Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #15: Introducing Characters
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You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The same is true for your fictional characters. So, make them vivid and memorial. How do you do this? There are many ways. Let’s explore a few of them.
Riding the Rap–Elmore Leonard
Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Junior for weaving, two o’clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted tail light. Then while Dale was blowing a point-one-nine they put his name and date of birth into the national crime computer and learned he was a fugitive felon, wanted on a three-year-old charge of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Incarceration. A few days later Raylan Givens, with the Marshals Service, came up from Palm Beach County to take Dale back and the Ocala Police wondered about Raylan.
How come he was a federal officer and Dale Crowe Junior was wanted on a state charge. He told them he was with FAST, the Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, assigned to the Sheriff’s Office in West Palm. And that was pretty much all this Marshall said. They wandered too, since he was alone, how you’d be able to drive and keep an eye on his prisoner. Dale Crowe Junior had been convicted of a third-degree five-year felony, Battery of a Police Officer, and was looking at additional time on the fugitive warrant. Dale Junior might feel he had nothing to lose on this trip so. He was a rangy kid with the build of a college athlete, bigger than this marshal in his blue suit and cowboy boots — the marshal calm though, not appearing to be the least apprehensive. He said the West Palm strike team were shorthanded at the moment, the reason he was alone, but believed he would manage.
The Long Goodbye–Raymond Chandler
When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.
Trouble Is My Business—Raymond Chandler
(Marlowe meets Harriett Huntress—Chapter 3)
She wore a street dress of pale green wool and a small cockeyed hat that hung on her left ear like a butterfly. Her eyes were wide set and there was thinking room between them. Their color was lapis-lazuli blue and the color of her hair was dusky red, like a fire under control but still dangerous. She was too tall to be cute. She wore plenty of make-up in the right places and the cigarette she was poking at me had a built-on mouthpiece about three inches long. She didn’t look hard, but she looked as if she had heard all the answers and remembered the ones she thought she might be able to use some time.
The Neon Rain—James Lee Burke
My partner was Cletus Purcel. Our desks faced each other in a small room in the old converted fire station on Basin Street. Before the building was a fire station it had been a cotton warehouse, and before the Civil War slaves had been kept in the basement and led up the stairs into a dirt ring that served both as an auction arena and a cockfighting pit.
Cletus’s face looked like it was made from boiled pigskin, except there were stitch scars across the bridge of his nose and through one eyebrow, where he’d been bashed by a pipe when he was a kid in the Irish Channel. He was a big man, with sandy hair and intelligent green eyes, and he fought to keep his weight down, unsuccessfully, by pumping iron four nights a week in his garage.
“Do you know a character named Wesley Potts?” I asked.
“Christ, yes. I went to school with him and his brothers. What a family. It was like having bread mold as your next-door neighbor.”
“Johnny Massina said this guy’s talking about pulling my plug.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me. Potts is a gutless lowlife. He runs a dirty movie house on Bourbon. I’ll introduce you to him this afternoon. You’ll really enjoy this guy.”
California Girl-T. Jefferson Parker
Here And Now
I drove past the old SunBlesst packinghouse today. Nothing left of it. Not one stick. Now there’s a bedroom store, pet Emporium and a supermarket. Big and new. Moms and dads and kids everywhere. Pretty people, especially the moms. Young, with time to dream, wake up, and dream again.
I still have a piece of the flooring I tore off the SunBlesst packinghouse back in sixty-eight. When I was young. When I thought that what had happened there should never happen anywhere. When I thought it was up to me to put things right.
I’m made of that place – – the old wood and the rusted conveyors and the pigeons in the eaves and the sunlight slanting through the cracks. Of Janelle Vonn. Of everything that went down, there in October, 1968. Even made of the wind that blew that month, dry and hot off the desert, huffing across Orange County to the sea.
I have a piece of the picket fence from the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, too. And a piece of rock that came not far from where Mercury 1 lifted off. And one of Charlie Manson’s guitar picks.
But those are different stories.
I want the legs.
That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a 20-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.
In the casinos, she could pass for thirty. The low lighting, her glossy auburn hair, legs swinging, tapping the bottom rim of the tall bettor stools. At the track, though, she looked her age. Even swathed in oversized sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, bright gloves, she couldn’t outflank the merciless sunshine, the glare off the grandstand. Not that it mattered. She was legend.
I was never sure what she saw in me. You looked like you knew a thing or two, she told me later. But you are ready to learn a lot more.
Miami Purity—Vicki Hendricks
Hank was drunk and he slugged me – – it wasn’t the first time – – and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it. It was one of those big boom boxes with the cassette player and recorder, but I never figured it would kill him. We were sitting in front of the fan, listing to country music and sipping Jack Daniels – – calling each other “toots” like we both enjoyed – – and all of a sudden the whole world changed. My old man was dead. I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn’t make that choice.
I spent a few days in jail till the law decided I wasn’t to blame. It was Hank’s long record got me out. He was known to the cops. Afterwards I went on drinking and missing that son of a bitch like hell. There were several months I don’t know what I was doin. He had a terrible mean streak, but we were good together – – specially when we got our clothes off.
At some point I woke up from a blackout and was in the hospital. I had vague memories of some asshole buying me drinks, and him on top of me in a musty smelling car. There were flashes of fist and the sound of it against my jaw, but I wasn’t sure whose fist it was – – I could’ve been mixing up another time. The nurse told me I looked like I’d been kicked, beat up so bad I was lucky to be alive. I don’t know why I believed her – – about being lucky – – but after they patched me up and dried me out for a while I was ready to give it a go. Really try to make myself a life, for the very first time. It was a big mistake.
To Kill A Mockingbird—Harper Lee
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about the injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He could’ve cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years have gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discuss the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began in the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If Gen. Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with the fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
Original Sin—DP Lyle
Lucy Wagner knew exactly when she would hold the heart in her hands, its hard muscle churning against her palm, its moist heat warming her fingers. Knew when its rhythmic twisting would stagger and fall silent as the drugs brought it to a standstill. Frozen in time.
She just didn’t know it would be this heart or under these circumstances.
John Doe changed everything. John Doe couldn’t wait. John Doe bumped her 7:30 elective coronary bypass until later. Probably much later.
Thirty-five minutes earlier, Doe had been found down, face down, on the ER entry ramp at the Remington Medical Center. Purple, breath coming in shallow gasps, pulse barely palpable, and spiraling toward death. Circling the drain in medical slang. The heroic efforts of ER Director Dr. Jeffrey Dukes and his staff, pumping Doe full of fluids and blood, restoring just enough blood pressure to feed Doe’s weak but tenacious spark of life, somehow stabilized him long enough to reach Lucy’s operating table in OR Suite 3.
Now, the scalpel she held in her rock-steady hand hovered near the old man’s flesh. Tinted reddish brown by the hasty pre-op Betadine scrub, the parchment-thin skin and its underlying age-wilted muscles were all that separated the blade from the torn aorta and the massive pool of blood she knew waited within Doe’s abdominal cavity. A cardiovascular surgeon’s worst nightmare. The elderly man had little chance of getting through this alive but absolutely none if Lucy didn’t jump right in. As one of her fellowship mentors at Vanderbilt had been fond of saying, “They’re are times to contemplate and times to slash and grunge.”
This was slash and grunge time.
Prayer wouldn’t hurt.
Deep Six—DP Lyle
It was precisely 12:12 a.m. when the window shattered. A crack-crunch, an eardrum concussing pop, and a spray of glass shards. It didn’t explode by itself, mind you, but rather courtesy of a cavity-backed, perimeter-weighted two-hundred-dollar five iron. A Callaway. I recognized it because it was mine. Or at least it had been.
I knew the exact time because the flying glass yanked me from sleep, my forward-slumped head aligned squarely with the dashboard clock. Took a couple of seconds to gain any sort of perspective on what had happened.
Of course, sleep wasn’t part of the job. Watching the house two doors down and across the street was. In my defense, nothing had moved in the house, or even along the street that snaked through the high-dollar neighborhood, for at least a couple of hours. But sitting in the dark, behind the wheel of my car, boredom did what boredom does. Knocking back the better portion of the bottle of Knob Creek hadn’t helped either. Stakeouts were mind numbing and a little more numbing of the mind couldn’t be all bad. Right?
“Jake, what the hell are you doing?” the reason for the glass explosion screeched through the jagged hole.
This wasn’t just any window. It was vintage, the reason it shattered rather than simply spider-webbing. The original passenger window of my otherwise spotless 1965 Mustang. Burgundy with black pony interior, now littered with glass shards. Going to be a bitch to find a replacement.
Speaking of bitches, I recognized the grating voice even before I looked up into the face of my ex. Tammy’s the name; crazy’s the game. I’d lost four good years listening to it. Mostly whining and complaining, sometimes, like now, in a full-on rage. She had a knack for anger. Seemed to need it to get through the day.
She gripped the five iron with both hands, knuckles paled, cocked up above her shoulder, ready to smash something else. If history offered any lesson it was that she might graduate from the side window to the windshield and so on until she got to me. Tammy didn’t have brakes. Or a reverse gear.
Cute according to everyone, except maybe me, she was a beach-blond with bright blue eyes, a magic smile, and a perfect nose. Some plastic surgeons were gifted. Expensive, but gifted. I knew. I’d paid for the nose.
But cute Tammy had a short fuse. She could go from zero to C4 in a nanosecond.
“Funny, I was just fixing to ask you the same thing?” I said.
Still shaking the cobwebs loose and trying to get oriented to person, place, and situation, I managed to get the characters involved sorted out pretty quickly. Staring at a cocked five iron in the hands of your ex-wife will do that. The place came along in short order. Peppermill Road. A loop off Perdido Beach Boulevard that arched through The Point, a megabuck enclave nestled into another expensive enclave known as Perdidio Beach. Very high up the financial food chain, The Point was a row of seven-figure, stilted homes that hung off Peppermill like charms on a bracelet, each facing the Gulf over a wide sugary beach.
Okay. Two down, one to go.
Person, check. Place, check. It was the situation I struggled with.
“Why are you parked in front of my house?” she asked, chin jutted forward, eyes flashing that anger I knew so well.
Well, there was that.
Run To Ground–D. P. Lyle
“I can still smell him.” Martha Foster inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.
Tim stood just inside the doorway and looked down at his wife. She sat on the edge of their son’s bed, eyes moist, chin trembling, as were the fingers that clutched the navy-blue Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt to her chest. It had been Steven’s favorite. He had slept in it every night the first month, until Martha finally pried it away long enough to run it through the wash.
Behind her, a dozen photos of Steven lay scattered across the blue comforter. A proud Steven in his first baseball uniform. A seven-year-old Steven, grinning, upper left front tooth missing, soft freckles over his nose, buzz-cut hair, a blue swimming ribbon dangling around his neck. A playful Steven, sitting next to Martha at the backyard picnic table, face screwed into a goofy expression, smoke from the Weber BBQ rising behind them. Tim remembered the day he snapped the picture. Labor Day weekend. Just six months before that day. He squeezed back his own tears and swallowed hard.
Martha shifted her weight and twisted toward the photos. She laid the sweatshirt aside and reached out, lightly touching an image of Steven’s face. The trembling of her delicate fingers increased. She said nothing for a moment and then, “I’m taking these.”
Tim walked to where she sat and pulled her to him, her cheek nestling against his chest, her tears soaking through his tee shirt. He kissed the top of her head.
“He’s gone,” Martha said. “Everything’s gone. Or will be.”