I know, I know. It’s been a while, right? Oh well. You’ll get over it. Or you won’t. Either way, I’m still hanging in there and trying to write every now and then.
This week, I’m taking a look at the evolution of my writing, posting an excerpt from something I was working on in 2008–a crime novel called Baptist Hill, and set in an almost exclusively black neighborhood in my hometown of Enterprise, AL. I was experimenting a little with style, trying to tell the whole novel through the sidekick’s perspective rather than the hero’s. I thought it’d be a neat little conceit.
I look back on it now and go … hey, this isn’t bad. But it’s not really good, either. It’s more of a Robert B. Parker pastiche than I’d like to admit. Let’s take a look at the opening pages of the now trunked novel:
The body lay face up, staring ceaselessly into the hard early summer rain. Uniformed police and crime scene technicians trundled around the body like worker ants, corralled by yellow crime scene tape. They wore cheap clear plastic slickers, and in the rain they looked like impressionistic figures in a Monet painting. Brad Warren stood apart from it all, seeing everything in the revolving blue-and-red lights cast by nearby police cruisers. Rain had blown underneath his umbrella and his hair was slick and plastered to his skull. His suit was wet through, and his expensive tasseled loafers had sunk past the heels into the soft dirt of the weedy vacant lot behind police headquarters. If Warren noticed the rain or the muck, he gave no indication. He concentrated entirely on the scene before him.
One of the uniforms approached Warren and said something. He looked over at me and jerked his head. I pushed the crime scene tape up and stepped into a different world, like Alice through the looking glass. The distrust from the cops who saw me was almost palpable. None of the uniformed cops would look at me. The camera that hung from my neck was heavy, my very own albatross. Whether I was inside the yellow tape or not, I was an outsider.
“Murder,” Warren said when I got within earshot. “The body was badly beaten, gunshot to the forehead probably finished it.”
Underneath my poncho, I was scribbling notes in a small, narrow spiral-bound notebook. I’d been a reporter at too many crime scenes, in bigger places than this. I didn’t have to see what I was writing. When I got back to the warm, dry office the notes would be illegible to anyone but me.
“Coroner already ruled?”
“I saw what there was to see. If he tells it any different, I’ll let you know.”
“So you don’t know for sure?”
“Damn it, Leon, how long have you been doing this? Body hasn’t even been moved to the morgue yet. Autopsy won’t be for two-three days, probably.”
“Have to send it to Montgomery?”
He nodded slowly. His eyes still roamed the crime scene. I knew what he was doing. He was putting together a mental picture, trying to fit all the pieces into the appropriate places. The rain softened into a kind of desultory patter. It would be a good day to curl up with a book and nap the afternoon away. Better than standing in a weedy, marshy vacant lot waiting for crime techs to cover a body.
“The state boys will have a look-see, give me the cause and time of death,” Warren said. “But the bullet hole in his forehead is a pretty big clue.”
“Weird place to dump a body.”
“Convenient place, maybe. Or maybe the killer wanted the body found.”
The coroner, a short fat man with comb-over hair and a walk like a hip-replacement patient, waddled over. Arthur Cox was a former city councilman and unfriendly to anyone who crossed him. And I was one of those people. He shook Warren’s hand, but made a point of ignoring me.
“I ain’t saying nothing with Scoop here.”
Warren didn’t say anything. He let the silence hang. The rain pattered like fairies’ feet on the hood of my poncho. Cox armed some water off his brow. Whether it was rain or sweat, I couldn’t say for sure. The silence didn’t seem to bother Warren. He stood as still as a statue, like the hands of time meant nothing to him. He finally tore his eyes away from the crime scene and grinned at Cox.
“Small town, Artie. We have to work with the press when we can.”
“Come on over to my car, we’ll get out of the rain,” Cox said. “Scoop can stay here.”
“Quit it, Arthur,” Warren said. “Only reason you don’t like Leon is because he caught you with your hand in the till. You ought to be thankful the DA didn’t file charges.”
That was just a misunderstanding, and your boy here blew it all up out of proportion.”
Warren rolled his eyes, twirled his hand in a “get-on-with-it” motion. I didn’t say anything, even though it rankled – as it always did – to hear someone call me “boy.”
“Victim’s face was beat in. Can’t tell if the gunshot was coup de grace or if the vic was already dead. State boys might be able to tell you which one was the fatal blow, but I doubt it. Also, this wasn’t the first beating the boy took. He’s got bruises, couple days old maybe, on his arms and chest.”
“Think they’re related?” I said.
Cox looked at me, then at Warren.
“I gotta answer that? Scoop doing your interviews for you now?”
“You don’t have to answer him,” Warren said. “Do you think they’re related?”
Cox drew in a deep breath and let it hiss out slowly. Behind us, the technicians had finally finished their ghoulish rituals and spread a blue tarp over the body. An ambulance was idling just outside the crime scene, and now it idled forward. Its lights and siren were off. There would be no need for them on this run.
“Probably they are related,” Cox said. “Can’t prove it, one way or the other. But extensive bruising a couple of days before a beating like this? Yeah, I’d think it’s related.”
“ID the body?”
Cox paused, a quizzical look on his face. He opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. Warren looked at him blankly. The coroner struggled to keep his composure. He laid one hand across his chest, like a child reciting the pledge of allegiance.
“I thought you knew,” Cox said.
“We lifted a wallet off the deceased. Driver’s license, check card, social security card all belong to Demetrius Noble.”
I could feel Warren collapsing in on himslef, like a light, quick boxer who’s just been caught by a heavier fighter’s haymaker. He was trying to recover, get his wind back, but the punch was devastating.
Cox reached out and put his hand on Warren’s shoulder. The gesture seemed to strengthen both men.
“We’re not sure yet,” Cox said. “You can’t … that thing down there … you can’t tell if it’s him or not. We got prints, but you know how that goes. Maybe he’s been printed somewhere before. Maybe he hasn’t.”
“What about dental records?” I said.
Cox shook his head.
“Not on this one. So many broken, so many just gone that dental records aren’t going to be a big help.”
“So we wait for the prints to come back?”
“If he’s been printed. We ask his parents for a DNA sample, see if it matches.”
“Son of a bitch,” Warren said. “Demetrius.”
“Was he home for the summer?” I said.
“Visiting his family, helping out at two-a-days for the high school.”
“We can talk to his coach, see if Demetrius showed up for football today.”
“Yeah,” Warren said. “I can do that.”
“We can do it,” I said. “I liked him too.”
“He was a good kid,” Cox said. “Best I ever saw on a football field. Sweet as hell off the field, too. Didn’t carry his rage around with him off the field. He worked it all out during the games.”
“We don’t know it’s him yet.”
Warren closed his umbrella and let the rain fall onto him. He seemed to have trouble taking air into his lungs. He looked at Cox, then me, then away. He turned on one heel and walked away, toward his dry office in police headquarters. The umbrella remained furled in his left hand as the rain came down steadily. Cox looked at me. I shrugged, turned on my heel, and followed Warren into police headquarters.
I can definitely see the potential I had/have in there. But, as you’ll see in my next post, I was/am just warming up. There are things you learn as you go along–things you can only learn as you write more and more, getting at least a partial education from sheer repetition alone. At this point in my writing/reading life, i’d been reading far too much Parker, and while I love his writing and gift for dialogue, I still hadn’t quite found my voice. I don’t know yet whether I have–but I think I’m getting closer.