Monday, March 19, 2012

"Empty Hours"

Dornan showed up at the restaurant a half hour earlier than they'd agreed upon. He parked his 1983 Crown Victoria across the street in a parking lot behind a Burger King, killed the engine and rolled down the windows. He sat and watched the restaurant across the street, periodically lifting the Styrofoam cup he'd wedged between the car's dashboard and window and sipping from it. A string ran down its side, ending in a paper tag that read "Lipton."

He didn't like the place.
As I've recounted elsewhere, I grew up with crime fiction but fell away from the genre during college and didn't return to it for years. But when I eventually started reading it again, I found a stripe of crime story I'd never read before -- hardboiled. Tough guys facing tough odds while uttering laconic one-liners studded with outlandish metaphors. I loved it.

I also discovered the writing of Richard Stark, the penname under which comic crime author Donald Westlake penned his hardboiled and noir-tinged Parker novels. For the uninitiated, Parker is a professional thief and Very Nasty Man, one who's pathologically self-centered, utterly amoral, and not the least bit squeamish about killing those who cross him with anything ranging from submachine guns to his bare hands. Parker first appears in The Hunter, and while I deeply enjoyed the grim little novel overall, I strongly disliked Parker's attitude toward women. He uses and abuses them, both emotionally and physically. Nasty stuff.

My revulsion got the wheels turning upstairs: Could I write a Parker pastiche where the protagonist treated women like a gentleman?

So began "Empty Hours," a stripped-back hardboiled story about a tea-drinking chap named Dornan who (in his own words) "makes things right for people." In this instance, he's trying to fix something -- or someone -- for Juli, an attractive woman with a nervous twitch whose professional fa├žade stands always about three blinks away from crumbling in on itself. During its many revisions, the story became something more than an admiring imitation of Richard Stark, going deeper and darker into the evil lurking unseen all around us -- and the evil crouching in our own hearts.

Needless to say, this one ain't for the kiddos.

"Empty Hours" appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir. Get your copy here. Many thanks to B. Nagel for providing much-needed feedback on an early draft. The story is better for it.

14 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

This inspires me. One of these days, I want to write a pastiche of Leslie Charteris's "The Saint." (Yes, they made a movie of it, and no, it had nothing to do with the books. The 1920's radio serial was closer, though de-clawed.)

Again, I have a lot to love and one objection. The Saint stories have a lot in common with the current TV show leverage--its hero is an excellent con man and investigator who rips off bad guys and donates their ill-gotten gains to charity, living in luxury on the 10% he keeps for himself. He's got a bit of Errol Flynn's derring-do, a bit of James Bond's womanizing and imperturbability, a legendarily impious humor (I think he coined the "as the actress said to the priest" line of jokes), and a rather compassionate soul.

The biggest flaw with the character, to me, was Charteris's lack of recognition of his arrogance, along with a concomitant inability to fail. I've always wanted to write a story in which he is the flawed, morally-ambivalent, and incredibly charismatic hero. There's just something fun about a character who literally sees his criminal activities as a service to God, and who has the arrogance to let God tithe him, rather than the other way around.

Also, something irresponsible, so I'd expect the story to end with him sending money out of his own pocket to the family of an innocent detective he'd killed...then swallowing half a bottle of single-malt before taking his on-again, off-again girlfriend/fiancee to bed. Not sure how well that morally bleak ending would go with the wit and humor he otherwise demonstrates, but it's a story I'd like to write.

Alas, it still requires a plot.

Loren Eaton said...

You'll laugh at me for this, but I never knew The Saint was actually a book. I remember hearing about the radio show and watching the Val Kilmer movie in high school (which was middling at best). I'll have to check it out.

One of the nice things about a pastiche is that you can acknowledge an influence while simultaneously addressing areas the author ignored. For instance, Stark never seemed to really critique Parker's amorality.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

As a sidenote, I think you just NAILED why I was disappointed by the latest John Carter:

"One of the nice things about a pastiche is that you can acknowledge an influence while simultaneously addressing areas the author ignored."

I'm a fan of the original, but not rabid, and I'm well aware of the many ways Edgar Rice Burroughs is creaky or sketchy. When I heard that Pixar's WALL-E and Finding Nemo director was working on an adaptation, with a script co-written by lit/genre author Michael Chabon, I expected great things.

If you watch it, you'll see instead what happens when someone uses pastiche as an excuse to keep in parts that don't work so well, rather than re-gearing a work for a modern audience. It's decent entertainment--and the villains are great--but ultimately an exercise in what not to do.

B. Nagel said...

I knew that italicized opener looked familiar. After the second sentence, I said to myself, "This is the one with the tea."

I'm so glad it found a home. I knew it had legs. Congratulations, proud papa.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Been meaning to order it. Thanks for the reminder and I will look for your story.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

I am interested in seeing it, although I'll probably wait until it comes out on video. I know that critics have been slamming it, but I've also heard that a lot of viewers have enjoyed it. Maybe there's a little bit of populist divide going on.

Of course, I should read a little Burroughs first.

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

It is indeed the one with the tea!

Placing this one wasn't quite as exciting as having a new baby -- but it still was awful fun.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

Thanks! Let me know what you think. I'd be interested in your opinion.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

When reading Burroughs, remember--everything he writes is great, except for characterization, dialog, prose, and cultures.

That is, he writes great action, surprisingly memorable images, and heroes so ridiculously honorable and invincible that one has to grin, even if one also laughs. Also, the worldbuilding is creative, if nothing else. The first aliens John Carter meets have eight appendages--four arms, two legs, and two that work as either arms or legs. In short: fun, except for the bad prose.

Loren Eaton said...

There's no shame in reading (or writing) pulp. If I need something light, sounds like Burroughs is the way to go, eh?

Chris said...

I informed my significant other, who devoured the Parker novels as quickly as I could obtain them, of your quest for a kinder gentler take on Westlake/Stark's legendary heist man, and she said "Oh NO--that's not how I like my Parker."

Dames. Can't live with 'em, can't sh--um--never mind.

;)

ollwen said...

I'm surprised you haven't read The Saint series, being a lover of noir and crime fiction.

Congratulations on the publication! It's neat to hear about a story that took on a life of it's own, and then found a home in print!

Loren Eaton said...

Chris,

Well, Dornan is definately different than Parker -- although equally willing to get his hands dirty if the situation requires it. If your significant other ever reads "Empty Hours," I'd absolutely love to hear her opinion on it. I'd assumed that women would like Dornan better than Parker, but I could be wrong!

Loren Eaton said...

Sam,

I'm surprised I didn't hear about it either. Of course, I'm learning more and more how little I know about these things.