Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why do I write crime fiction?

Morgan asked me to fill in for her today, so I thought I'd tell you why I write crime fiction.  Aren't you curious???

When I was ten years old, I started reading detective stories. The first ones were Sherlock Holmes stories by Doyle, but I also read the Hardy Boys books, and stories of Encyclopedia Brown and the incomparable Brains Benton. I always envied Brains Benton, and tried to style myself after him as a twelve-year-old, without much success. But my first actual detective work came much later in life and inspired me to write crime fiction.

It was raining that night in the city by the bay.... no, wait a minute, wrong story.

It was a clear, late-spring Wednesday morning, and the first thing I saw as I walked out to my car was the TP carnage. Yes, we’d been hit. Toilet paper was festooned across our cars, across the trees and hedges--everywhere. But there was an added evil dimension: bright orange spray paint ran in jagged lines across the tall arbor vitae that fringed the front of the property, and a malediction had been painted on the paved driveway.  In bright blaze-orange letters, two feet tall, it said:

Penis wrinkle.

Not a common insult, and not one I had heard before. But I was a high-school teacher at the time, and as such had an inherent troop of suspects. Also, on Monday I had reprimanded one of my students severely—a senior with a strong intellect, great potential, but also a great predilection for goofing off in class. He had been very upset at being disciplined, and I was betting he was involved somehow.

When I checked things in our yard, I found that the miscreants had been in a hurry.  Two rolls were thrown without even being unwrapped. I recognized that the packages were of an institutional variety.

That day at school, I learned that others had suffered similar fates. Another teacher had her lawn rolled and her lawn and mailbox defaced with orange paint. And more seriously, the home and yard of a young lady had been defaced with orange paint, with very unflattering insults spray-painted on stonework and a privacy fence. 

My inner Sherlock Holmes took over.  I asked a few discrete questions.  I discovered that the young lady whose house was vandalized was the ex-girlfriend of the senior I had reprimanded.  I also discovered that he and two other young men had gone out “cruising” together the night before.

The family of one of the other two young men owned a motel on the outskirts of town.  I called them and pretended to be someone who had stayed there a month before, and that I owned a motel in another state.  I was “impressed with the quality” of their toilet tissue, and wondered what brand it was.  She told me over the phone.  It matched the brand of unopened tissue I found in my yard.

I got together with the other teacher, and found that she had also reprimanded two of the three students a couple of days before.  All three were now tied together with motive and/or means, as well as opportunity.

I went to the local sheriff’s office and filed a complaint, with all the evidence neatly presented.  The three lads were brought in for questioning.  There was quite a bit of dollar value of damage, when one considered the stonework and the privacy fence, so it could conceivably have been felony-level charges of destruction of property as well as malicious mischief.

The next day, three shivering seniors sat across a conference table from the other teacher and myself at the local sheriff’s office.  They confessed.  Their excuse was that they had been drinking and made stupid mistakes.

The sheriff’s department had allowed them to spend about eight hours the night before in the jail, as none of them were minors.  They were separated from the other prisoners, but they were alternately propositioned and threatened by some large, homely and lonely guys.

The young men were very, very anxious.  One young man was the president of the local National Honor Society and had been accepted at a prestigious university.  Another of the trio was headed for a full NROTC scholarship at another fine university.  Those two were scared witless that these charges would somehow lose them their places at these schools, while the third was simply scared of spending any more time in jail.


In the end, the other teacher and I accepted their confessions and agreed to drop all charges if: 

  1. The boys would do a total cleanup and repair, with their own hands.
  2. They would replace the mailbox they damaged at the other teacher’s house.
  3. They would resurface my driveway.  
  4. All of this would be done on Saturday mornings, supervised by their respective fathers.
Nobody lost their place in university, though the Honor Society president had his office stripped from him.  Gilbert and Sullivan had it right: let the punishment fit the crime.  The family of the young lady negotiated their own terms, as her father was too angry at the time of the meeting to sit down with the boys.

I believe the boys learned a valuable lesson about doing stupid things while drinking and I gained a real taste for criminal investigation. After that point, my stories took a turn for the mysterious. 


Terry Odell said...

But you didn't ask why they wrote what they did? LIke you said, it's not a common insult. I kept hoping for an explanation.

Anonymous said...

OH! Actually, I did ask the boys about that. It's strange, really. Two of them were sort of egotistical about their scholastic standings (they considered themselves to be very, very intelligent!) So when the third suggested something a little more, um, "earthy" for my driveway, they vetoed him. Instead of using street lingo for the anatomical part, they decided to be more erudite!

At the poor girl's house, though, they got down and dirty with what they painted. I believe the boys' families ended up paying out about $12,000 to replace the privacy fencing, clean and repair the stonework, etc. It wasn't cheap.


carl brookins said...

Interesting and funny story. I don't think I'll go into my own history around these, but being the target of TP many times (two teen-aged daughters, you see) I can sympathize. Egging on occasion, as well. Never "caught" the perps although my daughters knew them and for one egregious case, apparently extracted their own revenge.
My early influences were Walter Brooks' "Freddy the Detective," and Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Pirates outdoor adventure mysteries. But then of course, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys. And then MacBeth!

Radine Trees Nehring said...

Well, goodness gracious me. Seems to me you all handled it like any good detective would. Loved the story.

Good thing folks whose driveways a grade school friend and I lipsticked on a Halloween night years ago weren't as clever as you. We weren't caught.

We thought we were writing naughty words. Today they wouldn't wrinkle a Sunday School teacher's brow. In retrospect (I won't say how many years later), I do feel awful about what we did and wonder how those poor folks got the gooey "Long-lasting color" mess off their driveways.

Morgan Mandel said...

Thanks for filling in today, Tony. As coincidence would have it, right now I'm staying in Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin. I guess you were meant to mention arbor vitae in your blog today.

Morgan Mandel

agnes dee said...

A wonderful true-to-life story.

Deb Larson said...

Those TP pranks can run awry! We've had lots of experience in that department - ususally during Homecoming Week for the kids - a person can hardly buy a roll of TP in our hometown. Over the years we only had one bad experince - vaseline all over our doors and window screens. Since we live in the country - cars were involved too and living in a small town, we knew simply by the sound and make of the car who those rowdy boys were. My husband took a greasy screen to the school and showed the coach ... the next day the whole soccer team came and scrubbed our screens and windows!
Thanks for blogging with us.
DL Larson

Anonymous said...


Fate is weird, isn't it? Even though my wife is from Wisconsin, I had no idea there is a town called Arbor Vitae.

There was an older, very country guy who lived beside us at the time, and he never could get the name of the trees right. He would always say, "Them's some real purty 'arby viters' you got on the front of your propitty!"

Tony Burton

Anonymous said...

Oh! By the way, about the insult...
I have since discovered that "penis wrinkle" was a common insult in the Seventies, and has made a comeback of sorts. Now, the incident in question happened in the mid-Eighties, so I don't know if the boys had heard it somewhere or read it, or what... but one of them told me that they were just trying to sound more intellectual (only he didn't put it that way). Maybe they knew the insult already, and just didn't want to admit it.

Who knows from teenagers??


Neil Plakcy said...

A great real-life detective story. Thanks for posting it, Tony.