Friday, August 17, 2012


There are times when you feel as though you are a magnet, attracting images that flicker and flutter about in your inner screening room, and as well attracting the words with which you attempt to delineate and bring these images to life.

Part of this extended metaphor has you on the scene in the manner of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, scurrying about with dictionaries, thesauri, and indexes, the better to identify and, if you can, bring to some kind of life these images.

Let’s get it said straight out:  When you began your own ventures, you had a dictionary or two about the house in defense of your abysmal ability with spelling.  You had the requisite copy of Microbe Hunters, a few volumes of the uniform edition of the complete works of Mark Twain, which you were able to buy for between twenty-five and fifty cents per volume, and a few of the early Pocket Books massmarket paperbacks, plus a growing stack of pulp mystery and science fiction magazines.

You were on your way, erroneously convinced that the profession you’d chosen was easy (because the writers you admired made it seem so), that you could eventually do it if you wrote enough stories (because the writers you admired were in fact prolific and in the bargain made their work seem all in a day’s work) and because you were convinced writing was fun to the point where, by doing it, you were getting away with something, which is to say you were getting away without working.

A word of particular appeal for you was “intrigue.”  You liked the sound of it as well as the implications of it to the point where you were frequently heard saying of something that it was intriguing.  There is something sexual, covert, curious, and inviting about intrigue, making it difficult to ignore.  It holds forth the promise of secrets revealed, of secret identities, of midnight adventures, secret passages, and being followed by sleek foreign cars with tinted windows.

How natural for you to have thought to write intrigues.  Some of your favorite contemporary writers, such as Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, wrote the sorts of intrigues that you hoped to acquire the life experiences you felt necessary to write your own intrigues.

Some words come and go just as tastes change.  Intrigue remains stalwart, inferring hidden agendas, plots, even that wonderful word you encountered when, as an English major, you were required to at least read if not study English history. The word was cabal, from the days of Charles II.  Even though the instructor said in as many words that the name was wrongly thought to be an acronym using the name of the cabal’s members, it nevertheless gave you a mnemonic—another likeable word—for remembering the names, Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and, yes, you’ve got it, Lauderdale.  Although they were by no means the best of friends, they met in secret to arrange treacherous things, which you are at this late date damned if you can or wish to recall.  Your point is the addition of a word meaning secrecy, secret plot, hidden purpose, and mischief to augment intrigue.

Stories are, in a real sense, intrigues, a comparison that has held you convinced of the natural comparison between any story and a mystery.  You needed no further excuse to extend your reading to Sherlock Holmes and in what is now a mystery in itself to you, to the mysteries featuring Ellery Queen.

Somehow you were saved by the pull of the hardboiled detective, which more or less left the door propped open so that noir fiction of the Jim Thompson and Day Keene sort slipped in. Nor did it hurt that you began to play poker with Day Keene, then Frank Gruber, and Steve Fisher.  In those early poker-playing days, you met and played poker with a number of mystery writers.  Not until you met Dennis Lynds in the late 1970s did you realize how mediocre you and all those with whom you played were because you were so completely caught up in the intrigue of playing cards with mystery writers.

There was and is something intriguing about mystery writers.  Ken and Maggie Millar, not to your knowledge poker players, led lives of a mysterious quality you’d begun to associate with their academic backgrounds, mixed to a degree with the fact of each being preternaturally reserved, taking refuge in long working days, where they kept to themselves.

Watching your mystery-writing friends convinced you after a time that mystery and intrigue were everywhere; perhaps the final stone in the masonry that convinced you this was where the action was.

All stories have mysteries to be solved.  You are intrigued by the pull of them.

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