Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ripped from the Headlines...Fiction Inspired by Real Life

A lot of people don't keep up with the news. They don't necessarily want to be informed of what's happening in Timbuktu or Djibouti. After all, it's not like it's important to know what's happening a half a world away...or is it?

I wrote about the ripple effect of the Syrian conflict in "Let Slip the Dogs of War", published in August of 2012. Even then I thought the answers to the Syrian conflict were complicated, shaded by a wide array of gray tones on either end of the black-and-white spectrum. Creating the passionate, outspoken innkeeper, Bea Jones, gave me the opportunity to explore the dangers of allowing a dictator to suppress and suffocate his people, to delve into the resulting mess as the balance of power is fought over by players from around the globe. Does all end well with the involvement of and, to some extent, damaging interference from intelligence services world-wide, seeking to influence the outcome? Sadly, the people of Syria are in greater peril today than they were in 2012, but that instability has now grown to almost epic proportions, as the Middle East teeters on the edge of the abyss.

Putting Bea Jones into a situation where she had to decide right from wrong, to decide what sacrifices were worth making and whether she could bear to risk losing her husband, CIA Officer Ben Jones, for the sake of the greater good, was a challenge. It's never easy to be married to a spy. For one thing, they spend their lives lying. For another, they don't often let their guard down because that one moment they finally relax, an old adversary could be waiting to pounce. For spies, there is never anything like "a normal life". Too many secrets to keep, many of them ugly. Too many cover story details to keep straight, especially under stress.

Bea and Ben bicker constantly, much like the Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". For Ben, all that wrangling keeps him from being "too soft". For Bea, it enables her to keep going when her heart is breaking. Sometimes not knowing if your husband is coming home is maddening, and that continued friction between husband and wife can start a fire.

Maybe that's why Ben loves Bea so much. In a crazy world, she makes him feel like any other husband -- answerable to her. She expects great things from him and isn't willing to settle for anything less than the best. Love is his salvation and Bea keeps the home fires burning while he is fending off the villains, hopefully without becoming one himself. Ben finds himself pushed to the limit over and over again, and even as one tale ends, another is just beginning. "A Plague O' Both Your Houses" puts the couple in even deeper, and the cast of characters seem to be drawn from tragedy and comedy. If Shakespeare were alive today, I have little doubt he would be crafting tales that speak of our modern perils and all-too-human foibles.

Ironically, the Bard's Bed and Breakfast mysteries aren't the only tales I've written that were inspired by the news. "Henry Hartman's Holiday Crisis" was the first in a series about a wily FBI Agent who handles the "off-the-books" cases that are not only unpopular, but career-busters for the unlucky agents who get the assignments.

Sydney Stansfield never knew that her ex-husband, Matt Boyle, was involved with Blackie Walsh's criminal organization, but the longer she's on the run from the Boyles, the more she begins to understand that some families are more dangerous than others.

Anyone who followed the FBI corruption fiasco in Boston can surely understand the damage from having FBI agents doing the bidding of members of a criminal organization. When it goes so deep that it permeates the political landscape, and law enforcement is funded by politicians who owe favors, there's little chance that the public will be safe from the grasp of unscrupulous mobsters.

For Henry, taking on the case was a necessity. He understood that Syd was in real danger, even if she didn't understand or recognize it herself. Things were so much more complicated than he thought, and by the time the first book wrapped up, the second picked up the thread, unraveling an even more complicated tale in "Henry Hartman's Boondoggle Crisis". In exchange for manpower, Blackie Walsh's crime spree helped to fund the IRA. With the terrorist activities came connections to other intelligence apparatuses, some dating back to the years prior to WWII. These twists and turns were also inspired by real-life events.

In some ways, it was almost a relief to write "Henry Hartman's Fall Guy Crisis". On the surface, the reader might assume that an effort to get at America's underwater communications is not a big deal. The truth is spies do what spies do; they exploit intelligence weaknesses. Henry's job is to protect America from national security threats, but he's a "people person". He understands a Navy sailor who's served his country honorably deserves a little help. Syd learns the hard way that the answer isn't always cut and dried when it comes to crime and first impressions aren't always right. Some people really do deserve another chance and a hand to lift them up out of the hole they're in.

That's something that Deputy Gabby Grimm can understand. As a member of the Latimer Falls, Vermont Sheriff's Department, she works with seven men and it's no fairy tale life. Her biggest wake-up call came in the woods, when she was following up on a complaint. A masked man had the audacity to kiss her in "Snow White and the Hunter". Little did she realize the stranger did it to keep her safe from the terrorists he was hunting, but before long, Gabby found herself joining the effort to thwart them.

So often, in places like Vermont, we think cows, chickens, and cozy nights in front of the fireplace. The new reality of modern day life invading this wonderful state was brought home by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. He's made a very public plea for support to address the current heroin epidemic in the state. With so many people becoming addicted and easy access to the drug, law enforcement can't keep up with it. Sadly, it's the good people of Vermont who will bear the cost of this tragedy.

I tried to capture some of that drama and frustration in "Little Red Riding Hood and the Secret Cookie Recipe". Sheriff Rufus Parteger left his old job in a big city after a nasty battle with mobster Willie Dumfries. The last thing he expected was that his past would follow him to Vermont, or that his innocent teenage daughter would be snatched, not once, but twice, and used as a hostage. When Gabby and her boyfriend, Army Special Forces soldier Sam Hogan, are pulled into a plot by organized crime to take over Latimer Falls as a way station for drug trafficking and money laundering, they're motivated by sheer terror.

But the key to Willie Dumfries's success is his vast network of connections and the organized effort to control this idyllic Vermont village. It brings home the unfortunate reality of what determined criminals can do in this day and age, when they are able to terrorize the population and bring cops to their knees. Here again, the reader sees the results of that real life corruption in the Boston FBI field office, as law enforcement officers and agents don't know which of their colleagues they can trust, even as they work feverishly to save lives. There is danger in the woods, and a real-life Big, Bad Wolf really can wreak havoc with the best of the Vermont law enforcement community. We all lose when organized criminals are able to circumvent efforts to stop the influx of drugs, whether it's heroin, opiates, or even meth.

A reader once commented that my books seem to be "too light" for such heavy subject matter. These issues should be, in her opinion, treated far more seriously, somberly. The truth is I use humor liberally throughout my tales of woe inspired by real life events because otherwise, who would want to read them? Real life cops can't afford to embrace the darkness of the criminal world, lest they become a part of it. Humor, often of the gallows variety, enables good cops to keep themselves focused on the positive side of life. Who doesn't love the "dope on a rope" moments, when suspects say really idiotic things, or the times when "that dog don't hunt", because the evidence just doesn't support the bogus alibis?

I always try to keep my heroines and heroes human. It's too easy to create fantasy figures who never fail, who never question what they're doing, who never fear. Real people make mistakes. We fumble, we stumble, and sometimes we even fall. The important thing is that we get up and get back to fixing what we broke. Perfection isn't something that comes easy to heroines and heroes, any more than bravery is. We all have to believe in something bigger than ourselves. We all have to know that what we do as humans matters to other people. That's what inspires us to do the right thing against all odds. And in this complicated world where good battles evil in the most unexpected places, having characters who are willing to their part can inspire the most timid among us.

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