I'm thrilled to welcome Mick Herron, Newcastle-on-Tyne born and Oxford resident, to guest for me today on Murder Is Everywhere. Mick doesn't confine himself to his Sarah Tucker/Zoe Boehm series but writes Ellery Queen Award winning short stories, standalones and the CWA Gold Dagger Best Novel winner DEAD LIONS. DEAD LIONS topped my best of list last year - the only way I can describe the book which I recommend to friends is 'think special needs MI5'! Mick and I travelled to Florida for a reading last September - his wit and patience dealing with my driving deserves a bravo. I only wish my phone had enough battery to catch the look on his face at the Elvis impersonator sidewalk-side in West Palm Beach. Priceless.
Thanks for joining us today, Mick and welcome!
There’s a Stanley Ellin short story which I may be about to spoil for you. Ellin (1916–86) was a master of the short form, most famous for the macabre “Speciality of the House”, but the story I was reminded of recently took place on a train. It’s years since I read it, but it goes something like this. A man is setting out on holiday, on doctor’s orders: he’s overworked, suffering from nervous exhaustion, and needs complete rest. And it looks like he’s about to get it, because as the train pulls away from his home town he feels his stress levels lower, and he begins to relax at last.
So what happens next is that two men occupy the seat in front of him and start a conversation he can’t help but overhear. The newcomers are lawyers, and their discussion grabs our man’s attention because it has all the hallmarks of a classic mystery story. It appears that a defendant in a recent trial one of the pair was involved in has committed the perfect crime: by means of an ingenious and apparently watertight method, and with the aid of his brother, the defendant both confessed to murder and simultaneously put himself beyond the reach of the law. After listening to a detailed account of the proceedings, and the cunning displayed by the two brothers, the second lawyer asks, “So they got away with it, then?”
“Ah, no,” says his companion. “As it turned out, they made one fatal error.” And just as he begins to explain precisely what this error was, the train pulls up at a station and the pair, still deep in conversation, depart. Leaving our character frustrated, overwrought, and already knowing that the stress-free relaxation he was looking forward to has been ruined by this interrupted tale…
It’s a neat story because it substitutes lack of payoff for payoff: the clever twist is the absence of clever twist. Ellin pokes the reader’s need for closure with a stick, leaving us in exactly the same state of frustration as the story’s character, worrying at the few clues we have, and knowing we’ll never solve the mystery.
I was reminded of all this because I was on a train myself the other week, heading to the North East of England. It was a busy, pre-Christmas journey, involving a lot of stops, and there was a lot of activity at each. At one, a young woman boarded with two small children: a girl, maybe four or five, and a boy perhaps two years older. The woman and the girl sat immediately in front of me; the boy a little way behind, there being no other available seat. Before the train departed I’d learned, from their three-way conversation, that they were only travelling one stop, to the next city, where they’d be staying with the boy’s grandmother. Then the train moved off, and I settled back into Handling Sin.
Ten minutes later the guard appeared, asking for tickets. When she reached the woman, she checked her ticket, and the daughter’s, then asked for the little boy’s.
“He’s not with me,” the woman said.
It was evident that the guard suspected this was a joke. She’d just spoken to the boy, asked him who he was travelling with, and he’d pointed to his mother. She laughed, a little nervously. “No, really,” she said. “Show me his ticket.”
“He’s not with me,” the woman repeated, refusing to look round at her son.
And so the guard spoke to the little boy again, who mutely pointed to his mother. I’d laid my Kindle down, and like everyone else within earshot was rigid with tension. The woman once more denied her son. The little boy said nothing.
The guard, herself a young woman, handled the situation well. She invited the woman to step out of the carriage, into the vestibule, where the doors closed behind them, muffling their dialogue. Neither reappeared. When the train reached the next station, I watched through the window as the woman, accompanied by both her children, alighted from the train and walked off down the platform.
So what was all that about? Lack of money, almost certainly; a situation desperate enough that for the price of a one-stop, child-rate fare a mother would deny her son, in his hearing and that of a dozen or more strangers. But the detail – whatever it was she said to the guard behind closed doors, and whatever resolution the pair reached – all of that remains as obscure as the solution to Ellin’s story. It happened off the page. There’s nothing more for the reader to know.
Given the obvious bleakness underlying this incident, and the fact that there were real lives involved, there are more appropriate responses than one of simple frustration at being denied a satisfactory ending. But one of the effects of a lifetime’s reading is that it engenders a need for narrative tidiness that can roll right over other considerations, including strangers’ sensibilities. An interest was piqued, then utterly denied, and if the social being that I am rued the causes of the scene I’d witnessed, all the narrative junkie within me felt was discontent.
Graham Greene famously noted that writers have a splinter of ice in their hearts. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but maybe the same goes for readers too.
Mick for Cara—Tuesday