Sunday, November 9, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Getting the Cat-Sitter

A couple of a close friends of mine work Renfaire every year, so I stop by to feed their cats and clean the litterboxes on weekends and during the week when Faire opens midweek for schools. They live in an apartment, and I park in the visitor lots on the side of the complex, using one of two walkways passing directly underneath second-floor apartments in the first building to get to my friends' unit on the far side of the small complex.

On Thursday, as I walked through, I heard a man say: "There you are! You're not getting away from me this time!"

Reflexively I looked up and saw a man I didn't know from Adam's off ox, and wouldn't know again if I saw him, standing on the balcony above the walkway. Apart from one glance up I didn't vary my pace or change my posture or do anything to send off "victim" signals - I may be too old to deal with catcallers on a regular basis anymore, but I was an obligate pedestrian through dark streets for far too long to have lost that discipline now.

I wasn't sure he was addressing me, either. He could have been talking on a mobile phone I didn't see, the dang things are so tiny, and he could have been joking. This is far more likely than that he was some sort of predator keeping tabs on dumpy middle-aged visitors, intent on terrorizing them. But I'm not stupid; I used the other walkway on my way back, and checked Moby's back seat before I got in and drove away. And nothing untoward has happened in my subsequent visits. He probably was on the phone with someone; and he probably was joking.

But what if he wasn't?

If I were a writer of a series of detective novels, this non-incident would need to be poked, prodded, stretched, flipped, turned inside out, and wrung for every drop of potential that could be extracted from it. In a mystery novel, this would have been a threat and it would have had consequences. But a number of questions would have to be asked, and a number of decisions made.

Why would the threat be made overt? Why not lie in wait for the cat-sitter and take her by surprise? The answer to this would be tied directly to the motivation for whatever crime was contemplated on her person.

Why the cat-sitter? Who is the cat-sitter? Dumpy middle-aged white ladies count as tempting targets for certain kinds of crimes, but the same qualities that make us vulnerable to some attacks protect us from others, and in any given apartment complex in Texas, there will be an irreducible minimum number of men on hand who are hard-coded to leap to our defense. Probably more than would automatically rush in to rescue a gorgeous 20-year-old, though less than would rush to rescue a small child. A mystery writer must choose victims carefully, not necessarily for the victim's own sake, but as part of the characterization of the murderer, the setting of clues, and the manipulation of the reader's sympathies. I did not recognize the man who spoke, but I'm not good with faces. Perhaps, if I am the story's victim, I did know him at one time, and did not remember him. Perhaps this is the past returning to bite me in the butt. Perhaps I am merely his "type" and he's a serial offender looking for someone to offend against. Perhaps I did not know him, but he thought I did, and my ignoring him incensed him past bearing. Perhaps I merely reminded him of someone - someone (oooh, hey) he thought he had killed, but was gone when he returned with the equipment to dispose of the body, so that he's spent the last umpty-ump years in a stew, waiting for her to reappear and exact her revenge! Yes, that last one is by far the best idea.

What would the practical difficulties be in "getting" someone in this situation, with this apartment complex's layout? This calls for a good old-fashioned Map of the Relevant Area to go in the front of the book, with routes, Moby, the positions of witnesses, and the locations of clues clearly marked. (I don't know about you, but no mystery novel that doesn't entail map use is 100% satisfactory.)

These decisions, and others like them, will need to be determined in reference to the requirements of the series. If it's a series of police procedurals, then the apartment complex may need to be gussied up or grunged down in order to fit within the jurisdiction of the series protagonists. If the detective is an amateur, something must draw her attention to this crime and place her on the scene naturally - and how best to do this will depend on that detective's established habits, interests, and milieu. In a cozy mystery, the cat-sitter may be the detective herself, and the remark addressed to someone else she is prevented from seeing by some feature of the immediate terrain. In a hard-boiled one, the detective may be on hand because it's his own apartment complex, or because he's on another job in the complex that intersects with this one, or may be a suspect. This is a problem the writer of amateur sleuth series encounters over and over, and if you're not equipped to handle it, you have no business creating an amateur sleuth!

I've got a couple of mysteries under my belt, but I'm not plot-driven enough to make them a habit, so I'll let this one go by. But it doesn't hurt to think about it. (And make sure that Moby's locked.)

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