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Author Archives: John P. Murphy

About John P. Murphy

Just this guy, y'know? I'm an engineer and writer living in New England. My research background is in robotics and computer security; my writing is primarily science fiction and mystery.

Death of the PI? Hardly

The New York Times Magazine has a story this weekend about the death of the private investigator at the hands of the internet and modern technology. It’s an interesting read, but on balance wrong. My comment there got a little lengthy, so I’m putting it here instead.

First, I do pretty well writing near-future PI stories. The secret is, the fictional private eye has never been all that realistic: he or she’s always been a crystallization of the times, doing things the hard and painful way when more effective ways exist. The key to the success of the PI in the public imagination is the nature of those more effective ways, and public doubt in them. They are always process-based and institution-based: “go to the cops”, usually, but “go to Google” works just as well. Nero Wolfe himself frequently told prospective clients that the police were a more viable (and less expensive) alternative — but always managed to get clients anyway.

Why do people go to the PI who does things the hard way? Because the more effective way relies on institutions that are (or are perceived to be) corrupt or incompetent or otherwise unable to help: they don’t always do what they say they’ll do, either because they can’t or they won’t. The PI represents integrity and honesty for those people who don’t trust the institutions.

Early PIs were always an alternative to the authorities of the time, generally the police (and sometimes, later, the FBI or CIA or what have you). The police are an institution, just as Google is today. That’s not a surprising thing to say anymore. But it’s worth remembering that the police are also a technology (police detectives are barely two hundred years old) and went through exactly the same “Gee whiz!” technology adoption curve as Internet search or GPS. Pick up a copy of Michael Sims’s excellent collection of Victorian-era detective fiction, The Dead Witness. Readers and authors of the time treated this new-fangled person of the police detective the same way as any new technology: first it was a novelty just to read about them, then they started to get their customary forms as people became comfortable… and then it became more interesting to wonder if they were quite as good a thing as they were cracked up to be. They became progressively less god-like: less omniscient, less omnipotent, and eventually (especially on the American side) decidedly less omni-benevolent.

And that’s where the PI came in, reacting in stages to each failing. Heck, you can even see the specific reactions, starting with the emergence of the “bumbling” police detective in comparison to the scientific private investigator, and getting into noir PIs dealing with police corruption.

We are now with respect to Google and our other tech helpers, where Victorian era readers were with respect to police detectives: these are shiny new institutions with sterling reputations for efficiency that we’re just now beginning to distrust a little. We’re kinda doing it in the reverse order: doubting intentions before we doubt efficacy. But either way, this seems to me the ideal time for a new Sam Spade to set up shop.

 
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Posted by on 15 November, 2014 in Mystery, Writing

 

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Alembical 3 ebook (with Claudius Rex) now out: only $3

If you haven’t gotten around to picking up the Alembical 3 anthology with my science fiction mystery novella Claudius Rex, or have been waiting for the ebook, now’s your chance: it is available now for Amazon’s Kindle for only $3!

Claudius Rex, as you may recall, was my SF homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Of my own stories it’s probably my personal favorite.

The Nook version should be available soon as well; let me know if you’d like me to email you when it is, or comment on this post and check “notify me of new comments via email” and you’ll get a notification that way.

 
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Posted by on 8 November, 2014 in Writing

 

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Tagged 777

Oh, it’s been forever since I last posted. The reason for that: I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my Crandall novel A DEATH IN DEEP SPACE — which is done! Really, seriously, ready-to-show-people done. Man, that’s weird to type. I’ve been working on that story in one form or another for five years, starting from a novelette that formed the basis of the longer novel and resurrected in a novel draft two years ago.

Anyway, I seem to have been tagged by my friend A. T. Greenblatt to actually show people some of my recent work, and to challenge a few other folks in turn. The “rules”: ‘The rules are simple: Post 7 sentences of your work, start on page 7, count 7 lines down. ‘ OK, I can probably handle that. As it happens I have the Scrivener document open for my next project already, a Claudius Rex mystery with the working title THE WRONG CLIENT, starring Claudius Rex and kind of an enormous run-on sentence.

“My apologies that I cannot join you in person. I
rarely ever leave my home in the Caribbean, least of all for
Boston where it is cold and damp.”
That was a lie, of course. He’d incorporated in St.
Martin–as a corporation, I mean, not any kind of physical
manifestation–but otherwise he existed in Boston as much as he
could be said to exist anywhere: his main routines were executed
by a small experimental device in the brownstone’s basement, a
location that a dozen spy agencies would not only kill to know,
they’d even say ‘please’.
“Ah, hello,” said a squirming Polder. “It’s, um, a pleasure
to meet you, Mr. Rex.” Again with the hand, but at least he
seemed to catch himself before offering it to an empty desk.

And now I get to tag three other folks… How about Nathaniel Lee, and my Viable Paradise roommates Micah Joel and Peter Sursi. (If you don’t want to post on your own blogs, I’ll be glad to host!)

 
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Posted by on 26 October, 2014 in Writing

 

Story Up: No Body

My short story “No Body” was published today in Penumbra e-zine’s October issue, “Paranormal Adventures”, alongside several other excellent stories by talented authors (several of whom are friends of mine, which is always nice). At $4 for 7 stories, I’d say it’s well worth the price.

Penumbra_Oct14Cover-500

As for my story, this one’s a bit of a departure for me. It straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror, two genres in which I very seldom write. Needless to say, it’s quite a bit darker than my usual stuff, but I’m happy with the effect.

 
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Posted by on 1 October, 2014 in Stories, Writing

 

Story Up: Death in a Tin Can

My science fiction/mystery novelette Death in a Tin Can went live on Amazon this morning — only 99 cents, or free for Kindle Unlimited readers! This story is a special one for me: it was my Viable Paradise audition piece, and benefitted from advice from our talented teachers and my talented classmates. It’s been sitting in a drawer for a long time because I wanted to do something special with it. I think this counts: it’s my first foray into self-publishing, and I’m about ready to start shopping around my novel with the same detective. If the short does well, that will be useful information.

As always, I’m grateful to anyone who passes the link around, tells their friends, or leaves a review.

 
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Posted by on 30 September, 2014 in Stories, Writing

 

I Was A Guest on Sci Fi Saturday Night

Sounds like a nice 1950’s B-movie title, doesn’t it? Needs an exclamation point or five and a font dripping blood. Maybe starring Lon Cheney and the child star edition of someone you’d never associate with that sort of thing, like Andy Griffith or Jim Carrey.

Anyway! It wasn’t a horror movie; in fact I had a long and lovely chat with the fine folks of Sci Fi Saturday Night about my new novella Claudius Rex, and that chat is now online for you to listen to!

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a combination “what’s new in the world of SFF and fandom” chat and interview with a weekly guest. This week had some info about the next season of Sherlock, and about a Sesame Street skit referencing ComicCon, for example. I had a lot of fun (and would gladly do it again, Dome!).

A few notes of things I didn’t get to talk about but wanted to:
I was talking about my own novella, Claudius Rex, in Paper Golem Press’s ALEMBICAL 3 anthology. There are two other fine novellas in that anthology that I didn’t get a chance to put in a good word for, and would like to:

From Earth I Have Arisen, by Matt Rotundo, about an old man playing hero in a hot air balloon in the post-apocalyptic mid-west.

Star-Reacher, by Kam Oi Lee, about an artist and mechanic in a back-woods mining colony dealing with his desire to leave home and go make something of himself. (I’m from West Virginia — a theme like that strikes home with me.)

So, even if you don’t like mine, there are two other excellent stories to read!

 

I hadn’t intended to talk about the sequel to CLAUDIUS REX, since I’m still not 100% sure it’ll ever see the light of day. Writing a novel-length sequel to a novella can be a tricky proposition, after all, and I’m mostly writing it for my own enjoyment and the practice of finishing another novel draft (as I’ve said elsewhere, I consider myself mostly a short fiction writer, and expect to write two or three novels before I ever sell one). But since I brought it up, here are the details, such as they are: the working title is THE WRONG CLIENT, and it’s about Rex being hired to investigate the disappearance of an anti-AI activist. I’ve had to spend a lot more time thinking through some character and world designs (and deeply regretting a few off-the-cuff remarks in CLAUDIUS REX). When I said that Rex is blind, that’s true (despite Google Glass and its ilk): robot vision is a very different thing than biological vision, and that conversation has really gotten me thinking about how to present the way Rex “sees”. 

The novel draft about half-way done (as drafts go, which is some unknown percent done as books go) and at this pace it’ll probably be done next summer or so. To be honest, writing a novel is difficult work with few rewards along the way, and it’s tough to justify it to myself as something other than a sideline hobby if CR doesn’t do well. So, if you liked CR and want to see a sequel, review it and tell your friends.

 

Finally, in my story about my inability to order soda in Japan, I was nervous enough about being on the show that I left off the ‘punchline': Immediately after correcting me about how to order the size soda I wanted, the cashier helpfully pointed me to the sign, which read very clearly for even me to see, “S” “M” and “L”. So, if you’re scratching your head and wondering what the point of that story was… you’re not the only one. But I’m impressed by how polite the hosts were in simply letting that go and moving on!

 
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Posted by on 7 September, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Write What You Know

There are many reasons a writer puts pen to paper. Some do it in hope of fame and fortune, others to show off how clever they are or make people laugh, others to scratch an itch or exorcise a demon, others just to pay the bills. I’d say there are as many reasons to write as there are writers, but I fear I would underestimate. But nearly everyone who seriously writes, who takes the time and effort to finish and polish stories — and especially novels — has something to say.

I know most of my readers aren’t writers, but I’d like you to perform the following thought exercise anyway. Think about the threat to your life that worries you most. Is there cancer in your family? Is your kid looking kinda tired lately? Are you nervous about being attacked by dogs when you’re out on your walk? Are you worried that someone might come into your workplace and start shooting? Whatever it is — and however realistic the fear, because I know fear isn’t always rational — keep that in mind. Kind of roll it around a bit, see if you have something to say about it.

Now, as the second part of this thought experiment, I’m going to tell you that you’re not allowed to talk about that fear. You might have something to say about it, but other people are worried about that thing too, and your talking about it makes them nervous. Or, to soften that, you’re only allowed to talk about it in ways other people approve of. Not everyone wants to have a frank discussion. Not everyone appreciates black humor or vivid descriptions of unpleasant things. And if you do talk about it in ways others disapprove of, the authorities might take you bodily away, your employers might disown you, and the media might make you out to be deranged and dangerous.

Does that bother you? Are you sitting there thinking, what’s the point of having freedom of the press if you can’t even talk about the things that worry you? Or are you tapping your feet and saying, “Yeah, I know you’re talking about Patrick McLaw, so spare me the theatrics”?

Anyway, yes I am talking about Patrick McLaw, the teacher who was placed in “mandatory medical evaluation” after it was discovered he had written two science fiction books involving large-scale school shootings, The Insurrectionist and Lillith’s Heir. [Edit: see update below] It seems to me that a teacher might have a few thoughts on the subjects of school shootings, might have something to say on the subject. Never mind that The Insurrectionist seems to be, according to its description, about the race to prevent a second shooting, the police and school board seem to have decided that a desire to write about a thing is equivalent to the desire to do a thing. They are punishing Mr. McLaw for writing about something that, presumably, he has great cause to have strong opinions about.

Other people have ably addressed the civil rights issues in this, and in any case I doubt most of the salient details are public. I’ll leave the subject to others with greater ability and information. I want to talk about this as a writer: in particular as someone who writes murder mysteries. Yup, I think and write about killing people and getting away with it. I entertain myself and others with stories about murderers who are only barely caught, sometimes only by luck, because being only barely caught makes the story more interesting and exciting.

This effort is not without consequence, of that I am morally certain. Copycats have lifted plots from the greats in my field, transferring them from the fiction reviews to the obituary page. Millions of people have read or watched thousands of murder mysteries over a hundred years. There is little doubt in my mind that real people have died because other people read an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Dorothy Sayers novel and thought “I could do this, and then I’d be rid of that jerk next door and nobody would be the wiser.” It is possible (though, since I work in science fiction, unlikely) that someone will do the same with one of my murder plots.

I say this not out of pride nor out of shame, or because I think anything ought to be done about it, I say it because I think it to be true and because the truth is worth talking and thinking about. We write and read about poisonings, bludgeonings, shootings, stabbings, drownings, and all manner of terrible deaths. Murder is a crime that worries, fascinates, repulses, and even sometimes delights us (depending on who gets the wrong end of a particularly spectacular stick). It is entertainment, but it is more than that: it is a part of our culture’s way of dealing with mortality. It reminds us on the one hand that we and our loved ones too shall die, possibly by violence, but also reaffirms a shared belief that life is important and that violent death should be avenged.

This is not to say that art must have noble purpose, or any purpose at all. On the contrary, just as some people can learn the wrong lessons from anything, some people can be inspired to great things by anything, if only they are exposed to it. Even art with malicious or senseless intent can produce beauty and insight when observed by the right person. Even if the only aim and effect of art is enjoyment, well, enjoyment is important too.

They say to write what you know. Here’s what I know: Our civilization and our culture do not work when we are afraid to talk about the things that worry, fascinate, repulse, or delight us — even when the things that delight me, repulse you. Perhaps especially so. Among its other many virtues, fiction allows us to practice our own emotional reactions in a safe environment to disasters (and joys!) great and small; that requires a writer who is able and willing to write convincingly about those things. It is important, even vital, to be able to read about unpleasant and dangerous things if one so chooses; in which case it is just as important to be able to write and publish about unpleasant and dangerous things.

 

[Update: the LA Times is reporting that authorities in the case are saying that Mr. McLaw’s books have nothing to do with the current situation. That seems to be a contradiction to the original local reporting. It’s certainly plausible that a local reporter got things very wrong. In any case, much of what I said was in response to the reporting, which I felt implied that it was justified to take these actions over books like these, and in response to some comments on that reporting]

 
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Posted by on 2 September, 2014 in Writing

 
 
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