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Bernard, Visible

Homeless. ParisIn “River Secret,” a man called Baptiste plays his music setup at the entrance to the Tuileries Garden in Paris. He’s fictional, but a real-life one-man band plays there as well. I see him almost every day when I jog across the footbridge over the Seine to the park entrance. The melancholy wail of his saxophone echoes off the ceiling of the concrete passageway leading to the garden. Tourists stop and listen, and drop a few coins in his upturned hat.

But do they know who he is? Where he comes from? Where he sleeps at night?

Paris is filled with people like that man. Invisible people who struggle to get by. You don’t see them sipping tiny cups of coffee in the brightly lit cafés around Saint-Germain des Près, perusing designer stores on the Rue Saint- Honoré or strolling along the Champs- Elysées. You don’t hear them complain. They don’t seek revenge for the cards fate has dealt them.

I’ve come across a lot of Parisians like that in my 15 years here.

They include Piotr, the homeless guy who works the corner of the Rue de Sèze and the Boulevard des Capucines. I give him an apple on my way to work. Or Véronique, a manicurist who labors over fingers and toes 10 hours a day — so much for the 35-hour workweek. Or Farida, age 45, who’s never held a computer mouse or typed on a keyboard. She comes to a community center in Le Blanc Mesnil, a grim apartment-block suburb in the north, to learn technology skills in hopes she can get a job.

These folks have little to do with the place I call Woody Allen’s Paris: a beacon of monuments and museums bathed in golden light, devoid of crowds and traffic jams and filled with beautifully dressed French people who speak perfect English. Travel articles as well give the impression that my adopted city is populated by residents who do little but slip into small art galleries in the Marais of a rainy afternoon, or suck up duck confit with carrots at an outdoor café on the Rue Mouffetard.

You can do that when you visit Paris, and I hope you come here often. Make a point of stopping by the Tuileries entrance by the river and see the musician. He’s not invisible. He has a name. It’s Bernard. Drop a few coins in his hat. That’s his best revenge.

Check out “River Secret” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Anne Swardson is an editor-at-large with Bloomberg News in Paris and a former European economic correspondent for the Washington Post. “River Secret” is her first published work of fiction. She is also the author of an unpublished mystery novel. Like “River Secret,” it is set in Paris, where Swardson has lived with her husband and two children for fifteen years.

The Hotline: The Story Behind the Story

EncostoEvery story, long or short, is a series of fictional beads threaded onto a fictional necklace to make up the finished article. As readers, we’re all interested where an author gets the ideas for their beads from and the more we like a work of fiction, the more interested we are.

In the case of “The Hotline” the beads were readily available: many years ago I worked with a Muslim colleague who was progressively eased out of her job solely on the grounds that her face just didn’t fit. I’ve seen plenty of promotions and demotions in workplaces that had rather more to do with personal motivations than professional ones. We’ve all read in the newspapers about malicious hoax calls to the police that are made for one reason or another. My dad, who came from Grenada, was a cricket fanatic and there was no point in talking to him while a cricket match was on the TV. In 1990s London, my partner was once forced to leave his home in the middle of the night while the police staged a massive raid on a group of terrorist suspects in a nearby house. The backdrop to the story is the assumptions we make about people and who they are. And as a black woman, I’ve become very familiar over the years about the assumptions people make about others based on the grounds of ethnicity, class, gender and religion.

So these made up the beads of the story and these are what I worked with. But of course then you have to ‘thread them on’ and (although some readers find this difficult to believe) you have to make things up. In the case of the story based on ‘vengeance’ this is actually a very attractive proposition. The desire for revenge is deeply rooted in human nature but every shrink and therapist will say how negative that desire is for us and that we should ‘let things go’. Then there are the practical constraints on the lust for a zinger – practical, ethical and of course legal. But what if all those limitations are removed? What would we do then?

And that’s the wonderful thing about the literature of revenge – those constraints don’t matter all…

Check out “The Hotline” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Dreda Say Mitchell is a novelist, broadcaster, journalist, and freelance education consultant who describes herself as a “complete busybody.” She is the author of five novels. Her debut novel, Running Hot, was awarded Britain’s 2005 CWA John Creasey Dagger for best frist crime novel. She has appeared on BBC television’s Newsnight and The Review Show and has presented BBC Radio 4’s Open Book. She was the 2011 shair of the Harrogate Crime Fiction Festival. Her commitment and passion for raising the life chances of working-class children through education has been called inspirational and life-changing. Visit her website at www.dredasaymitchell.com.

Everything Old Is New Again

 Empty Store Front (Dixon, IL)Decades ago, the mafia had a scam called the “bust-out.” They’d target a small business — the corner store, a machine shop, a soda distributor. After intimidating the owner into handing it over for a pittance, they’d order as much inventory as the suppliers would put on credit. They’d stop paying lenders, max out bank lines, demand customer pre-payments: in short, they’d extract as much cash as possible, as quickly as they could. Then one weekend they’d strip the premises of every last item that might be sold elsewhere — stock, fixtures, furniture, anything — and disappear.

The business was ruined, the owner penniless or bankrupt or worse, and the gang? They’d swept up all the cash … and were ready to do it again.
The comparison is not far-fetched. A private-equity group borrows a vast sum of money, buys a struggling company and squeezes operations as hard as they can. “Rationalizing” can involve layoffs, steep pension cuts, loan defaults, supplier hardball — anything to free up a dollar. When they’re done, the PE investors pay themselves a huge dividend, often financed by more borrowing. Then, like the mafiya, they sell off what’s left and disappear.Now that seems almost quaint. Today, it’s called a workout, not a bust-out, and the operators are private equity firms, not the Cosa Nostra. The amounts involved are hundreds of millions of dollars. And best of all, it’s completely legal.

Continue reading “Everything Old Is New Again”

When the Law Falls Short

UnjustFrancis Bacon said that “revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed out . . . . In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.”1

Fast forward two and a half centuries, to Abraham Lincoln. He thought vengeance had a time and place. During the American Revolution, he noted “the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge . . . were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature . . . [became] the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty. . . . But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.”2 Lincoln gave this speech in response, in part, to a mob killing of a black man accused of murder. In Abe’s view, it was okay to take vengeance on the British but not anyone else.

Fifty years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., admits the importance of vengeance within the legal system, going so far as to say, “the law does [and] ought to, make the gratification of revenge an object . . . correspond[ing] with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.”3 Holmes saw this as a lesser evil to people perceiving the legal system as failing to satisfy and thus taking matters into their own hands. “If people would gratify the passion of revenge outside of the law, if the law did not help them, the law has no choice but to satisfy the craving itself, and thus avoid the greater evil of private retribution.” Id.4

As a trial lawyer I saw many examples of law and justice diverging, with the law “not helping” the wronged party. Writing the “The Fourteenth Juror” allowed me to inflict private retribution (even if only on the page) on one aspect of the legal system that often fell short in this regard. Gratifying indeed.

Check out “The Fourteenth Juror” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

A Stanford graduate and former (vengeful) plaintiff’s trial lawyer, Twist Phelan writes the critically acclaimed legal-themed Pinnacle Peak mystery series published by Poised Pen Press. Her short stories appear in anthologies and mystery magazines and have won or been nominated for the Thriller, Ellis, and Derringer awards. Twist’s current project is a suspense novel set in Santa Fe featuring a corporate spy. Visit her at www.twistphelan.com.

1 Sir Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral (1625). Yes, this is a footnote. As a former law review editor, I can’t resist.

2 Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, Volume I, p. 108-115 (January 27, 1838). Uh oh; another one.

3 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law 46 (1881). I’m out of control.

4 “Id.” is the abbreviation for the Latin word “idem,” which means same. Lawyers and academics use it to reference the previously cited source. Everyone else just says “same as before.”

 

On VENGEANCE and The General

Revenge has always been a human passion – as well as a problem for any civilized society. Early on, Jehovah reminded the Israelites that ‘vengeance is mine,’ while Aeschylus immortalized the blood feuds of the House of Atreus, which took a goddess to end, thus establishing the rule of law.

Dramas of revenge were popular enough in Renaissance England to spawn a distinct genre, the Revenge Tragedy, ironically most famous for that reluctant avenger, Hamlet, whose dithering raised the body count without ultimately sparing the king. Of course, Shakespeare knew a good thing when he saw it: revenge not only calls upon a variety of visceral and ancient emotions, it also offers excellent plot possibilities.

I’ve been rather fond of these, myself. Looking back over my short stories, I find revenge plots constructed around a variety of characters, ranging from a middle aged archeologist (male) to a restauranteur (female) with stops along they way for several wronged wives and husbands, an angry daughter, plus a disgruntled academic dean and a traumatized student. Most of these stories are told from the avenger’s point of view. Continue reading “On VENGEANCE and The General”

Deserving: On VENGEANCE and the writing of Lost and Found

Day 272 - The view from across the roadThe desire for retribution is a theme familiar to all crime and thriller authors, and it has to be one of the strongest. Never is a character’s motivation more compelling than when they determine to go after somebody who deserves to die―no matter what―and it’s personal.

I’ve touched on vengeance many times in my writing. My ex-army-turned-bodyguard heroine Charlie Fox has a lot in her past to be vengeful about, and while she may be wary about crossing the line, that doesn’t mean she won’t do it if she has to.

But not this time.

When Lee Child first contacted me about contributing to a then-unnamed MWA anthology, I agreed (bit his arm off at the elbow is probably a better description) and asked him if there was a theme. “Good people doing bad things for the right reasons,” came his typically succinct response. “Dark justice.”

Dark justice.

That sounded damn cool to me. But although Charlie is a troubled girl, she’s never really embraced her dark side. And I wanted this tale to be dark. I don’t really write noir in the true ‘everybody dies without redemption’ sense of the word, but I love the hardboiled edge.

Here was an opportunity to take that edge and push it just a little further. Continue reading “Deserving: On VENGEANCE and the writing of Lost and Found”

Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction

Editing this anthology was a lot of fun—not least because Mystery Writers of America’s invaluable and irreplaceable publications guy, Barry Zeman, did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick ten invitees. And write a story. And then later on read the ten winning stories chosen by MWA’s blind-submission process. Piece of cake. Apart from writing my own story, that is, which I always find hard, but that’s why picking the invitees was so much fun—I love watching something difficult being done really well, by experts.

It was like playing fantasy baseball—who did I want on the field? And just as Major League Baseball has rich seams of talent to choose from, so does Mystery Writers of America. I could have filled ten anthologies. Or twenty. But I had to start somewhere—and it turned out that I already had, years ago, actually, when I taught a class at a mystery writers’ conference in California. One of the after-hours activities was a group reading around a fireplace in the motel. A bit too kumbaya for me, frankly, but I went anyway, and the first story was by a young woman called Michelle Gagnon. It was superb, and it stayed with me through the intervening years. So I e-mailed her about using it for this anthology—more in hope than in expectation, because it was such a great story, I was sure it had been snapped up long ago. But no—it was still available. Never published, amazingly. It is now.

One down.

Then I had to have Brendan DuBois. He’s a fine novelist but easily the best short-story writer of his generation. He just cranks them out, one after the other, like he’s casting gold ingots. Very annoying. He said yes.

Two down.

And I had Twist Phelan on my radar. She’s a real woman of mystery—sometimes lives on a yacht, sometimes lives in Switzerland, knows about oil and banks and money—and she had just won the International Thriller Writers’ award for best short story. I thought, I’ll have a bit of that. She said okay.

Three down. Continue reading “Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction”