Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Guest Post from Jim Doherty

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

From Frank

I'm turning my slot over to Jim Doherty today to show some of his "dah-lings" that survived getting killed during the revision process. Check out Jim's new short story collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.

Take it away, Jim!


(Many thanks to my brother cop, and fellow mystery writer, Frank Zafiro, for loaning me this spot.)


By Jim Doherty

It turns out he killed her in Oakland.

            Which means I really shouldn’t have been involved.

Mickey Spillane once suggested that the most important chapter of a novel is the first.  “The first chapter sells your book,” he said.

If the first chapter sells your book, it follows that the first line of the book sells that chapter.

The excerpt above was the opening of my first novel, An Obscure Grave.  I was rather proud of it.  It raises questions I hoped the readers would want answers to.  Who is “I?”  Who is the “her” who was killed?  Who is the “he” who killed her? And why should it matter to “I” that she was killed in Oakland rather than anyplace else? To find the answers to those questions, the reader will, hopefully, be led to read the rest of the chapter, and, in consequence, the rest of the book.

“I” is Dan Sullivan, who’s been investigating the disappearance of “her.”   “Her” is DeeDee Merryweather, a Cal student whose disappearance has been getting national headlines.  “He” is Chris Bridges, her violent boyfriend.  And, since Dan’s a Berkeley cop, her having turned out to have been killed in Oakland means she’s no longer any of his business.   

An Obscure Grave was the first novel to feature Dan.  But years before it appeared I’d been developing him in a series of short stories.


“673 is 11-99 in Ohlone Park! Shots fired! Officer down!”

I took a deep breath, keyed the mike again, harder this time, as if increased pressure could somehow improve my damaged radio’s performance, and, trying to keep a note of panic out of my voice, repeated the distress call once more. But after twenty or thirty attempts in the last quarter hour, I knew it was no use.

Those were the first lines I ever wrote about Dan, for a short story called “Second Chance” recently reprinted my in my collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.  It was based on an armed encounter I had with a homeless Vietnam vet in a small park in Berkeley’s Marina.  Again, I was rather proud of it.  It finds the hero in a dangerous situation, wounded, and unable to call for help.  Hopefully, a reader, sympathetic to his plight, will be pulled in.


It takes as much time to book a common drunk as it does to book an ax murderer.  In fact, in the not unlikely event that the ax murderer already has a record and the drunk doesn’t, booking the drunk will take a lot longer.  Which is why, all things considered, I’m a lot more likely to drive drunks home than to take them to jail.

“Second Chance” was the first story I ever wrote about Dan, but it was the second actually published.

The first one I wrote to reach publication was “Unmatched Set,” also reprinted in The Big Game.  The opening line expresses a bugaboo that every cop has.  A hatred of pointless paperwork.


The morning of the Big Game dawned crisp and clear.

            Don’t worry.  You haven’t accidentally picked up a copy of an ancient dime novel featuring consummate Yalie athlete and all-around good sport Frank Merriwell.

            Nevertheless, it was the morning of the Big Game.  And it did dawn crisp and clear.  Just as though it was a Frank Merriwell story.

            Of course you already know what the Big Game is, right? 

            The traditional college rivalry that is nothing but the single most important game of the season.  The gridiron classic that casts all other games into insignificance.  Win the Big Game, and the team can regard itself as having enjoyed a winning season, even if it lost every other game it played.  Lose the Big Game, and even winning the National Championship counts as merely a pyrrhic victory.

Berkeley’s a college town, and college means sports, and sporting events mean police problems.  Cal’s football rivalry with Stanford over on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto is one of the oldest in college sports.

The title “The Big Game,” the anchor yarn in The Big Game and Other Crime Stories, evoked those old-fashioned sports stories of halcyon days that featured virtuous athletes like Claire Bee’s Chip Hilton, John Cooper’s Mel Martin, or, especially, Burt L. Standish’s Frank Merriwell of Yale.  I thought an opening that evoked the same kind of story was appropriate.  From that opening, Dan segues into a short discussion of famous “Big Game” rivalries generally, settling in on the Cal/Stanford rivalry specifically, and finishing by talking about what a pain in the neck such events are for the cops who have to keep everything running smoothly.


There’s an urban legend that a man’s eyes will tighten when he’s decided that he’ll fight instead of surrender.  I think it might derive from that line John Wayne says close to the beginning of Red River when he tells the kid, the one who’s destined to grow up to be Montgomery Clift, that he knew when an adversary was going to draw, “By watching his eyes.  Remember that!”

Well, I was too far away to see Bradley’s eyes clearly.  So I stayed focused on his right hand.  I think I would’ve even if I’d’ve been able to see his eyes.  Based on my vast experience of one whole gunfight to that point, I was reasonably sure that nobody draws his gun with his eyeball.  “Look at the eyes” sounds terse and masculine and even kind of mystical, but I was keeping my eyes on his right hand.

This is the build-up to an action sequence that climaxes my story “Cap Device.”

Dan and several other officers have ordered a phony cop out of a car. He’s in full uniform, and he’s armed, but they know he’s a phony because the badge he’s wearing is reported stolen. They’re now trying to get him into a prone position so he can be disarmed safely.  Will he cooperate or fight?  And, if the latter what are the “tells” that indicate he’ll mount a resistance?  Cops aren’t taught to watch the eyes.  That sounds good in old westerns.  But cops are taught to watch the hands.

This sequence also gives a little insight into Dan, who’s depicted in the series as being a movie buff, one who often references movies when he’s dealing with situations on the street.

Dan’s a young cop, still learning his craft.  Another series character I’ve been developing recently, itinerant Texas peace officer Gus Hachette, is a long-time cop with decades of experience.  In the first story I ever wrote about him, “The Lord of LaValle,” set late in his career, a few years after WW2, he’s called out of retirement to handle one last case.  He and his partner face a group of armed thugs who mean to keep him from serving a search warrant. The story appeared in Low Down Dirty Vote – Volume 2, edited by Mysti Berry.  Unlike Dan, who’s only got a few years on the job, and still has much to learn, Gus handles the situation like the old pro he is.


“My friend here’s Ranger Ramon Martín. . . . My other friend is that little article Ray’s carrying.  Name’s Tommy.  He shoots 1500 .45 calibre rounds per minute.  Last time I took on several armed felons all by my lonesome with nothing but a handgun was back in El Paso, ‘bout twenty years ago.  Don’t know if I could pull that off a second time.  But with ol’ Ray and Tommy here, I don’t have to.  They’ll hose you all down in a few seconds, and anyone left alive’ll be tried under the Felony Murder rule and executed.  So what’s it to be, boys?  Y’all want to git your names in the history books?  Or y’all want to just git?”

The riflemen looked much less confident.

“Any of you fellas ever actually shot at a man?” asked Hachette.  “‘Cause if y’haven’t, I can tell you it ain’t all that easy.  ‘Specially if he’s shooting back, which Ray and I both plan to do.  And gettin’ shot at, well that just flat-out rattles some folks.  But if you feel, having taken on a job of work, that you’re obliged to face two experienced, armed men, one of ‘em holding a Thompson, with nothin’ but some lever-action Winchesters, well, let’s get to it.”

This is a short bit from “The Unforgiveable Sin,” another Sullivan story in The Big Game.  Dan’s just discovered another cop shot to death, apparently by his own hand, and has phoned his sergeant to report.


            And you’re sure it’s suicide?”

            “His snubbie’s gripped in his right hand.  There’s no entry wound that I can see, but there’s blood below his lower lip and some of it’s dribbled onto his chest.  There’s a big exit wound on the back of his head.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

            The inference was clear.  He’d shot himself through the mouth.  At the moment of death, the gun hand froze over the grip in a cadaveric spasm.    It was such a common method for suicides by cops that there’s even a slang expression for it.

            Eating his gun.

More often than any of us like, cops have to deal with entitled assholes who are, inevitably, dismayed to find that those cops don’t simply melt into a puddle of piss when told how important the person they’re dealing with is.  This line from “The Big Game” is Dan’s response to an “Assistant Dean” demanding to be allowed onto a road that’s closed.


“I don’t give a damn if you’re Jesus Christ straight off the cross and you’re taking a shortcut to the Tang Med Center’s Urgent Care Clinic to have your five wounds tended to. You’re not going down this road.  And I happen to be a very devout Catholic, so if He’s not getting any special treatment, what chance do you figure you have?”

If that line sounds familiar, it’s freely adapted from a piece of dialogue from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for The Hospital.  Which film buff Dan admits when asked.  It also hints at Dan’s devotion to his faith.

I’ll close with one final sequence from “The Big Game,” in which Dan, dealing with a hostage situation, notices something that gives him and the two cops backing him an insurmountable advantage.


“You’re not going anywhere now, Williams.  And I’ll tell you what.  You’re not going to kill this girl, either.  You don’t believe we can stop you?  Then go ahead and try.  Squeeze the trigger, asshole.  I dare you!  I double dare you!  In fact, I double dog dare you!  Hell, I triple dog dare you!”

            Figuring he was dead anyway, he squeezed the trigger.  And nothing happened.

            “It’s single action, dipshit,” I said.  “You have to cock it first.  Now, what do you suppose is going to happen if you so much as think about moving your thumb toward that hammer?  Yeah, that’s right.  All three of us’ll open fire and we won’t stop shooting ‘til we run dry.  And we’re all aiming high-capacity semi-autos at you.  You’ll be dead about forty-five times over, and you won’t even have the satisfaction of having killed your hostage with a reflex shot.  One dead bad guy.  One rescued innocent bystander. And one empty slot on FBI’s Top Ten.  And all of that on top of Cal winning the Big Game.  A great day all around.”

Aside from another example of his penchant for lifting movie dialogue (this one from A Christmas Story), Dan, though still well short of Gus Hachette’s expertise, displays a level of experience, skill, and self-reliance that he hadn’t yet developed in the earlier stories.  In that sense, The Big Game collection tracks the professional development of a young cop from rookie to veteran.

And maybe the professional development of a writer, as well.

1 comment:

James W. Ziskin said...

Some great opening lines here, Jim. Nice post. Congratulations!