Meet Wyatt Rook, lawyer, historian, detective...

Meet Wyatt Rook, lawyer, historian, detective...

Postby Slade » Tue Aug 05, 2008 4:59 am

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation": A Memoir by Michael Slade

CRUCIFIED - my 13th novel - is now published. It introduces Wyatt Rook, a new character. After 12 thrillers about Special X, the psycho-hunters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, why did I switch to writing about a New York lawyer? Here's the story.

My father died in a plane crash in 1956. I was 9 years old. After surviving 47 combat missions as a bomber pilot in the Second World War, he was killed by a raging winter storm in the Cascade Mountains. To this day, the Mount Slesse crash remains the worst aviation disaster in Western Canada.

Most memories of my dad are hazy, but not this one. I was building a plastic model plane - the type boys used to hang from the ceilings of their bedrooms - when my dad pointed to a half-made plane that I had abandoned for the niftier Stuka.

"Never start a project that you don't intend to finish," he admonished me. "If you're not going to complete something, don't start work on it. You began work on that plane, so you've made a promise to yourself that you'll finish it."

Then he was gone.

* * * * *

Because my father died while flying for the airline, I had a free pass for as long as I was in school. My mother set about introducing me to the big, wide world. First stop, of course, was this brand-new fantasy in California called Disneyland. Next, we were off to New York City: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City." For a kid from the sticks of 1950s Vancouver, imagine the size of that place.

Flying on a pass means you fly standby. You take the seats that are left. So my mom and I got separated on the leg from Toronto to New York. The man sitting beside me was a high-powered stockbroker type, who found himself peppered with questions about Manhattan by the excited boy next to him.

"Do you know famous people?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "Right now, I'm off to meet Jack Dempsey."

"Jack Dempsey! The Heavyweight Champ of the World!"

Known as the "Manassa Mauler," Jack Dempsey scored 51 knockouts in 82 fights, and held the title from 1919 to 1926. The street where Madison Square Garden is located is called Jack Dempsey Corner.

The landing of the plane reunited me and my mom. She was a knockout, in her own way.


The stockbroker took one look at her and offered us a cab ride into the city. Thanks to her son, my poor mom found herself hit upon by a high-pressure guy on the make who was going to show her the city. And - to impress her through me - he had the taxi pull up in front of Dempsey's Restaurant, "The Meeting Place of the World," opposite Madison Square Garden.

The stockbroker told the cabbie to wait while he went inside, and a minute later, out he came with Jack Dempsey.

Soon, we're all standing on the sidewalk, with the stockbroker telling my mom that he'll find someone to watch the kid so they can "paint the town red," and that's when my mom took a stand.

She explained to him, in Dempsey's company, how she had lost the boy's father to a plane crash, and was here to show me the city, because that's what her husband would have done. She was thankful to my seat-mate for being so kind to us, but we had flown a long way (prop planes back then), and she had mapped out every minute that we would be in the city.

Dempsey turned to the stockbroker and told him to go inside and order a drink on the house. Once he was gone, the towering man looked down at me and said, "So you know who I am?"

"You're Jack Dempsey! The Heavyweight Champ of the World!"

Dempsey squatted down on his heels and said to me, "Yes, I'm a fighter, and you know what that means? It takes a fighter to know a fighter, and your mom's a fighter, son. So you be a fighter, too, and take good care of her."

That's when he gave me a soft punch on the shoulder like men did back then (and I have not washed that shoulder since, for you're reading a story by one of the few to take a punch from Jack Dempsey and still be on his feet).

Dempsey got up and held the cab door open for my mom. Then, leaning in through the passenger's window, he peeled off several bills from a wad in his pocket, and told the cabbie, "Give my guests a grand tour of the city, and see they get safely to their hotel."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Dempsey," the cabbie replied.

So that's how my mom and I were introduced to the Big Apple, courtesy of the Manassa Mauler.

Visualize me with my head stuck out the window of the cab, gazing in awe at the Empire State Building soaring up to the moon, blinking at the zillions of lights on Broadway and in Times Square, and riding on Fifth Avenue with all its top hats and mink stoles.

The thought going round and round in my mind?

"Wow! So this is the home of Ellery Queen?"

* * * * *

Voluntary, No Credit.
Admission Restricted to Grades 9 to 12.

The notice went up on the bulletin board of my high school in June. I was in Grade 7. On my way home, I stopped at the confectionary and bought Ellery Queen's CAT OF MANY TAILS.

There was a time when a critic could say, "Ellery Queen is THE American detective story." Queen was both the fictional character and the pen name of two cousins from New York: Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Queen wrote brain twisters from 1929 on, and - along with the Golden Age puzzlers Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr - impressed me in my teens. Queen's stories were tricky whodunits with a "Challenge to the Reader: You have all the facts now to come up with the only logical solution." Launched in 1941, ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE is still going strong today.

My mom picked up on my glum face, and asked me what was wrong. I told her how much I yearned to take the Creative Writing course, but couldn't get in because I was only Grade 7. So she went to the school to argue my case. The teacher of the course said he'd make an exception, if I could be trusted not to be a class disrupter. Since Grade 9s and 10s had no intention of giving up their summer holidays for more school, I found myself the lone Grade 7 among a class made of Grade 12s and 11s.

That was a magic summer. First, the weather was perfect. Every morning was filled with sun. Have you ever been part of a group where you were the runt of the litter? I had all these big brothers surrounding me on a journey to imagination.

For weeks, we learned the basics of plot, character, dialogue, setting, and theme. Because that was the 1950s, theme carried a heavy dose of moral epiphany: that moment when your hero has a sudden, deep insight into "the right thing to do."

The goal of the course was for each of us to write a short story. On the morning of the final day, we were to stand up in front of the class and read our creations. My story - "The Restless Corpse" - introduced my detective, Daryl Tombe, who was heavily influenced by Ellery Queen. Come that final morning, it was another sunny day. As soon as the bell rang, we'd be out of there, off to catch the end of the summer that each of us had voluntarily given up. And come the bell, the janitors would quickly shut down the school, so they could be off for their summer holiday.

The class began with the Grade 12s reading their stories, and they were good! Then came the Grade 11s, and they were good, too! My hands were so sweaty from anticipation that the sheets of paper they held were warping by the minute. Finally, the teacher said, "Last but not least, we have a thrilling mystery by Jay Clarke."

And that's when - RIIIIING! - the bell sounded.

Up jumped all my classmates, congratulating each other. They began to clean out their desks to be off to a party they'd planned at Jericho Beach, leaving me sitting in my seat, with my story unread. As the room cleared out, the teacher approached me and said, "I'm sorry, Jay. Life isn't fair."

Grade 7 was the year we studied Classical History, so he asked, "Where did Socrates teach Plato?"

"Under a tree," I replied.

"Go clean out your locker and meet me at the big tree beside the soccer field. You can read your story to me."

Big deal. He'd already read it. [My report card would later say: "His interest at the moment leans toward producing fiction with a homicidal flavor, but it will expand toward other themes." Ha!].

As I walked along the dim hall to my locker (the janitors had shut down the lights), I could see the rest of the class piling into cars out front of the school. The 1950s were the hot rod years, and one teen had this beautiful roadster, all candy apple red. Another car was one of those big-boat V-8 convertibles that got two miles to the gallion, because there was enough gas in Texas to last more than 1,000 years. Then off they went in a procession, heading for Jericho Beach.

The only open door was out the front of the school. I recall kicking a pebble around the side of the building. Out back, there was the teacher sitting on the grass under the big leafy tree. I suspect my shoulders were slumped as I shuffled across the field, and probably swore to myself that I would never write another word of fiction. I was in a funk.

Then off in the distance and roaring in fast, I heard the werewolf growl of a souped-up car. Soon, it shot into sight on the far edge of the field, the dazzling red hot rod followed by the rocking convertible and the other cars. One by one, they pulled up at the curb and the passengers scrambled out. By the time I reached the tree, the class had joined the teacher.

"I thought you were going to the beach?" I said.

"We were," someone replied...

What happened was they were driving down 4th Avenue when an arm came out of the hot rod, motioning up and down to pull the cars off to the side. One of the Grade 12s said, "This isn't fair. We left the kid unread. I have to go back. Will someone give me a ride? Years from now, I don't want to be writing a tale of guilt over this." Then someone else said, "You're going back so you'll be the hero of this story, and I'll be the jerk who left the Grade 7 behind. I'm going back, too." And by the time it was over, they had all decided to go back.

"What about the beach party?" I asked.

"There'll be other days for parties," the Grade 12 said, "but it's not every day you get to hear a thrilling mystery by Jay Clarke. You've got the grass, Hemingway. Let's hear it."

* * * * *

I was so pumped that I rushed home and retyped the story onto sheets of folded 8 1/2 x 11 paper to create a book's signature, which I stitched down the spine with my mom's sewing kit. I wrote three more stories - "The Telltale Timepiece," "King of the Castle," and "The Iron Room" - until I had 100 pages for 13 TOMBES, Volume One. There were to be 13 mysteries - "tombs" - about Daryl Tombe. [In hindsight, I wish I'd named him Daryl Tomb, no "e." But I had just turned 13, and you can't rewrite history.] Finished, I tied the signatures together and cut a thin strip from a Rice Krispies box to rubber cement along the stitched edge to create a spine. Now I had the guts of a book.

Every Saturday, after the movies, I haunted Duthie Books. The legendary local booksellers Bill Duthie and Binky Marks were my literary gods. The week I finished Volume One, I waited till Bill was free, then I slapped 13 TOMBES down on the counter and said, "Mr. Duthie, I've written a book." He called Binky Marks up from the Paperback Cellar to see my work, and they asked if I'd leave it with them for a week to read.

The following Saturday, I returned, heart in my throat, to get my first review. In the interim, they'd taken my pages to a bookbinder and had them put into hardcover with the title and my name in gilt on the spine. I was stunned. Bill handed it to me and said, "It's in a limited edition of one copy, but here's your first published book. Promise me that one day your novels will be for sale in my store."

I promised.

And they were.

* * * * *

Volumes Two and Three of 13 TOMBES were never written. I discovered girls, parties, and such. That's the only project I never completed, and I suffered the guilt of knowing I broke that promise to my dad.

Well, here it is. My 13th novel; my 13th mystery; my 13th tomb. And how better to make the full-circle connection than to bring back Daryl Tombe, in spirit. As a Canadian author, you're not supposed to "sell out." But since I've written 12 novels about the RCMP, I figure I've earned the right to create a New York lawyer. Daryl Tombe was inspired by Ellery Queen. So what should I call my detective?

Naming is fun. Sherrinford Holmes became Sherlock Holmes. Zantar got switched around to become Tarzan. Dallas McGee became Travis McGee after JFK was shot. Inspectors Morse and Rebus both suggest decoding.

If I'm going to do an American, I want an American name. Wyatt from Wyatt Earp will fill the bill. How do I make the link back to Ellery Queen inspiring Daryl Tombe? The queen is the most powerful piece on a chessboard. The next most powerful is the rook.

Meet Wyatt Rook, lawyer, historian, detective...

I don't know if there's an afterlife. But if there is, I'll be able to look my father in the eye. "It took me half a century, but I wrote 13 tombs. No project went unfinished, Dad. I kept my promise for you."
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