I received an invitation not too long ago to contribute a private eye story to a new collection. Now if there's one type of crime tale I love but have been hesitant to try it's the private investigator tale. I just have never been able to imagine writing one that wouldn't seem derivative of other work. It's not that I worried everything's been done (Where in crime fiction does this not pertain?) but that in the private eye realm particularly I would wind up writing in a voice not my own. I feared I'd only sound like I was adopting a voice derived from PI writers past and present. Still, I wanted very much to accept the offer extended to me and come up with something suitable for the collection.
Then it hit me. Instead of dreaming up and concocting a hardboiled-styled mystery that I felt would come across as synthetic, manufactured, I had the perfect opportunity to use an idea I've been sitting on for about four years.
From kindergarten through 2nd grade, my son attended a charter school in Harlem. We live in Brooklyn, so that meant taking him an hour back and forth on the subway every day. I've written about that daily travel grind here previously, so no need to go into that. But the reason my wife and I were willing to put ourselves and him through that tiring routine was because the school, brand new when he started going, was the first non-private elementary school in New York City designed specifically as a French-English bilingual school. There were public schools in New York with French-English programs within them, but this charter school in its entirety was a Francophone school, the idea being the kids could get an education akin to what you'd get at the ritzy private Lycee Francais, but for free. And the reason this was important to us is because my wife's first language is French, and from the time our son was born, she's stressed that we raise him to learn French as well as English. No complaints from me. The more languages you know, as far as I'm concerned, the better.
We began with such high hopes for the school. It held huge promise. The principal was a French woman who'd been living in the States for years, and the teachers were from France, Senegal, Djibouti, the U.S, and elsewhere. Drop your kid off at school in the morning, and you felt you were part of a UN convention, with parents and kids from every part of the French speaking world there - Ivory Coast, Morocco, Canada, Switzerland, Mali, Haiti, and on and on. There was also a sizable group of non-French speaking parents and students from New York City, Harlem especially. My son has an American father and a French-Cameroonian mother and we were hardly what you'd call an unusual marital blend. I couldn't have been more pleased with the mix of people making up the school.
Unfortunately, things didn't go as we hoped, and the school became a huge source of aggravation. Broadly speaking, there were two areas of chaos. One involved how the school was run, which was less than competently (in the three years my son attended, the school had, if I remember, four principals), and the other had to do with the never ending squabbles among the parents. You wouldn't believe the tensions - cultural, racial, ideological, class-related - that brewed there. I went to countless public board meetings at the school that devolved into arguments and shouting matches among different factions. Through all this, the teachers at the school managed to do their jobs, and some were actually excellent. It's because of them, and the hope that somehow the school would get on track, that we stuck with it for three years. In the end, though, my wife and I got fed up, and we feared we were doing our son a disservice by leaving him there. We were able to transfer him out of the school to a regular public school in Manhattan, a place that had a French-English program within it. After that, till fifth grade, it was smooth sailing, and it even felt odd to be connected to a school that didn't have a high degree of constant drama. How absurd and maddening that drama at the charter school had been. And yet, as I told my wife and a few friends when we were going through it, "I may write a book about this place. It's got everything. Education issues, possible corruption, the problems that come with diversity and multiculturalism, rumors of affairs among parents...
It's a fertile area for a crime novel with lots of reasons for why a murder might have occurred."
Voila! When I got the invitation to write the PI story, it dawned on me what I should do. I'd never used the school material in any way. There was enough to draw on for a novel, but I realized I should use some of that three year experience for my tale. I had the characters, the setting, the conflicts, the tone. It didn't take long from all these ingredients to come up with a plot. Most importantly, it felt organic, a story I could put a PI in that wouldn't feel to me like a pastiche. I could write this PI story from the inside out, in a voice I considered my own.
Sure enough, the writing went smoothly once I started and, rare for me, I hit no snags. I got the story finished pretty fast. Later this year, it'll be in the collection I mentioned.
So my point? I'm not sure I have one. But I do know I enjoyed writing "A Trip to School", as the story's called; I took a certain satisfaction putting on paper some of the ridiculousness that took up three years of my family's life. From annoyance and frustration, from messiness and chaos, to the pleasure of creating a clear narrative. That's Writing 101 really. And who knows? Maybe the story, just maybe, will be a dry run for that PI novel I've always been afraid to write.