligned in purpose, but not friendly to one another in the least. Clearly this story had that in spades. And specifically it had it in the flavor of natural enemies who we knew were going to come to blows sooner or later, and the only question was when that conflict would actually break out.

Choosing where to have that payoff was an interesting process. Really at just about any time I could have said “okay, that’s this person’s tipping point. Things fall out now.” In fact Captain Molley already came to that point when Julian had taken his feud with Bartholomew too far. And Julian came to that point previously when he hit Bartholomew in the head with the oar. But I intervened in both of those moments and delayed the ultimate fallout, because I wanted something more when that moment came.

I didn’t want the tension to break out because Julian had done something wrong. And I didn’t want it to break out because Captain Molley lost his temper. I didn’t even want it to break out because Bartholomew was pulling the other men’s strings. I wanted it to be because of all three of those conditions at the very same time. In earlier scenes there was one or two of these factors, but I was using those moments to foreshadow the end when all three would come to bear at once. In the end we reach the point that every man indulges in their worse nature at one and the same time, and then there aren’t any restraints left to save them. Only then, at that climax of tension, was the story finally ready for its end.

Last of all, I started this whole story with the idea of tales that begin with a key premise and end with a key culmination. In Boat of Three we began with this idea of a naval captain, a nervous sailor, and a scheming pirate caught together in a boat. It was a simple idea, one that can literally be summed up in a single sentence, but which already suggested all manner of drama.

The story ended with a single idea, too. Right from the get-go I had in mind this scene of Julian being cajoled into killing Captain Molley, leaving the door wide open for him to be murdered in turn. I had a clear image of a snake-in-the-grass mastermind that lay motionless and smiling in the bottom of the boat as lives were destroyed around him. And so the pivotal ending derives directly from the pivotal beginning.

And as I mentioned, each of these men’s personal contribution to the ending was rehearsed in individual scenes beforehand. I showed something about each of them, and then I showed it again later. This is a key pattern of storytelling: saying something and then restating it. On Monday I’d like to look more closely at this notion of reinforced messages, and then we’ll be off with a new tale on Thursday.

Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Howie turned his car back towards the desert and soon a long-lingering plume of dust was the only evidence of him that remained in town. As the sun slowly lowered through the sky he reached the first set of rock formations, stones the size of hills, scattered about like some giant had dropped his pebble collection when walking by.

The first three of these monuments had sides that were too curved and too smooth to climb, but the fourth had started to break under the combined strain of erosion and its own weight. It had a large fracture right down the middle, and each half had fallen back in a state of half-collapse. Howie was able to pick out a path through the rubble clear to the top, and within ten minutes he sat on its crown, peering out at the lowering sunset. It would be dark when he climbed back down, but he had had the good sense to bring his flashlight with him.

As Howie sat still the rock face slowly began to unveil its life. Everything that had scuttled for safety at his approach, cautiously peeped back out now that he was still.

First it was the ants. Small, black troops marched onto the fringes of his jeans, investigated the new spectacle, then turned to look for more likely sources of food. Soon after the ants came the geckos. Three of them skittered over the rock face, carelessly lapping up the ants as they ambled by.

“How nice it must be to hunt prey that doesn’t even know to run away,” Howie mused to himself as the gecko nearest him slurped up one ant, and then a moment later the ant’s unconcerned neighbor. As Howie looked around his eyes fell on the tufted tail of a napping bobcat sticking out from behind a sage bush. “Though I guess you make up for it by being the prey when she’s awake.”

As the sun burned red, orange, and finally receded against the march of ink-blue sky, new life came out on the scene. Crickets were chirping from unseen corners and a horde of tiny fruit flies buzzed in a cloud just to the left of Howie. He watched their mass chaos, and was reminded of what he had been told about electrons trembling between random states in a molecule. It seemed to him that these flies never really existed in one place, either, but rather shuddered between multiple existences in rapid discontent.

The bobcat was out strolling now, and after a few geckos had been made into a meal the rest of the lizards made themselves scarce. The cat perched on a rock and silently revolved its head, watching for the telltale signs of small critters poking back out to see if the coast was clear. Howie watched, too, and was pleased to find that he was able to spot some of them the geckos extending their necks out even before the cat did.

It was well into the night now, and all was painted faint blue by the moonlight. It was enough that Howie could still perceive the gist of what went on about him. The geckos were entirely absent now, unable to keep active in the cool, night air, so the bobcat had settled on cleaning itself.

There was an owl hooting on one of the neighboring rock formations, and Howie could hear the occasional skittering of mouse paws in the cracks of the rock beneath him. He wondered what sort of animal world was churning beneath him that very moment, totally invisible but very real. It was a very big world they all shared. Surely too big, Howie thought, to notice the loss of an individual life.

Suddenly the bobcat perked up and leaned its head intently towards a nearby sage bush. Howie followed the predator’s stare, but at first couldn’t make out anything unusual about the shrub. But of course, he did not have the eyes and ears of a bobcat, and so it was another half-minute before he finally perceived the slight rustling at the base of the sage where some creature was burrowing.

Slowly, silently, the bobcat lowered from its perch and advanced on the spot, one single paw-step at a time.

Howie licked his lips and watched as the movement behind the sage suddenly stopped. Whatever was roosted back there had detected that something was amiss. The bush was backed by a rock face, so there could be no escape that way. The bobcat knew this, and did not want to dart around one side of the sage, and thus allow for the prey to slip out from the other. The bobcat wanted its meal to panic and bolt into its waiting paws.

Even the buzz of the insects and the scampering of the mice feet had ceased. All the fauna seemed to sense the precarious balance in the air, and waited either in reverent horror to see what would transpire. And wait they must, for whatever was hiding in the bush proved to be quite patient. Five full minutes passed and neither the hunter nor the prey moved an inch. Finally the bobcat fell to pacing back and forth, crossing in front of the bush in one direction, then turning back the other way, and never straying so far to one side or the other as to leave an avenue open for escape.

Howie had just started guessing how the bobcat might try to flush the creature out when the silence was broken. The creature in the bush had darted to the right, rustling the entire shrub in the process. Like lightning the bobcat pounced, but even as it entangled its paws in the thicket the animal, a large, brown hare, bounded out from the left. It had feinted! Kicked one side and then leaped to the other, and the bobcat had fallen for it!

Now the hare came streaking over the rock, bounding from ridge to ridge. The bobcat was in pursuit, but at much too much of a disadvantage. The hare was taking a straight line to the rocky chasm. It would escape into the underground tunnels and live another day. It would–

Thwock!

Seemingly out of nowhere Howie’s arm snapped out, and he crushed the bounding hare’s body beneath his heavy, metal flashlight. So immobile had Howie been, and so full of the thrill of escape had the hare been, that the bounding creature had entirely unseen Howie as it streaked right past his seat.

Now it twitched on the ground, its back legs still trying to run and escape, pumping futilely in the air as small whimpers came out of its broken chest. The bobcat did not try to claim its meal. It had been so startled by the sudden strike that it had instantly made itself scarce, as indeed had all other life on the rocky ridge.

Howie glanced at his watch, though he already knew that it must be time now. He picked himself up, flicked on the flashlight, and made his way down the rock and over to his car. As soon as the engine started he switched the headlights off. The streets were completely deserted back in the town of Davey’s Fall, and he let his car move at a silent crawl into its perch beneath the west staircase of Bay View Motel.

It was only midnight, and so he had a bit of wait, but that was as intended. Best to silently sit out the last two hours here, and let the world around him settle back to its regular rhythms. That was why he always he succeeded in his line of work. He didn’t try to force things, he didn’t try to push the world. He let it move around him, let it breathe naturally, and then just waited for the moment to be right.

And so he settled back in his idling car, reclined the seat, and popped a sucker into his mouth. It was blueberry, and for a long while he just closed his eyes and sucked on it hard. He liked feeling the juice slide in two streams down either side of his mouth and into his throat. Howie didn’t turn on the radio, but he did quietly hum an old favorite ballad and tapped his fingers in time to the tune. Every half hour he checked his watch to verify that it had, indeed, been a half hour. But each time he already knew. When one has counted out two hours by half-hour increments enough times, one knows.

And so Howie knew it was 2 AM even before glancing at his wrist to confirm the fact. He reached into the back seat and pulled his bag up next to him. Out came the work gloves carefully fitted over his fingers. Then came the gun, and the bullet magazine from a side pocket. He slid them together, made sure one bullet was loaded in the chamber, then placed the weapon on the dash. Next he pulled out his phone, dimmed its brightness, and opened the image he had of one “Reese McCay.”

Howie was ready.

He pocketed the gun on the right side of his jacket, pocketed the phone on the left. He stepped out of the vehicle, but left the door open and the engine running. Silently, but confidently, he stole up the steps of the staircase and moved four doors down. The doorknob spun freely and the door swung in. He stepped into the dark room, trusting his memory of its layout to guide his steps. Silently he shuffled until he was at the foot of the bed.

Howie pulled out the gun and leveled it towards the head of the bed, then he pulled out the phone and held it sideways, also pointing its back towards the head of the bed. A flick of his thumb and the phone’s flashlight switched on, bathing the room in unnatural, white light.

A man flinched against the pillows and squinted, trying to wake up enough to make sense of what was going on. Howie’s eyes darted from the person before him to the picture he had open on his phone. Tall, thin, black man, with a pencil moustache and a tousle of untidy hair. It was him.

“Hey what’s–” Reese started to say when Howie pulled the trigger and an explosion of violence erupted through the space. Reese gasped and Howie pulled the trigger again to make sure that the job was done.

Now he shoved weapon and phone back into his pockets and strode quickly, but deliberately, out of the room. He made down the pathway past one, two, three of the rooms. The light turned in the fourth, and Howie raised his left arm to shove back anyone who emerged…but no one did.

He clattered down the stairs and into his car, shifting it into Drive before he had even shut the door. He didn’t roar off into the night, but he did move with clear intent, peeling off onto the main street and taking the first right towards the highway. In less than two minutes he was nothing more than two pinpricks of taillight, fading out of Davey’s Fall forever.

 

And here we are at the end of our story. I shared on Monday about how some stories change a character over the course of their plot, and some instead change the audience’s perspective of the character.

This latter approach was the one I intended for the story of Howie Stuggs. The entire tale takes place over a matter of about eight hours, and it isn’t like he is going to have a total life-changing experience in that short window.

But even so, he does seem to change, at least at first. In the opening scenes he is nothing but warm and gregarious, but these moments are following by him lying to a motel clerk and taking out the lock on a private room, thus unveiling a new side of deceit and crime. Then he moves on to a conversation with a mechanic that also starts as pleasant, but gradually becomes uncomfortable and raises some dark questions. Immediately after he is hostile towards a vagrant, and some of the text suggests he even has violent desires towards him. Next he goes out into the middle of nowhere, and while there suddenly, and without being provoked, kills a hare.

Howie now seems like a very different man from how he began, and finally we reach the climax where he returns to the motel and murders a man in cold blood, then drives away to a new town that does not know his crimes. Suddenly his “change” is seen for what it really is: a cycle. Howie comes into a town, puts on a face of warmth and kindness, but then when the time approaches for his dirty deeds he works up the hate necessary to kill. Then he disappears and shows up at his next destination, all smiles and Southern-hospitality once more.

We are now coming to the end of our latest series, and there is only one more story that remains to tell in it. Before I get to that, though, I want to consider the theme that has remained consistent across every entry that we’ve seen.

In the Soldier’s Last Sleep, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath, Washed Down the River, and Slow and Easy, Then Sudden, I have endeavored to cultivate an ending that transforms the story in its final moments. Each one sows the seeds of their climatic finish throughout, but then blossoms in a way that either feels unanticipated or sudden. I’d like to pause and take a closer look at how exactly a story can be written with an end that is both surprising and satisfying. Come back on Monday to read about that.

Divided Attention

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I am currently writing a mystery story, and this type of tale presents a most unusual dilemma. In most mysteries the author must hold the attention of the reader, but at the same time the author must distract them as well. In fact the author must primarily be calling the audience’s attention to the distraction, getting them to focus on the wrong thing on purpose.

Though not entirely. For if you have all of their attention pointed towards the false conclusions, then they won’t be able to recognize the right one when it does come along. So you need their full attention to your story as a whole, but part of it must be divided towards the truth, and part to the lies.

Thus, in the same moment the author must be the teacher that is lecturing, and the goofball that is shooting spitballs, and they must be able to gauge just how interested the reader will be in each of these conflicting voices at each beat of the story.

There are a few different ways that mystery writers can approach this balancing act. Here are the most common.

 

Revelation at the End)

The easiest way to ensure that your reader has the right amount of information and misinformation is to give it to them explicitly. If you want them to have caught on to something, you show it to them. If you want them to not have caught on to something, you do not show it to them.

In the Columbo episode Suitable for Framing, the detective knows that the murderer has stolen a priceless painting. Columbo is convinced of who the guilty party is, an art critic named Dale Kingston but he needs a way to prove it. At one point he approaches Kingston, who is walking with a large brown bag which contains the stolen paintings. Columbo grabs at it, asking if he can see what is inside, to which Kingston refuses. Kingston then scurries away to plant the paintings on an innocent woman, intending to frame her for the murder instead.

Up to this point the viewer feels that they are right-in-step with the detective Columbo, but then comes the climatic finish which reveals he was just a little bit ahead. The paintings are revealed in the custody of the framed woman, and Columbo insists that they dust it for fingerprints.

Kingston laughs at that. He is already known to have been in contact with that painting under innocent circumstances. If his fingerprints show up on the piece it won’t mean a thing. Columbo says he isn’t looking for Kingston ‘s fingerprints, he is looking for his own. When he grabbed at the brown bag that Kingston was carrying earlier, he intentionally poked his fingers inside and pressed them against whatever was in there. Columbo makes the case.

Now a mystery whose solution depends on secret information is usually frustrating because it doesn’t feel like the story is playing fair with the viewer. The episodes of Columbo gets around this issue, though, by flipping the script.

You see in Columbo you aren’t trying to figure out who the murderer is. You know right from the beginning who the guilty party is, and even seen how they have covered up their tracks. Rather than having our perspective behind the detective’s shoulder it is behind the killer’s. And so it makes sense that we only know what the killer knows, and not necessarily what Columbo does.

 

The Quicker Mind)

But many mysteries do take the perspective of the detective, and therefore should not conceal the sleuth’s information from the audience. So what can a mystery such as this do to make the final revelation still a surprise? They can give the audience all of the information necessary to solve the case, but all the pieces are so convoluted that they require some time to straighten it out. Before the audience has done so, the detective has beaten them to it.

This is how things play out in the recent film Knives Out. This movie is recent enough that I won’t go into details that spoil the outcome, but just know that the film will give you everything necessary to solve the case yourself, but it will be unlikely that you will piece it all together before Benoit Blanc does.

I guess, to be fair, one of the clues is only explicitly disclosed during the final revelation, but based on the context the viewer already knows what it must be, and it only has to be spelled out as a formality.

Mystery stories like these play fair in that they don’t withhold information from the audience, and they also present a sort of challenge to the audience: can you solve it before the detective does? And as it turns out, some people really do work out these solutions faster than the story does, but if anything this only adds to the enjoyment. It is pleasant to be hoodwinked, but it is even more pleasant to avoid being so.

 

Step for Step)

The final approach for these mysteries is to have the audience discover the truth side-by-side with the detective. There is no secret revelation at the end, no mental gymnastics to tie all of the threads together, the ending comes plainly and predictably. Mysteries like these embrace the pleasure of the journey, rather than of the climax only.

A classic example of this is the Sherlock Holmes case The Hound of Baskervilles. Here the villain is identified several chapters before the end, but without enough evidence to convict him. And so the climax of the story has us observing how Holmes and Watson lay a trap to get that man to implicate himself, which necessarily requires putting their client at mortal risk!

Even though there is no surprise twist at the end, it is still a satisfying game of cat and mouse, and it has since become the most recognizable case of the most recognizable detective. Sometimes an audience just wants to go on an adventure with a detective, and don’t need to be tricked into enjoying it.

 

With my own story I have been trying to weave all three types of mystery-story-telling into one. At the end of the last section Daley interrogated a man, based entirely on a conjecture that he had made up in his own mind, and which conjecture had not been disclosed to the audience. Thus there was something secret that gave him an upper hand in the case.

But on the other hand, his secret was simply a conjecture, which it is possible some of my readers had already made up in their own minds as well. Thus we see this situation is blended with the second pattern of mysteries, the one where it is a race between audience and detective to reach the same conclusion.

This pivotal moment of interrogation represented a shift in my story, because up to that point I had remained firmly in the third pattern: that of keeping audience and detective perfectly in sync. In fact I took some time to explicitly spell out every clue that stood out to Daley, what he was thinking about them, and what elements yet remained unknowable. Thus I ensured that everyone was on the same page.

On Thursday we will continue with the investigation, and in this segment I will once again pause and ensure that reader and detective are walking side-by-side. Then we will continue on to the next wrinkles of the case on equal footing.

 

 

Washed Down the River: Part Two

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Photo by Agustin Piñero on Pexels.com

 

Part One

Daley declined the ride from Officer Hales. His conversation with Quincy had got his mind stirred, and he needed time to muddle out why. So instead he dug his hands into his pockets, turned his feet towards the Gulf of Mexico, and began his slow walk in that direction.

It wasn’t even that he had questions to answer. Indeed, it would have been nice if he could have distilled an intelligible question out of the knot twisting in his mind. There wasn’t anything particular that he wanted to know, he just couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire affair was somehow odd.

Otto had thrown a big party for his friends, and let them all watch as he blasted himself away. He had been uncharacteristically public about the whole thing. It seemed likely that he had intentionally placed himself so that he would fall into the river and be swept away. Even an explanation like Quincy’s–that Otto had just indulged in a single moment of over-the-top drama–still left Daley dissatisfied. That was just another strange thing compounded on top of all the others.

“And he shot himself in the chest,” Daley said out loud as he kicked at a stone. That was unusual, too. Most people wanted to be certain that they would not be left suffering for a long while after they shot themselves, and a shot through the heart was trickier to get right.

Daley had encountered confusion like this before, of course, and he had come to learn what it meant: simply that he did not know enough. It didn’t matter if you were handed important puzzle pieces if the overall picture wasn’t complete enough for you to know what hole they filled.

Thus as he finished his mile’s walk he made his peace with the ambiguity. For now it was enough to embrace the uncertainty, and then wait patiently for more of the details to come trickling in. He smiled as he found that tranquility, then looked up to take in the scene unfolding before him.

The river had continued to run steadily by him all the way to the Gulf. Here it drastically widened, spewing itself into the larger body with a churning froth. In this fringe area the water spun in little whirlpools as all the different currents competed with one another. Then, after they had cancelled one another’s momentum out, the water was sucked by the underlying loop current down the southern arm of Florida, then eastward and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Three boats were lazily drifting around the coast now. Since the suicide was recent, there was still a chance that the body was caught in the churning froth. That was good in that they might snag it before it was lost to the Gulf, but it was bad in that it meant navigating some treacherous, choppy water for the boats.

“Made it, did you?”

Daley looked to his side, down the rocky outcropping that he stood on, and saw Price’s head hovering below.

“Didn’t see you there,” Daley said. “How are things getting along here?”

Price shrugged. “Dragging their nets, as you can see. Haven’t found anything yet so far.”

“Yes, well, it might be a difficult find. Hang on a second, only two of those boats are coast guard. Who’s on the trawler?”

“Some local was nearby, agreed to help us with the search.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why was he here?”

“Fishing I guess.”

Daley scowled and shook his head. “There isn’t any good fishing here, just look at this place!”

“Gee, I dunno. Maybe its a new boat and he wanted to get the hang of it in choppy water.”

“Hmm, maybe. Just a little strange, anyway.”

“So what if it is? That’s hardly anything worth getting worked up about.”

“No…but then there’s a lot of strange, little things going on.”

“Like what?”

Daley ignored the question. “And each little, strange thing I have the same thought: well that doesn’t really mean anything. But all together it seems like a few too many oddities.”

Price shook his head. “You know what’s odd? You’re wanting to be here for boring body retrieval. What did you call this earlier? A hobby? What kind of hobby gets you somewhere like this?”

“I’m not bored. Why? Are you?”

Price scoffed and pulled a walkie-talkie up to his mouth. “Hey you guys find anything yet?”

Well…we would have told you if we had.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

After another hour of waiting Price and Daley called the men on the boats to ask what they’d like for lunch. Then they drove off to get hamburgers and called the men when it arrived. One of the boats made for the single dock a quarter-mile down the coast, and the two detectives drove down there to join them. They remained on the boats then,  watching from the deck as they continued dragging their nets across an ever-widening circle.

They were nearing the end of the bay, which meant that the water was finally getting steady, and also that it was about to widen out into the bulk of the Gulf. Not a good sign for ever being able to retrieve the body. But then, just as they were getting ready to call it for the day, the second coast guard vessel signaled that they’d found something caught on the rocks at the corner of the bay.

“Yep, that’s a body,” Price observed as the corpse was laid out on the deck. He knelt down and opened the man’s jacket. A large, red stain covered the shirt, but the bullet wound had long since stopped bleeding. It gave Price a clean look at the entry hole. “Looks like a .45 maybe…you didn’t find the gun yet, did you?”

“Yes. He was still holding it in fact.”

“Oh wow! Let me look at that. Colt Commander…. Yep, just one bullet discharged. Hey how about that, Daley? We got it all right here. Nice and tidy for once! Hey…what are you looking for?”

Daley had finished going through the man’s jacket and front pant-pockets, now he was tipping the body sideways so that he could reach the ones in the back.

“Just wondering if he–aha!” He pulled out a thick wad of cash.

Whew! one of the coast guards whistled from the side. It was clearly more than a thousand dollars.

“What, he was going to bribe his way past Saint Peter?” Daley said pointedly to Price, but his companion did not follow. “Oh come on! You really don’t see it yet?”

Price just gave him a bewildered stare, so Daley stood up and took charge. The volunteer searcher had pulled up next to the coast guard boat with his trawler, and in one fluid motion Daley strode to the brink of the two boats and hopped over to the other. He could feel the tension among the coast guards behind him, could see it in the eyes of the volunteer. That was alright, a little tension might help him squeeze out what he needed from the man.

“Hey, I just need a quick word with you,” he said brightly, gripping the boatman firmly under the elbow and steering him towards the trawler’s cabin. “It won’t take a minute.”

“Yeah, but–”

“Just a formality, come on.”

The man was clearly very uneasy about all of this. That was good. That meant he knew something, and Daley was right to have drawn a connection from the money to him. As they rounded the corner Daley let his eyes do a quick appraisal of the man. He and his boat were untidy vessels, but uncharacteristically dressed up for the day. The man had shaved his thick stubble just this morning, evidenced by the tan line on his cheeks, his messy hair was hidden away, just the fringes of it peeking out from under the new ball-cap he had put over it. The boat was uncomfortably empty, like it had been filled with clutter which had recently been hauled away all at once. The man had been expecting company, and either it was someone important…or someone wealthy.

They passed through the doorway and into the small cabin in the middle of the boat. Price was bounding after them, so Daley quickly slammed the door shut and turned the lock, leaving his partner giving him a befuddled look through the window.

“There, no police,” Daley said as he rounded on his prey, “so hopefully you’ll be honest with me.”

“Hey man, I don’t really feel comfortable with this, don’t you think–”

“You were hired to pick up a passenger and smuggle him into another country. Probably Mexico. Just say yes.”

“What?–No!”

Daley winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess you’re not ready to be honest. What’s your name?”

“Hey man, this isn’t legal, is it? I should have that cop out there arrest you for breaking and entering! Aren’t you a cop yourself?”

“Nope, just a volunteer. Like you. So really you should be open with me. Because while I’m not a cop I do know them and I can get them off your back. I don’t care that you smuggle people, Jones–”

“My name’s Gene!”

“I don’t care that you smuggle people, Gene. I really don’t. What I do care about is that the police don’t get the wrong idea and think that you’re involved with a murder! So help me out, we’re on the same side here.”

“Involved with–what?! Those guys–” he jabbed his finger towards the coast guards “–they told me that guy was a suicide!”

“Yes, to keep you around until they could pin you with some hard evidence.”

The man’s eyes went wide with horror and Daley had to make a special effort not to smile.

“There’s too many suspicious things up at the crime scene,” Daley continued, “and the biggest of them all is a random boat that just happens to hang out where the body turns up.”

“Oh come on, if that man was murdered and I had something to do with it, you think I’d just be hanging around here waiting to get picked up?”

“No, I don’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, I think you’re innocent! But I’m not the one that has to be convinced.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Gene folded his arms and furrowed his brow. “So let the cops take me in if they want, the truth’ll see me through.”

“If you want it that way, sure. But then the truth means telling them why you were really here instead, doesn’t it?” Daley paused to let the weight of that sink in. “And even if you weren’t here for murder, you still don’t want the cops poking into the real reason, now do you?”

Gene remained silent, so Daley continued.

“You got a call, right? Pick some guy up at the mouth of the river, he’ll have a pocketful of cash for you. You just got to get him out of the country and into somewhere else without going through customs?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Huh?”

Gene paused, weighing his next words carefully. “So…if, theoretically, things really were like how you just described…why are you trying to get me to tell it to you now, rather than to the police down at the office?”

It was a fair question. Gene didn’t want to be conned and he could tell that Daley’s explanation didn’t quite hold up. Daley would have to be a little bit honest with him to win his trust.

“Because, Gene, the police have to operate within a system. And I hate that system. It’s far too slow and far too encumbered. That makes for a lot of uncertainty. So maybe they would question you right now, but maybe they wouldn’t for a few days. Maybe by then the trail’s gone cold. Maybe by then you’ll have thought up a story and you’ll lie to them because they won’t put the right pressure on you. Honestly…maybe they don’t even question you at all. It’s entirely possible that you could sail away today and never hear another word about this again.” He paused and clasped his palms together in front of him. “But if you did that, then a man would have been murdered today and it would never be set right.”

Gene looked down at his feet.

“I don’t think you’re a bad guy, Gene. I really don’t. And I don’t think you want to stop us doing right by that poor sap they just pulled out of the water. His name is Otto, by the way. Don’t know if you knew that. And really, I just want to help Otto out, Gene. I really don’t care one bit about whether you’re a smuggler or not. Just tell me that that man was planning to meet you here, still alive, and that raises enough uncertainty for us to keep this case open. You won’t have to make any official statement, you won’t have to talk to the police. The detective out there is my personal friend and he’ll take my word for it. He’ll bend the rules that much because he just wants what’s right like you and me.”

Gene cleared his throat slowly. “And if he did want to talk to me, it would just be your word against mine.”

“That’s right. And if you changed your story, they’d throw out anything I said as inadmissible.”

“You’re not wearing a wire or anything?”

Daley pulled his shirt up.

Gene exhaled slowly and looked at his feet tapping on the deck. He looked up. “Okay…it’s like you said.”

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

 

On Monday I spoke of how a story often includes multiple layers, including meta-commentary on its own subject matter. Very often characters will discuss themes on the side, and then playing them out in their own drama. A classic example of this is the conversation between Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The two are debating as to whether no-win scenarios really exist, and what the correct behavior in such a position would be. Unsurprisingly, the action of the movie brings them face to face with that exact quandary.

I have tried to put over the mystery of Otto’s death another layer of mystery, that of Daley’s choice to stop working on the force. We did not see much development of that in this post, that will be further pursued in my next section. For today, though, I decided to try another form of multi-layering with the conversation between Daley and Gene. The conversation here is layered and also interwoven. Daley is telling lies, telling truths, and telling half-truths. He is taking his own perspectives and putting them in the mouth of the police. He is making up false accusations that Gene might be the murderer…but he is expressing a true opinion that someone has played foul.

Gene is obviously lost in the layers. By the end of the conversation he has a bit better idea of what Daley is really about, but still not complete. However the audience has been given enough context (I hope!) to see through the whole rigmarole and understand what Daley is really driving at. It was fun to try and write a layered piece that would be confusing towards a character, but be illuminating towards the reader.

In a recent post I shared a little bit about how storytellers try to obfuscate facts to make their final revelation a surprise to the reader. In my next post I’d like to look at that idea in greater detail, particularly how it is used in murder mysteries. While there I’ll also point out which of these murder mystery tropes I am using in Washed Down the River, and which ones I am not. See you next Monday!