A Fictitious Murder

My friend Thom blogs about books, music, films, comics, politics… in fact, the entire cultural smorgasbord.  He also writes short stories; stories which, I think, deserve much more attention. So, in the interests of spreading the word, here’s Thom’s latest short story ‘A Fictitious Murder’ – it’s really, really good.  Read it.

His blog can be found here.

Tomcat

The hand that slammed down onto my desk did exactly what it was supposed to; my awakening was abrupt and embarrassingly startled. It’s not how I’d rouse someone who habitually carries a gun but Ames, my latest miscast partner, was better at thinking in immediacies and instant gratification. My alarm was clearly enough, his broad broken grin showing a disturbingly deep satisfaction. I growled my annoyance, involuntarily, accidentally offering him the encouragement he’d need to repeat the exercise at some later date. As I leant back in my chair, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and sipping the last bitter dregs of coffee that were inexplicably colder than the room, he dropped a book onto the desk.

“Some fruit author bought it.” The contempt and dislike, for both the author and me, were casually undisguised. I imagine he’d have thought it was directness, rather than ignorance. “I figured that’d be right up your street.” My brain wasn’t quite awake enough to work out if he was calling me gay, an intellectual nebbish, or both.

 * * *

Ames drove, pretty much the one thing I trusted him to do even vaguely competently, as I flicked through the book he’d given me. It was one I’d read before, one of my favourites actually, Isaac Whitt playing with a twisted version of his hardboiled best.

“You had a copy of this to hand?” My disbelief was less about the coincidence of him having a Whitt book, more about the idea that he read at all. His snort of derision was enough to further reinforce my low opinion of him.

“Not mine, some guy from downstairs.” He grinned inanely. “I requisitioned it.”

“What have we got?”

“It’s just been called in as a gunshot. Found by his assistant an hour ago. The ME’s meeting us there.”

I turned my attention back to Bad Habits; the author bio told me that Whitt would be coming up for ninety years old, if my math checked out. It seemed to me that took a particular malice to murder an old man, especially one who reputedly spent most of his life drinking and smoking hard enough to do the job himself.

 * * *

Standing in Whitt’s study was an odd thrill, genuine excitement mixed with the ever-sobering awareness of why I was there. As Ames blustered around haranguing the officers who’d responded to the call and Whitt’s assistant I moved around the room as lightly as possible. There was a neat pile of papers next to his typewriter, an ancient Remington, with one sheet still half-finished in the machine itself. I stepped around the body and looked more closely. The last line that had been typed finished in an ellipsis. I looked back at Whitt’s still paling face, the corners of his mouth turned slightly up and his eyes closed, almost serene. The usual expression, the one I saw most of, was pained surprise; “what, me?” writ large across someone’s fixed stare. From the look of it Whitt had been shot once, right in the heart, and I doubted he’d have had the time to come to any kind of peace. Ames looked confused as I walked out, shouting instructions over my shoulder.

“Tell the ME to check for powder burns and residue on Whitt’s hands. I’ve got some reading to do.”

 * * *

I was about a fifty pages into my second reading of the papers from Whitt’s desk when Ames finally found me a few hours later, clearly intent on bringing me up to speed. I, a little cruelly, decided to deflate his enthusiasm.

“There’s no sign of the gun, the shot was point blank but there was no powder on Whitt’s hands and the bullet was a… forty-five?” I let the note of question creep in at the end in case I was wrong. Ames looked suitably flustered by my new magical powers and the sense of satisfaction I felt was almost perverse. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to keep him in the dark indefinitely. I pushed the papers across the table.

“It’s called The Made Man. It’s about a criminal, a Moriarty-type-” the reference clearly goes over Ames’s head. “Evil Sherlock Holmes, for these purposes, who, having defeated his greatest enemy, grows despondent. Without a challenge to face he goes, well… crazy, but realises he’s a fictional character. So he decides to escape the page and confront his author… Isaac Whitt.”

 * * *

“So you don’t think this Doctor Augur..? is the killer?”: This is where we were after ten minutes of me trying to clarify for Ames.

“No… he’s made up, but the book goes right up to the Augur walking up to Whitt’s apartment and knocking the door, gun in hand.”

“Right…” Poor Ames, he’d been correct assuming that this case would interest me, but I think it’d gotten a little too strange for him a little too quickly.

“We need the lab to do a little ink chromatography to see if these pages are from Whitt’s typewriter.” There was a whole novel, too much for someone to have knocked off between Whitt being shot and his body discovered, so it was either his work or brought in with the murderer.

“And to find out if Whitt owned a Remington 1911.” I’ll be damned if Ames hadn’t caught on, at least a little; that was the gun Auger was carrying at the end of The Made Man.

“The assistant?”

“Alibis, plural, and no physical evidence”

“Well then,” I said with a certain relish, “we need to speak to Whitt’s agent.”

 * * *

We pulled Whitt’s agent out of a meeting about new editions of her late client’s works, her office excessively and ostentatiously plush and well-appointed. Whitt’s assistant had, it seemed, called her before calling for the police. Not that the delay made the slightest difference.

“A little macabre…” I noted, referring to their rush to marketing strategies.

“But necessary,” she offered, grim-faced, “and something Isaac and I had discussed.”

“Did Whitt tell you what he was working on?”

The Made Man? I have the first few chapters and an outline. He was set to deliver it next week.”

“So you knew how it was going to end?”

“The book.” I couldn’t tell if she was closer to rage or sadness. “Only the book.”

“How was his health?” Ames chipped in before I could get a proper read on her last expression.

“About what you’d expect from a man his age who’d lived his life the way he did.” That was said with definite sadness, carefully evasive though it was. Then, as we made to go, she offered us a little more;

“He’d talked about it for years, bringing a character to life. He always said that it would need to be revenge, or love. Something strong, an obsession, to bring them across.”

  * * *

Running for Cover. Four.

The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City and The City

Running for Cover. Three.

In the future everything will look the same. Not look – be the same.  The dynamics of fashions, tastes, products, will homogenise until everything is a clone.   An alembic already initialised – in print.  Androgynous pout of subject coded KK (note the uniformity), her of singular facial expression, is at once Miss/Mrs./Ms., daughter, sister, mother, lover.  The repeat skin of all the stories might turn the insides all alike.  The doppelgangers of dermis are massing.

The 3 non-fiction books you need in your life

Although I read a fair amount of non-fiction (especially recently), I tend not to write about/review any of it on my blog. Why is this you ask?  I’m not sure – it’s probably because fiction is so much my writerly comfort zone that reviewing non-fic scares the bejeezus outta me.  Also, I tend to read non-fic subject matter that I’m a complete amateur/beginner in, and hence have zero frame of reference from which to make points of comparison/criticism, and so reviewing such books would be kinda disingenuous.

Carly, however, doesn’t seem to have this problem, and writes equally brilliantly about non-fic as she does about… pretend stuff:

They say you can learn a lot about a person from the possessions they’d rescue if their house was burning down. For the purposes of this post, I think the same holds true if you replace ‘possessions’ with ‘books’, ‘rescue’ with ‘didn’t sell’, and substitute moving abroad for the whole burning house thing.

Scanning our sparsely-populated shelves here in our SF flat, here’s what I have learned: a surprising number of my non-fiction books accompanied me onto US soil. So, in honour of these brave little pioneers, here’s my recommendations for three non-made-up books you have to read:…..

Intrigued? (you should be!) Click here to find out which 3 books Carly insists that you read: Teacup in the Bay: 3 non-fic books you need in your life.

Go on. click!

Tomcat

Running for Cover. Two.

Although much of it is hilariously bad, sub-par, clichéd drivel: I really like fantasy/sci-fi cover art (when it’s good, that is, of course).  But recently a large number of publishers have ditched the beautiful painting/artwork that is such a hallmark of genre fiction and replaced it with dark, homogenised, minimalist symbol-imagery style cover designs.  Obviously trending on the back of a Lord of the Rings overhaul ((pictured) and hot on the heels of the Twilight novels’ massive rise in popularity), it’s a cynical example of associative marketing; ‘if our book looks like that bestseller, maybe people will think it’s the same?’.  So: black covers with little symbols in the centre are very much en vogue, it seems.  Take a look at how creepily similar some of these re-designs are (all very new, emerging in the last couple of years) – I prefer the paintings:

                                           OLD                                   NEW

The Fantastic Boy complained: “All my friends are changing,” he said “they used to be so colourful; but now they’re dark, and I can barely tell them apart.”

Running for Cover. One.

If our jackets of flesh were all alike, as each a mirror to ourselves//a correlative mate, ‘for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror’;- would we be more distant inside/or less submerged? And would words’ weight be passable to recollect you, or I //from the ever indistinguishable, ever equivalent changeless skein of the endurably allied?

 

Death by a Million (paper) Cuts.

Tonight (5th March) is the much-touted inaugural ‘World [sic] Book Night’.  There are numerous booky events planned throughout the UK: signings, readings, seminars and TV pieces, all taking place this evening.  Good stuff.  But the mainstay of the project, the centre-piece of this literary banquet, is a giveaway of one million free novels (25 proven bestsellers chosen by various (and anonymous) publishing Olympians (through a non-disclosed selection procedure)).  Since it was announced last year, the giveaway has garnered vast public and political support, and I want, want to see it as a good thing; I want to add my voice to the myriad choir of bibliophile supporters; – but I just can’t.  WBN’s big book giveaway elicits a feeling of unease, even dread, in my belly; a feeling that is threatening to rise up and manifest itself in a vomitous stream of bile and anti-sentiment.  I’ll try to restrain myself, but no promises.

I’m well aware that opposing the book giveaway is to move decidedly against-the-grain of the blogging majority: on-issue, but off-trend.  This post may prove to be the proverbial final nail in the coffin of my blog’s meagre popularity.  Scratch that: this article will see my blog’s reputation sealed in an iron sarcophagus, which itself will be dipped in a vat of cement and jettisoned off the side of a funeral barge into the Mariana Trench, never to rise again.  But who said blogging was a popularity contest anyway? … 

With so much at stake, please allow me a few words of mitigation before I plant my flag too firmly in the sucking mud of the capitalist position.  Firstly (and brace yourselves for a shock with this late-game revelation): I love reading.  I love books.  And I want more people to love books.  I despair that in a jury of my peers, there may be one, two people with whom I can talk about books.  You can move that figure into the paltry decimals if the conversation turns to the stranger and more difficult aspects of fiction.  So promoting reading, debate and the novel (whether artefact or ‘e’) and encouraging discourse about books is a good thing in my eyes.   The socialist in me (who’s becoming more and more vocal these days) would love free books for everybody all of the time.

But almost as much as I love books, I love book shops.  And not just the small and charming indies that form the staple of my bibliophile diet.  I like the big, cavernous, labyrinthine high street ones too, where I can browse for hours, and where I have to self-censor in the face of ten equally attractive editions of each individual novel.  For me, buying a book is as much a histrionic and performative display as it is economic (more on this later). 

I also have a personal history with bookshops, one which will likely colour this post.  Just under two years ago, I was employed arranging deckchairs on the Titanic that was Borders Books UK.  I adored my job, and have many fond memories – but my presiding impression of our store’s final months is black and sinister.  I remember being irreconcilably upset, and even now, years later, dwelling on it for too long is a dangerous undertaking, which threatens to pull me into the slough of despond and drown me in sad memories.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the book retail and publishing world is in massive decline at the moment.  Borders is no more, Waterstones are rumoured to be halving the number of sites they carry this year: BBS has gone out of business, Books etc has vanished from the UK, and a reported 2000 Independents have closed down since the onset of the recession.  Partly this is the fault of the ‘Current Economic Climate’; but below-cost selling and loss-leader competition from the likes of Tesco and Amazon et al has also been immeasurably damaging.

At Borders we waged many long, difficult battles with publishers, begging them to shave a few pence off the wholesale price of books.  But publishers struggle too, and they would never budge on their price points for us, citing the CEC as their reason.

Now, to discover that publishers are giving away one million books for free almost defies belief.  Many publishers have been lobbying parliament for years in an attempt to have price-fixing introduced into the UK new book market – to protect the industry and the writers from the malicious loss-leading tactics of supermarkets. (Price fixing schemes have proven a runaway success in both Canada and Germany, where the majority of booksellers have managed to comfortably weather the economic maelstrom with no ill effect).

Understandably, people are thrilled by the giveaway: we all love a freebie.  But several authors have expressed their concern (they won’t be receiving any royalties from this, and given that most writers’ incomes are miniscule anyway, their concern is reasonable); booksellers are utterly outraged.  Flooding the market with (approx) eight million pounds of retail stock and concurrently stripping it of all retail value by delivering it to the consumer free of chargewill directly remove money and investment from the book retail sector.  As things stand, bookshops are struggling to compete with heavy-discounting: competing with a million FREE books is just impossible.

What’s more: the books that comprise the giveaway aren’t obscure or esoteric novels making a last-ditch attempt to find public recognition: they are heavy-hitters of the fiction world (Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman, David Mitchell etc.).  These novels are the financial mainstay of the book shop: it is revenue generated from sales of these books that allow book shops the luxury of selling the more obscure, difficult, non-mainstream novels.  Book shops need this revenue stream.

The WBN giveaway perpetuates a strange notion that book retail has some private and non-disclosed source of extra funding, and isn’t reliant on physical sales to turn-over profit.  Publishers, authors, booksellers and printers need to make a living, and a public consortium giving stock away for FREE (capitals used becuase, frankly, I’m still trying to convince myself that this is actually happening) is not going to reinvigorate the market: quite the opposite, I’d imagine.

Of course, there’s a strong ethical argument for the giveaway, and I fully expect the more passionate moralists out there to accuse me of being a Luddite.  I want more people to read; literature shouldn’t be the closely guarded secret of a privileged social elite: but I don’t think that giving away a million free books is going to spark the reading revolution that the WBN organisers would have us believe.  The moral/social benefits of this scheme are dubious at best, utter bullshit at worst.  But the damage to bookshops is real. 

Instead of the great readerly resurgence predicted by the WBN committee, the giveaway is merely preaching to the converted.  The likely outcome of the project is that 20,000 middle-class volunteers will distribute their 48 book allotments out among their mates and families.  There are no protocols in place to ensure specific, worthy demographics are able to take advantage of the giveaway.  Supplying charities or libraries or schools with cut-price books is one thing: a misguided and un-regulated free-for-all on a million units of stock is altogether a more menacing beast.

The giveaway devalues books, and furthers a notion that they are free to write, publish, print and distribute and are therefore not worth paying for.  Bookshops (especially indies) will be the ones paying for this giveaway, and I can’t help but feel that WBN is a great big Fuck You to bookshops. 

Giving away a million books is just the laziest way of inspiring people to read.  I know from experience that reading isn’t the cheapest of interests, but rarely is it so expensive as to be prohibitive.  There’s a disappointing perception that books are boring, difficult, unglamorous, time-consuming, obtuse or elitist: and these are the reasons that people don’t read: the WBN giveaway does nothing to tackle such problems.  It’s a naivety to think that throwing freebies at the public is going to convert the masses to reading, or be the progenitor of some new literary intelligentsia.

And sure enough people will rush to grab these free books, but I worry that these will be the same kinds of people who browse bookshops for hours, take advantage of the knowledge of staff, make long lists of potential purchases… and then go home and buy their books from Amazon to save meagre pence, as if bookshops don’t need their custom.  It’s a fundamental example of the old adage ‘to know the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

I love bookshops: I enjoy the long browse, and the visual delight inspired by the sheer amount of books in one place.  I love that two strangers, people who, on the surface, may have nothing in common, can bond instantly and with depth when two hands both reach for the same novel.  And I think this is worth protecting and standing up for.  The book shopping experience is unique, and it’s part of what I pay for when I buy books.  Buying books has become histrionic again – it’s political.  The experience offered by bookshops – community and discourse and unapologetic intelligence – is worth paying for: it’s fucking valuable.

I apologise for the polemic tone of this post.  And I know my opposition to the giveaway is going to anger some, but there we go.  This article isn’t a resistance to charity or the free exchange of ideas, and I still believe that encouraging non-readers to dive in is a noble endeavour.  But this is the wrong way to go about it.  Why don’t you go into your nearest bookshop and give the booksellers a hug?  Something tells me they’re gonna need it.

Tomcat.