This week’s blog post is a teaser: the first two chapters of the latest Martin Preuss mystery, Cold Dark Lies.
The ideas for the book go back a long way. As in all the novels, the final version braids together several strands that come from “real” life. The main plot thread comes from an article I read in a Detroit newspaper many years ago about an auto executive from Bloomfield Hills who was found dead in one of the no-tell motels in Ferndale. It was a minor blip in the news day, but it stuck with me all this time. I was intrigued by the dissonance between his privileged, upper-middle class existence and his desire (or need) to take a walk on the wild side at the skeevy motel, with tragic results for himself and the family he must have left behind.
The idea for one of the subplots in the book comes from a student who came to talk to me once about a research study she was undertaking to find out if she was really related to a criminal gang in Detroit in the 1920s, as family lore had insisted.
As always, by the time both of these threads made it to the final version, I had changed much—characters, situations, names, details, circumstances, motivations, and so on. Then I set it all in an imaginary context consistent with a mystery story—so I made up lots of bad actors, bad actions, and events that didn’t happen . . . but that could have.
At first, I imagined the motel guy as a character in a poem called “The Secret Life,” but I knew there was more to the story than the poem could explore. When I started thinking about the next book in the series after An Uncertain Accomplice, I took the story out of my back pocket where I had kept it all these years and started thinking about using it in a Preuss mystery.
This is pretty typical of how I’ve been working with these books. Only in the first book, Crimes of Love, did I make up the inciting episode; in all the rest, I started out with a situation I knew about either because somebody told me the story or I read about it somewhere. (Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”) After that, it was a matter of imaginatively transforming the original real inciting situations to make them fit with my own purposes and the demands of the plots.
So here’s the beginning of how that process turned out in Cold Dark Lies. Enjoy!
Thursday, September 13, 2012
The hammering brought him back. Loud, insistent pounding on the door. And raised voices outside. And the door handle jiggling. Then more pounding.
He opened his eyes in darkness and rolled his head over the rug where he was sprawled. The smell was unpleasant: damp, sour, musty.
From where he lay, limbs outstretched, his eyes focused on the stumpy and scuffed legs of the bed, the tangle of clothes on the floor, the peeling caramel feet and brown cracked leather of the arm chair, turned on its side. The thick wall of the dresser.
The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. Why couldn’t he just sink back into that void where he floated before the pounding on the door roused him?
The banging stopped. The voices receded.
He listened. Silence in the room, too.
Was he alone?
He lifted his head. Intense pain shot through his neck and temple. As through every other part of his body, he now realized.
He didn’t hurt before—he didn’t feel much of anything—but now he was conscious of sharp aches in his head, ribs, face . . .
He licked his lips and tasted the thick, sweet tang of blood.
He raised his right arm and saw the sleeve of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. The golden red hair that had furred his forearm ever since he turned fourteen. Around his wrist, the sleek black Fitbit, and, on the third finger of his hand, the ring his ex-wife had given him when he graduated Michigan State—the head of a Spartan warrior carved in intaglio carnelian in a gold setting, like a temple.
And flopping lazily from the crook of his elbow, a syringe still stuck into a vein, pulling at the skin.
Oozing a dribble of blood down to the threadbare, colorless weave of the carpet.
How did that get there?
He couldn’t remember how.
He wanted to make sense of his situation, but thinking was too hard. His mind was too foggy.
He lowered his arm. In the silence of the room, blackness began to close back in on him, slowly, like a cloth fluttering down over his face.
He was relieved when his thoughts, too, began to close down. No more thinking. Not about what he was doing here, or anything else.
He closed his eyes. Gradually his pain eased, and he welcomed the release. There was only silence.
And finally there was nothing.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
“He was a bad one,” the woman said, and gave her head a sad shake, as though the memory itself hurt.
Martin Preuss waited for her to go on, but she said nothing more. She seemed lost in thought, gazing at the blank wall behind him. He sat with her in what she called the parlor, the front room in her large home in the Boston-Edison Historic District of Detroit. The place smelled of cat pee and old wood, the sweetish-sour odor that reminded Preuss of his childhood home.
All that was missing was the sound of his father raging upstairs while the rest of the family tiptoed around downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb “Daddy’s work.”
Unlike his family’s minimalist home, this one resembled a comfortable museum, with heavy wooden settees and huge armchairs from another age and lush Oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. In the other room, Preuss had noticed a massive Steinway grand piano when the woman, Sarah Posner, invited him in.
She lived here alone with her three cats, so their conversation was interrupted only by her memories. She had lived in this house for decades with her late husband and their three children, who were now grown and scattered across the country.
“You did know him, then,” Preuss prompted, to bring her back from her remembrance.
“Oh, yes,” she said. Her eyes returned from the past to land back on him with a bright intensity. She was small and hunched in the wingback chair where she sat. Her skin was the color and texture of old parchment, and the knuckles of her hands were swollen and stiff as she gripped the arms of her chair. Wisps of white hair peeked from the turban she wore.
“We all knew about him,” she continued. “Izzie was already in prison by the time my Morrie and I were married. But Morrie know him when he was little. Izzie was Morrie’s great-uncle, you see. I didn’t meet Izzie until he got out of prison. He was an old man by then. Old and defeated. And, you know, Morrie’s family used to talk about them. Izzie and his cousin Leon both. Morrie knew Leon, too, but Leon was killed in the thirties, so I never met him.”
She thought for a few moments longer, then said, “They were all bad boys.”
She drew her mouth together in a pinched frown of disapproval.
“They reflected so badly on us,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, all right, they were immigrants, they had to make a place for themselves, it was a bad time, they had no other skills. But it’s another to look at what they did and how they did it. So cruel. And to know people would look at them and think they represented us all. People in this city already had enough reasons to hate us, between the poison they heard from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.”
She fell into silence as she reflected on her family.
Preuss sketched a fast diagram of the connections in his notebook. When he got back to his office, he would have to draw out a more detailed chart of the family relationships.
“You’ve never met my client?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Until you called, I’d never heard of her. But now I think I’d quite like to meet her.”
“I’m sure she’d like to meet you, too.”
“Maybe you could set something up,” Sarah said. “She could come for tea.”
“You can probably fill in a lot of family history for her. She seems hungry for it.”
The woman nodded absently, and he wondered if she was off on another reverie.
He had asked her about her family’s connections with members of the Purple Gang, the group of Jewish criminals around Detroit in the 1920s. They began as shakedown artists and petty thieves and wound up controlling the local bootleg liquor trade from Canada during Prohibition, subsequently hiring themselves out as hitmen and enforcers.
Preuss’s client was a college student named Beverly Frankel. She hired Greene and Preuss, Investigations, to track down a rumor in her family that they were related to a few of the Purples. His search led him to this 95-year-old woman and the genteel poverty of her mansion.
According to Sarah Posner, the Frankel family’s stories about their links to the gang were true.
But the family connections were to two cousins who were among the most savage of the crew, so Preuss didn’t know how his client would react to the news. She struck him as someone looking more for colorful, romantic stories of outlaws to tell her friends, but Isadore Adler and Leon Glick’s bombings, assassinations, and brutal enforcement methods weren’t the stuff of romance.
Like many cases he had worked since joining Emmanuel Greene’s detective firm after retiring from the Ferndale Police Department’s Detective Bureau, the lesson here was, don’t ask questions you might not want answered.
Before he could ask the woman any more about her relations, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Do you have to get that?”
“Let me just check,” he said. “It might be about my son.”
He glanced at the screen. It wasn’t about Toby; the call was from Rhonda Citron, the administrative manager of the detective agency.
“Excuse me,” he said, “it’s my office. I should take this.”
She raised a wan hand in permission and took another sip of her tea. She stared into the air, as though she could see images floating there of the past they had been talking about.
He stood and walked to the parlor’s bay window looking out on the broad, manicured lawns of Edison Boulevard. He connected the call. “Rhonda,” he said.
“Are you still at your appointment in Detroit?”
“For much longer?”
“I think we’re almost done. What’s up?”
“Manny has a one o’clock meeting with a new client and he just called,” Rhonda said. “He’s going to be late. He wanted to know if you could take it for him. He said he doesn’t want the client sitting around waiting.”
He held the phone away from his ear to check the time. Twelve-thirty.
“I can just make it,” he said. “You might have to stall the appointment a little.”
“Great. I’ll let Manny know. Things okay there?”
“I found the link I was looking for. I just need to nail down the next steps. I’ll wrap things up and see you soon.”
He disconnected and returned to the parlor. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get back,” he said. “Mrs. Posner, could we talk again?”
“Anytime,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but . . . next time, why don’t you bring Miss—what was her name?”
“Bring her when you come. I’d like to meet her.”
“Excellent,” said Preuss. “I’ll set it up.”
Sarah Posner said she would look forward to it.
[Interested in reading more? Find Cold Dark Lies at Amazon.com or order it through your local bookstore or directly from me at donaldlevin.com.]