by Jim Berkin
We are delighted to welcome novelist Jim Berkin to Omnimystery News today.
Jim's debut novel is Cut To Wagstaff (CreateSpace, June 2012 trade paperback and ebook formats) and features freelance intelligence agent Professor Wagstaff, a self-described combination of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Groucho Marx. And "self-described" isn't too far off the mark here, as Jim is Professor Wagstaff's alter-ego!
Today Jim tells us about the often serpentine pathway to writing mystery stories.
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The other day, it happened again — another pop culture synchronicity.
Ever notice those? You're going about your business — a train of thought running through your mind when suddenly out of nowhere, a song from a radio, a ringtone, an actor on a magazine cover you pass by in the checkout line — relates somehow to exactly the specific random item you were thinking or whatever you were doing at that moment.
Carl Jung, meet the IMDB.
Or in my case, the oldies radio station. While sitting in front of the ol' iMac trying to edit the next book I've got coming down the pike, my phone rang with a semi-emergency. A friend of mine had some car trouble on his way down to the Los Angeles airport. He sat helpless with his luggage at the dealership in Glendale, his car's electronics behaving too strangely to be trusted for the 45 minute trek to airport parking. I'd save him a nice chunk of last-minute taxicab dough if I could zip over to Glendale, pick him up, and chauffeur him down to LAX.
Off I went — he's one of those friends you always do these kinds of things for.
And I absolutely HATE driving to the LA airport. I think everyone in the city does — its location and freeway connections practically guarantee traffic jams and delays no matter what serpentine route you attempt. Easy for me to avoid usually since I hate to fly, but sooner or later, I get roped into driving someone else to or from the place.
Just a few days earlier, I had to drive my mom to LAX after she'd spent some time out here for a visit. At least that was on a Sunday, but the trip to there and back took an hour and a half.
This time around on a weekday, I dropped my friend off at the gate and zipped out of there, knowing full well I'd get stuck in Westside traffic on Return Route A or in downtown LA traffic on Return Route B.
I'd left the radio off for the drive down — my friend and I have different musical tastes for the most part. So despite being two men in a car, we actually maintained a conversation for the length of the trip. I dropped him off and drove towards the exact same ramp I'd taken the previous Sunday, figuring that the downtown route would work better.
I thought to myself how it all felt like déjà vu from dropping off my mom. As soon as I got by a rental car van, I flipped the radio on.
The song? Steely Dan's "Do It Again" and I'd caught it just at
You go back, Jack, do it again …
And I nodded, thinking, yup, that's basically what I just did.
Another pop culture synchronicity. I have no idea how large the KRTH-101FM music library is, but … Cut to Humphrey Bogart: Of all the songs in all the world that could have been on at that particular moment, there it was.
Sort of like the time I got on a Vegas hotel elevator, held the door for a rather rotund sweaty woman running to catch the car, only to hear "Big Girls Don't Cry" blast over the omnipresent music speaker.
Sometime back I took notice of how I constantly have moments like this, and my wheels began to turn — what if they really reflected some hidden pattern of reality the way Jung believed synchronicities did?
What if you tried following the narratives contained in those songs and movie references and commercials and whatever to see where they led?
Lest ye think I'm getting all New Age-y on you, put down those crystals and get out from under that youth restoring pyramid: I think they'd probably lead nowhere, except maybe back to my ever overloaded cross referenced pile of memories, crammed full from too many years of pop culture exposure (as well as academic study and instruction). If they led anywhere, it'd most likely be to dial something up on iTunes or Netflix I hadn't thought about in years.
Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff in Horse Feathers (1932)
But writing mystery stories, to me, always meant elaborate puzzle construction — interweaving various narratives, sometimes overlapping, into some sort of humorously convoluted Chandler-on-acid plot that made perfect sense in the end. All of us try to solve mysteries as we read them. As a writer, I try to get my audience to outguess me, but then double-cross 'em, as Buster Keaton once put it. And hopefully I'll get the laughs that Buster did without having houses fall on me. Loud noises scare my cat, you know.
So in creating the Professor Wagstaff series of comic mystery thrillers, launched recently with the first installment Cut To Wagstaff, the pop culture synchronicity — this time as the plot device of vital clue — made perfect sense.
My character follows them around when he notices them and creates his own cases. And why not? They'll always work as long as I'm writing the hidden narrative behind his fictional universe.
I also thought how much fun it would have been for Groucho Marx to play Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Hence, Professor Wagstaff, a character who combines them all, along with my own pop culture encyclopedia to provide the engines for the synchronicity clues he follows.
The careening wisecrack loaded train of thought running through the narrative is exactly what my classes sound like to my students, and they seem to enjoy it. Here's hoping my readers have the same experience.
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Jim Berkin, originally from Rhode Island, now resides in (usually) sunny Southern California. Since sometime late in the Triassic Period, he's taught film and television, along with more history courses from nearly any era you could name on the timeline than there's room to list here. Much like one of his creations, "Professor Wagstaff," he's also a gourmet cook, sports fan, pop culture historian, and all around nudnik. He can be followed at JimBerkin.com or found on Facebook.
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Cut To Wagstaff
A Professor Wagstaff Spy Novel
When one of his colleagues goes missing, Wagstaff follows a trail of not-so-coincidental coincidences that lead to stolen diamonds, missing lady scientists, accidents that look more like murders and a secret plot to take over the minds of everyone on Earth! After all, what else could possibly be concluded from Wagsaff's mental mishmash of The Third Man, Diamonds Are Forever and Rigoletto?
Well, there's also a billionaire hot dog magnate who may or may not be behind it all, dreams featuring celebrities foretelling the future and random baseball trivia to round out Wagstaff's peculiar way of seeing reality. And why does Wagstaff's ex-girlfriend keep turning up wherever the clues lead? Surely that must be only a coincidence, since Groucho always needs a Margaret Dumont to play off of … or is she in on the plot? After all, if Wagstaff really believes in Jungian synchronicity, it means there are no such things as coincidences …