While I don’t deny that Google’s wholesale scanning of books is a flagrant abuse of copyright and all that, I have to admit it’s quite useful on occasion. I’d been looking for a particular story to talk about for some time, but while I could remember the beat-by-beat plot I couldn’t recall the title, author or even where I’d read it. I spent a fair amount of time flicking through plausible mystery anthologies, hoping I’d happen upon a familiar page, without success. Then it occurred to me that I knew one concrete fact about the story: that one of the characters was a part time surveyor. So I put ‘mystery’ and “part time surveyor” (in quotes) into Google, and I’ll be damned if the elusive story wasn’t the first link to pop up.
Although it appears in mystery anthologies, I wouldn’t call the story a mystery itself. Then again, it’s a story all about the mystery writing trade, so I guess it’s appropriate. It starts with a hapless author in his editor’s office, trying to pitch possible detective series that nobody else has tried before. This is his thirty-sixth attempt:
“Myra, don’t piss me around now, because this is my last shot. Are you sitting comfortably? A dominant Neanderthal at the time of the Cro-Magnon…
Myra was already shaking her head.
“No?” I whispered.
“Merlene Trent’s Ug Oglog novels. You mean to say you don’t know about them?”
“They’ve won awards?”
“They’re big in New Zealand.”
“Lucky New Zealand. May it sink without a ripple, both islands. Well, that’s that. By my reckoning, there’s now a fictional detective for every profession across every social class from each and every region in the entire history of mankind, including the future, parallel universes, and q-space.”
“What can I say? Crime fiction’s going through a purple patch.”
But not all is lost, for the editor has heard the news that Esther Gordon Framlingham, a notable detective author, has recently died. The company wants to keep publishing her series, so they’re covertly searching for a new author to write under Framlingham’s byline. Admittedly, the company is thinking of offering it to another author, Jack Pantango, but the editor suggests that if the protagonist can put together a synopsis and a few sample chapters, he might be in with a chance.
Shortly after leaving the office he’s attacked by Pantango, who turns out to be a large, thuggish man, who warns him away from the Framlingham contact while waving a blade. But all is not what it seems, and certain secret identity secrets are revealed… so maybe the story is a mystery after all. (The revelation that one of them is a part time surveyor does not, I suspect, count as a spoiler.)
Oddly enough, this reminds me a little of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next universe, in that both take place in a universe where the general population is far more passionate about reading. While there’s nothing on the level of Fforde’s lunacy (like Shakespearian Baconists making door-to-door calls in the manner of Jehovah’s Witnesses), there’s a certain ridiculous tone running throughout. And because all of the characters are in the book trade, there’s a real sense that these detectives and their long-running series are the most important things in the world.
Pity there’s no such thing as inter-universal library loans, really. Some of these detectives mentioned sound quite fun.
Word count: 2,700
First published: Crimewave 7: The Last Sunset, edited by Andy Cox, 2003, TTA Press
Where to find it: The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Ed Gorman & Martin H. Greenberg, 2004, Tor