Tuesday, May 1, 2012

New projects

Yesterday a new flatbed scanner (Epson V330 Photo, $98 from B&H in New York, free shipping) arrived at the Writer's Lair, and today I'll stop by the hardware store for an X-Acto knife and a slew of sharp blades. Then I'll be all ready to cut apart a copy of my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, then scan the pages and prepare the result for ebook publication this fall.

That won't be the only project for the summer. I've been contemplating the plot for a fifth Steve Martinez novel (the fourth is forthcoming late next year).

It so happens that the short line railroad in these parts of Upper Michigan, the Escanaba & Lake Superior, keeps unused cars in storage on a remote siding deep in the thick-woods boonies. A few of them are pulled out seasonally but others are left to rust, some of them for years, before being sent to the scrappers. Most belong to the E&LS but some are stored for other railroads.

What if an old covered hopper makes its way from the track to the West Coast for cleaning and refurbishing for bulk commodity hauling? What if, in the cleaning process, a set of human bones clatter to the roadbed? What if the bones are those of a young girl?

The cops trace the origin of the car and inform the Michigan State Police. Lieutenant Alex Kolehmainen (yes, the sergeant has been promoted) takes the call and immediately tells his old chum, Porcupine County Sheriff Steve Martinez, to saddle up.

The pair drive out to the siding in the woods. More than a hundred boxcars, gondolas, lumber-rack cars and covered hoppers in varying states of disrepair squat on the tracks. The two LEOs call in reinforcements and begin searching, starting with the oldest covered hoppers, the ones farthest up the siding.

Almost immediately they find the skeleton of a young human and remnants of clothing in one of the hoppers. A few hour later another car yields still another set of bones belonging to an adolescent—and also he skeleton of an adult. The back of the skull belonging to the latter has been pierced by a large-caliber bullet.

I've already floated the idea on a number of Internet forums catering to professional railroaders, and they've offered interesting insights into what happens with old railroad cars in storage.

One confided that the hatches atop stored covered hoppers are almost never locked, enabling a killer to open them and drop in a corpse easily. Another pointed out that the only way to the roof of a covered hopper is up a long vertical ladder, requiring almost superhuman strength to carry an adult body. (That's why the proposed victims will be early adolescents. Or maybe dismembered adults. I'd have to work out the forensics on these.)

Of course plot, suspect and motive, among other things, also need to be created. There's always an enormous gap between an idea and its execution.

But all this seems to be a promising genesis for a new novel.


  1. Oh boy, a fifth Steve M. novel, incorporating one of your favorite hobbies - railroading. I am ready for it now! What more can one ask for: The UP, a mystery, and railroading. Go for it, Henry!

  2. God, Kisor, you are so creepy!

  3. If you think I'm creepy, Anon, you ought to experience shop talk at lunch with a bunch of forensic pathologists.