WRITERS ON WRITING THE NEW YORK TIMES
By ED McBAINhere used to be a time when a person could make a decent living writing crime stories. Back then, a hard-working individual could earn 2 cents a word for a short story. Three cents, if he was exceptionally good. It beat polishing spittoons. Besides, it was fun.
Back then, starting a crime story was like reaching into a box of chocolates and being surprised by either the soft center or the carmel or the nuts. There were plenty of nuts in crime fiction, but you never knew what kind of story would come out of the machine until it started taking shape on the page. Like a jazz piano player, a good writer of short crime fiction didn't think he knew his job unless he could improvise in all 12 keys. Ringing variations on the theme was what made it such fun. Getting paid 2 or 3 cents a word was also fun.
For me, Private Eye stories were the easiest of the lot. All you had to do was talk out of the side of your mouth and get in trouble with the cops. In the P.I. stories back then, the cops were always heavies. If it weren't for the cops, the P.I. could solve a murder -- any murder -- in 10 seconds flat. The cops were always dragging the P.I. into the cop shop to accuse him of having murdered somebody just because he happened to be at the scene of the crime before anybody else got there, sheesh!
I always started a P.I. story with a blonde wearing a tight shiny dress. When she crossed her legs, you saw rib-topped silk stockings and garters taut against milky white flesh, boy. Usually, she wanted to find her missing husband or somebody. Usually, the P.I. fell in love with her by the end of the story, but he had to be careful because you couldn't trust girls who crossed their legs to show their garters. A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora.
The Amateur Detective was a private eye without a license. The people who came to the Am Eye were usually friends or relatives who never dreamed of going to the police with a criminal problem but who couldn't afford to pay a private detective for professional help. So, naturally, they went to an amateur. They called upon a rabbi or a priest or the lady who was president of the garden club, or somebody who owned cats, or a guy who drove a locomotive on the Delaware Lackawanna, and they explained that somebody was missing, or dead, and could these busy amateurs please lend a helping hand?
Naturally, the garage mechanic, or the magician, or the elevator operator dropped everything to go help his friend or his maiden aunt. The Am Eye was smarter than either the P.I. or the cops because solving crimes wasn't his usual line of work, you see, but boy, was he good at it! It was fun writing Am Eye stories because you didn't have to know anything about criminal investigation. You just had to know all the station stops on the Delaware Lackawanna.
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