Category Archives: Mystery fiction

Me and Thomas Pynchon Are Like This

   Those who know me know that Thomas Pynchon is my favorite author, bar none. He’s the guy I order in advance in hardcover, the one I keep when others get recycled. He’s the one I reread, hoping to catch more of what I missed, and God knows I miss a lot, because he is much smarter than me and one of the great historical researchers in American fiction.

   He is also, famously, a recluse. The last picture of him dates from the 1950’s. He does live in New York City. Apparently, he married late in life and produced a son who is now in his twenties. A television news crew once stalked him and obtained footage, but he purportedly talked them out of showing it.

   He also has appeared on television twice — but both were on “The Simpsons,” where even his cartoon image wore a paper bag over his head. He is rumored to have been an extra in the film adaptation of “Inherent Vice,” but I haven’t seen actual confirmation or identification of him. There’s a befuddled-looking guy in glasses who wanders by a window at one point, and there’s a scene full of people in hooded costumes. Both are plausible.

   So, being the fan-boy that I am, I have fantasized about meeting him. I have also fantasized that he, needing a break from his exhaustive research, has read my mystery novels, which are by no means Pynchonesque but have involved a large amount of historical research.

   My books involve the members of a fictional Fools’ Guild. In the first, Thirteenth Night, we meet the Guild right away, tucked away in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains.
Imagine my shock and delight, then, when Against The Day came out, and I ran into this passage on page 724: “When Foley Walker returned from Göttingen, he and Scarsdale Vibe met at an outdoor restaurant in the foothills of the Dolomites …

   Complete coincidence, right? Right? Couldn’t have anything to do with me, right? Right? Except, I wouldn’t be a proper Pynchon paranoid if I couldn’t overanalyze this passage. There’s an entire Wiki devoted to this book, but it doesn’t say anything more than that the Dolomites are mountains in Italy. But what are they? How did they become the Dolomites?

   It turns out that they were named for an 18th Century French geologist named Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. He discovered a mineral which was named dolomite in his honor, as were the mountains where I suppose he discovered it.

   Dolomite, the mineral, had the quality of being able to double-refract light when it is shone through it. Astute readers of Against the Day will note that it shares this quality with Icelandic spar, which is one of the obsessions of the characters in the book.

   So what. Big deal. [Quote from “Buckaroo Banzai,” another Pynchon tribute movie.] Well, here goes the real craziness.

   First: I erred in using the name Dolomite. My book was set in the 13th Century, and the range wasn’t named for Dolomieu until the 19th Century. I hadn’t bothered fact-checking this because WHO THE FUCK RENAMES AN ENTIRE MOUNTAIN RANGE? [Answer: The Italians, obviously. And after a French guy. Jeez.] So, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon was caught out by obsessive fans referring to the movie “The Return of Jack Slade,” which didn’t come out until after the events of the book took place. In an annoying response, he annotated every pop reference in his next book, Vineland, with the year it came out. So, perhaps his reference to the foothills of the Dolomites was not merely a reference to the location of my Fool’s Guildhall, but an expression of solidarity with historical research that can fall short. Right? Right?

   But, if you think that I’m relying on that for my connection, you are mistaken. I mean, I am, but it’s not my major selling point. Take a deep breath, fasten your safety harness, pop a Dramamine — here we go.

   It turns out that the mineral dolomite, while possessing double refracting properties, is an inferior lens for that purpose when compared to Icelandic spar. One might argue that dolomite is to Icelandic spar as pyrite is to gold. And pyrite, of course, is also known as Fool’s Gold. One might argue that dolomite could also be called Fool’s Spar.

   At least, if one were me. And one is.

   I have never written Mr. Pynchon about this, because that would be an insane thing to do. So instead, I have put it out here in a blog, because nothing in a blog ever appears insane.



Tell Me a Story

“Tell me a story, Vince.”

That was the first line of my first published short story, “A Dry Manhattan Story,” in the April, 1991 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  I have always loved the voice in fiction of one character telling a story to another. It gives life to both the teller and the listener, allowing for narrative and commentary simultaneously. It is best done on a journey or by a roaring fire. (I have used both in The Widow of Jerusalem and An Antic Disposition,and arguably those are my two favorite books among those that I have written.)

Fiction writers have it easy in one sense. We are limited only by our imaginations and our talents. We can set a story anywhere, anytime, restricted only by what our aesthetic dictates. Selecting the restrictions and imposing them is part of the fun.

But what if someone else imposed the restrictions? What if they were the following: A. The story has to be told orally, not in writing. Okay, I know how to talk. B. The story has to relate to a one or two word theme that will be given to you. No problem—that can trigger my imagination in interesting new ways. C. It has to be five minutes long. Uhh, tougher. Sometimes getting me to shut up is more difficult than getting me to write. D. The story has to be true, drawn from your own life.


Enter The Moth. Founded in 1997 in NYC by George Dawes Green, The Moth holds story-telling evenings, open to all. Hundreds of people jam into a café or bookstore for the weekly StorySLAMS, and a few dozen intrepid (or narcissistic) souls drop their names into a bag. Ten are selected at random. An emcee, usually a comedian, holds forth in between the tales, and panels of volunteer judges score the tale-tellers on a scale of one to ten. The highest score earns the teller the right to compete against other winners in a quarterly event called the GrandSLAM, held in an even larger venue. The winner gets—nothing but bragging rights.

The program has expanded across the nation, adding events with longer stories and a radio show on NPR, earning a Peabody Award along the way. It remains one of the best bangs for the buck anywhere. And it’s a rush, as I can attest from experience.

I had been approached early in The Moth’s history about participating, but felt that my talents were better suited to fiction. Two years ago, however, I thought of one story from my past. I came in, was picked—and won on my first time out. Since then, I have been in two more StorySlams and two GrandSLAMS.

I have found that it takes a different set of gears for true life tale-telling. The narrative voice belongs to a character named “Alan Gordon,” who is an aspect of me slightly larger than my daily persona. The Procrustean nature of the time limit becomes a major factor—do I stretch or do I cut? I usually shape it in my head rather than committing to paper for the freedom to improvise if inspiration pops up mid-performance, as it frequently does.

My second StorySLAM win was for a theme that you’d think would be in my wheelhouse: Mystery. But mysteries in fiction are common. Mysteries in real life—not so much. Yet it was musing upon the paradox of a mystery writer lacking mystery in life that led me to the winning story, which I literally composed on the subway ride from Queens to the Manhattan venue. What was it? Well, it’s a tale best told out loud—and it will be. It’s going to be featured on the radio show and podcast sometime in 2014. The details will eventually be posted at Until then, you can check out the site for events near you, the radio schedule, and current podcasts. And if you have a tale to tell, come on down and give it a try.

But remember—you only have five minutes. And it has to be true.