Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Story

The Meanest Cop in Town


V. B. Tenery

Most small southern towns have a ritual teenagers follow on Friday nights. A place they gather to see and be seen. In my small town, it was the parking lot of a small shopping center that included various retail stores and fast food restaurants, then down the street four blocks to Braums.

Excited kids old enough to drive filled cars with friends and made a continuous circle through the shopping center, down the street to Braums and back again at the pace of a slow moving turtle.

One police office usually stood by his black and white in the parking lot like a tall blond Viking reviewing ships as they passed, making sure no laws were broken.

In the Christmas Season of 1989, I was the divorced mother of a teenage daughter who had turned fifteen the previous February and couldn’t wait to get her driver’s license.

We lived on a twenty-acre track that included my mother and father. I’d given Holly driving lessons since she turned twelve, using the private road between her grandparents and our home. She was a responsible driver and often drove her go-cart or my car on our property to visit Nanna and Pops.

On the Friday night before Christmas that year, we were visiting my sister who lived in town, and my daughter pleaded for me to let her take my car and join the throng at the shopping center. Making the dumbest decision of my life, I agreed, reasoning that she was a good driver. Bad choice I know.

An hour later, my sister and I sat in her kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee when the telephone rang.
It was Holly. Hysterical. “Mom, I wrecked the car . . . come as quick as you can. Please hurry.”

“Are you or anyone else hurt?”

“N-no, Mom. I’m okay. Just please hurry.”

“I’m on my way. Where are you?”

“In front of Braums.”

My sister drove me to the accident scene, and as we pulled to the curb, my heart tripped like a Chihuahua on speed. Broken glass littered the street, glittering like jewels in the streetlights, the pavement wet from busted radiator fluid. Oil and anti-freeze fumes filled the cold night air.

My car sat in the left lane, its nose buried in the rear of a VW bug, whose front-end had melded into the back drivers-side of a black pickup truck.

I spotted Holly on the sidewalk with a group of friends. She ran to me as soon as I stepped from my sister’s SUV. “Mom, are you mad at me?”

I pulled her into my arms. “No, I’m not angry. Just thankful you weren’t hurt. Have you spoken to the police yet?”

Eyes wide, she shook her head.

“Tell me what happened.”

She inhaled a shaky breath. “The black truck pulled out in front of the Bug to make a left turn. The Bug hit the truck and I hit the Bug.” She bit her lip and tears rolled down her face. “That truck came out of nowhere. It just darted right in front of the Bug. I couldn’t stop.”

Her hand trembled as she nodded toward the cop interviewing bystanders. The big Viking I remembered. “Mom, that’s Officer King.” She groaned. “He’s the meanest cop in town. He’s going to put me in jail.”

“No, darling. You don’t have to worry about that.”

But without a doubt, we were in a heap of trouble, and it was my error. Not Holly’s. Mine alone. I shouldn’t have let her take the car until she was licensed to drive. Even though it wasn’t her fault he would ticket her for rear-ending the VW and it would go on her permanent driving record.

We waited on the sidelines and after a while, Officer King strode over to Holly. “I need to see your driver’s license.”

She turned wide frightened eyes on me.

I steeled myself for what would come next and stepped closer to her. “She doesn’t have one.”

“Driver’s permit?”

I nodded. “Yes, but there wasn’t a licensed adult in the car with her.”

“Did she have permission to take the car?”

I nodded again.

He looked at me like lady-are-you-trying-to-redefine-stupid

“Do you realize your insurance company won’t cover damages with an unlicensed teenage driver behind the wheel?”

“Yes, I know.”

He gave me that look again, then turned and walked away.

“Officer, are we free t go?”He hadn’t told us to wait, or even that he’d be back.
Hands on his hips, he turned back to me. “Leave before I jail you for stupidly.”

For a moment I just stood there, unable to believe he hadn’t given me a ticket.

He didn’t move, still glaring at me.

“Y-yes sir. Thank you. I’m gone.”

A few months later I was having breakfast at a local coffee shop when officer King walked in. He bought a large coffee to go. We made eye contact and he walked over. He pulled out a chair at my table and sat down.

He grinned. “Has Holly been out driving lately?”

Heat crept up my neck and onto my cheeks. “Well, yes. But she has her license now.”

“How’d it go with your insurance company?”

“They totaled the car. But thanks to you and your accident report, they paid off the balance on the note.” My throat tightened and tears stung the back of my eyes. I was about to seriously embarrass myself by getting overly emotional. My voice cracked. “I-I really can’t thank you enough for your leniency that night. Holly’s driving record would have been ruined and my insurance rates would have more than doubled. Not to mention I would have had to pay off the balance of the car note. It was truly the second most thoughtful Christmas gifts I’ve ever received.”

"What was the first?"

"The birth of Jesus," I said.

He rapped the tabletop with his knuckles, and stood to leave. “I can't top that one."

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Mystery Genre: Then and Now

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie

I cut my teeth reading English author Agatha Christie novels, sneaking them into my room after hours from my father’s collection. She became the Grande Dame of the mystery genre in what is called, “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction,” which some claim ran from the 1920’s to 1941. However, the genre is still alive and well into the 21st Century. The success of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole, and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher are only a few examples of the genre's  longevity.

Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was written in 1916, was first published by John Lane in the United States in 1920, and introduced her soon-to-be- famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The setting of this first novel is Styles Court during WWI, and would later be used as the setting for the final Poirot novel Curtain.

The story is told in first person by Poirot’s friend, Captain Hastings, and features many of the elements that have become icons of early detective fiction largely due to Agatha Christie’s influence. It is set in a large, isolated country manor. There are a half-dozen suspects, most of whom are hiding facts about themselves. The book includes a map of the house, the murder scene, a particial copy of a will, plus many red herrings and plot twists. Classic Christie.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. Her Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple novels have sold roughly four billion copies. Her estate claims that her works rank third, after those of William Shakespeare and the Bible, as the world's most widely published books, and her books have been translated into at least 103 languages. And Then There Were None is Christie's best-selling novel with 100 million sales to date, making it the world's best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time. In 1971, she was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Noteably one of the most versatile authors ever, her stage play The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest initial run: it opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on November 25, 1952 and as of 2012 is still running after more than 25,000 performances.[In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour, the Grand Master Award, and in the same year Witness for the Prosecution was given an Edgar Award by the MWA for Best Play. Many of her books and short stories have been filmed, and many have been adapted for television, radio, video games and comics.

September 15, 1890 to January 12, 1976

Dame Agatha Christis

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Mystery Genre, Then and Now

A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle

This week the focus is on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cerebral detective, Sherlock Holmes. Readers first discovered this fascinating character on the printed page in A Study in Scarlet in 1886, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The love affair between readers and Holmes has continued for more than a century in books, movies, and television.

Holmes, calling himself a “consulting detective” is the second such character to appear in the mystery novel genre. With his erstwhile partner, Dr. Watson and his super powers of observation, Holmes has sleuthed his way through 4 novels and 56 short stories.

In 1890, Sir Arthur decided to “slay” Holmes in the short story, The Final Problem in order to devote more time to writing his historical novels. The public outcry was so great he resurrected Holmes in his next to the last novel The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

An interesting fact emerged while researching this prolific author. Sir Arthur was a practicing physician. It was the unsuccessful start-up of a new practice that drove him to writing to supplement his income. Imagine if patients had flocked to his door, we might never have become acquainted with Sherlock Holmes. Today, numerous physicians have taken to writing mystery novels, including CBA’s own Dr. Harry Kraus and Dr. Richard Mabry. However, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first to put pen to paper and lead us a merry chase through a crime scene.

Although Sir Arthur wrote science fiction, historical, and non-fiction he is world renown for writing detective novels. But he felt that it was a political pamphlet The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which resulted in his being knighted in 1902.

(May 1859 to July 1930)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes novels are still in print today. A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The 56 short stories are also avail in anthology collections on most bookstore websites.

Next week the mystery genre moves into the twentieth century.