Sunday, August 2, 2015

How to Rob a Bank, or Write a Book, or Whatever.





Louis Shalako


I began my eighteenth novel on June 27, 2015. I’m really only up to 36,000 words, and it’s already August 2. That seems a bit slow for me. I would generally try to write 2,000 words a day when working on a novel.

This one is a mystery novel in the 60,000-word class. (All he ever wanted to write was pulp fiction. – ed.) At that rate, barely a thousand words a day, perhaps a bit more, I can still have a good first draft by my birthday, which is August 9. The pace of writing has quickened in the last couple of days. This particular crime, involving a dead body in a bank vault and theft from safety-deposit boxes, is nothing if not complex. 

Even at a measly thousand words a day, there is hope for any author, or anyone who has ever wanted or considered or dreamed of writing a book. (I’ve done seventeen of them already. I’ve written eleven books in five years and numerous novellas, short stories, blog posts, etc.) According to Hemingway, people who talk about their writing or themselves are jerks, but he lived in another time and place.

(So fuck Hemingway. -- ed.)

I like to have some kind of ending in mind before I begin a big story. The story has a beginning, a dead body. I had an ending in mind. The only real challenge is the middle of the book—approximately 55,000 words or so of hard-slogging legwork.

That’s not to say I haven’t solved it, because I have. Obviously, if I can’t solve the case then Inspector Maintenon can’t solve it either. I try to challenge him, as he is particularly gifted…

This is a crime of imagination which speaks fairly well of the mind of the killer, who makes off with one-point-three million francs worth of uncut diamonds belonging to a depositor.

The series is set in Paris, France, during the 1920s and 1930s. It makes life easier for me. A certain reader will like the series, others will walk away and that’s fine. That’s the way the world is. I prefer to write historical mysteries.

For one thing, modern forensic science is pretty complex, and of course CSI is so pervasive. It’s already been done and it’s kind of boring and derivative as well. I’m not a big fan of swirling special effects shots where the viewer is taken down the bore of a microscope and then dragged like Fantastic Voyage through the cellular minutiae of a blood clot, (or semen), or snot, or shit, or piss, or whatever.

In a way, I couldn’t compete because I simply didn’t care to do the work. The Inspector Gilles Maintenon character was inspired by Maigret more than Hercule Poirot. He was inspired by Agatha Christie much more than Closeau, although there are certain parody elements in each story. This one, ‘How to Rob a Bank’, is obviously a parody of the locked room mystery, which I had actually done before in The Art of Murder.

It’s merely a variation on a theme. I have to admit, this one has been a tough case to solve.

As a person heavily influenced by music, one of the things I tend to do in books and stories is to use a kind of structure. I like to throw in what I can only call refrains, riffs, or hooks. Any writer knows about the hook at the end of a cliff-hanger. It sucks the reader forwards. A good musical example of this would the little guitar flourish, right at the end of a major riff. There’s still one or two scrapes against the strings. The artist found the time and had the presence of mind to squeeze it in. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s what makes a song unforgettable as opposed to merely good.

Another thing is timing. Take Led Zeppelin’s Wanton Song, or Steely Dan’s Reeling in the Years. The timing on the cymbals or high-hat demonstrates this exactly. Man, when I write, I want to hit every beat, whether it’s the swing beat of The Police or John Bonham’s heavy and very distinctive attack on the drum-kit. An attack which is beautifully parodied, in the best kind of homage, by The Rival Sons in their best music. Imitation is the best form of flattery, and there are times when the student surpasses the master.

All good writing begins as fan fiction.

Anyways, ladies and gentlemen, we’re under pressure and out of time.

Have a splendid day.

‘Cause I know I sure will.

Oh, shit, I almost forgot. Inspector Gilles Maintenon Mystery # 6, ‘How to Rob a Bank’, will be complete, fantastically good and available for pre-order by, or on, or about, the end of August.



END



Saturday, July 25, 2015

How to Rob a Bank, Maintenon Mystery # 6. Louis Shalako.



Louis Shalako



They had kept behind Noel, Tremblay and Emilie Martin. The officers had thoroughly questioned the security guards. Ignace Gosselin and another man had been patrolling the building from six-thirty a.m. that morning. There were two guards on at all times, and theoretically that way they didn’t sleep. According to the schedule, shift change was at seven a.m., but people habitually relieved early out of mutual convenience. It gave them time to exchange the shift reports and allowed the occasional latecomer some grace. They had a list of all the guards who had worked the weekend. It would be wise to locate them and get them under questioning as quickly as possible. There was much to do, all of it at breakneck speed. 

Gilles was on the phone and deploying manpower at an alarming rate.

Finally the private security guards were let go, no doubt to report the bad news to their employer and await their fate. From the looks on their faces, their hopes in this regard were not sanguine and clearly both men expected to be sacrificed on the block of accountability. As for the cops’ attitude, everything at this point was an open question and everyone, literally everyone was a suspect in a crime that hadn’t even been confirmed yet. This was just as true for security as for any other employee with access to the inner workings of the bank.

For clearly this was an inside job.

Assuming that it was a job at all, but Maintenon had his gut instincts in these matters. It was better to be prepared; to be too thorough, than to be careless, mistaken, and ultimately you were responsible for your own downfall.

He never made an assumption he didn’t have to.

“All right. We have the place to ourselves.” Heavily guarded on the outside front and back, it was a sealed crime scene for the time being. “I would like to get some idea of the basic routine of the bank, any bank really…especially as it pertains to opening up, and more importantly, I think, of closing…closing out, as I believe it’s called?”

Noel nodded.

“Yes, of course.”

Gilles had Monsieur Noel, with Tremblay playing the part of the security guard, go through all the motions. The other detectives stood watching and trying to figure out what was significant and therefore what notes they might take,

“So, Gosselin went through, turning on the lights and you, sir, headed for the office.”

Emilie Martin had come in and Noel, kettle boiling, had handed off the vault duties to her. It was one of those impulsive little events that probably had little or no significance. All three of them were pretty regular at opening up, Noel mostly because he thought it showed a good example to junior employees. He was something of an inspiration and knew it. Of all of them, he was probably most capable of doing any job in the firm—and that extended, after going off on one or two tangents, to janitorial work, the accounting office and policy-making. The old fellow had started off behind the kiosk, not the usual story of privilege and nepotism, and Maintenon could certainly respect that.

There was always that little devil-figure sitting on the shoulder.

Did Noel get her to open up in order to have someone else discover the body…???

But why…??

It was a kind of applied, professional schizophrenia.

According to routine, cashiers, the counter clerks, arrived at about a quarter to nine. Emilie assigned them a wicket, of which there were a dozen. They signed for a drawer full of cash, all pre-counted in predetermined quantities of fives, tens, and other denominations. Individual drawers had an allotted count for each denomination of coin. At the end of the day, the drawer was turned in. The contents were counted and recorded. The result was compared with the record of transactions. Minor discrepancies, any shortfalls or overages were duly noted.

“Everyone has a minor discrepancy once in a while, of course.” The banker, who had been pale and defeated for the last couple of hours, was beginning to display the first heat of a real anger. “Sometimes even a major one.”

He was about to say, shit happens, but thought better of it.

Being questioned in relation to a crime was an unfamiliar position to be in, and he was nothing if not bright.

“How much money would be on deposit on a typical day?” Levain had his own list of questions and it didn’t hurt to keep asking them.

“Ten, twenty million some days—paydays, end of the month, and more even. Sometimes a lot more, as we handle a substantial mortgage trade. Last week a property deal—please understand that this is confidential, but a deal went through for eight hundred seventy-five thousand. Land and buildings in an industrial area. We can make that up for payment out of our normal operating account. Bear in mind that a lot of transactions are purely paper.”

A piece of paper went this way, signifying a charge, and a piece of paper went that way, signifying a payment, as he explained. At the end of the cycle, everything was balanced out.

“But if there was much more?” Levain again, pondering the straightforward bank-robbery angle. “How much cash do you have on hand?”

If someone had access to the vault, and if they could get tools in there somehow, why not go for the big score?

“No, seriously. Ten or twenty million.”

The banker shrugged.

“If a half a dozen deals go through, bearing in mind, we often have a heads-up…cheques take seven days to even ten days to clear sometimes. More if we have concerns or if we have to wait for funds from somewhere else; a foreign bank for example. Basically we put in a call and it’s advanced from the central banking facility to meet our expected needs.” When he spoke of routine details and everyday operations, he seemed much calmer.

“Ah. And that’s not here?” Levain was pressing, as Gilles was still thinking. “This is the big number one branch, right?”

Gilles was nothing if not intuitive, and yet it was early. It really paid to listen sometimes. Let Levain go. He had a completely different mind.

“Oh, no. It’s from the central depository of the Bank of France. All of our deposits are insured, of course—” There was a cut-off limit, he explained, but ninety percent of all deposits qualified.

Maintenon’s head jerked as he listened, the banker rattling off points one by one.

“The safe deposit boxes?”

“Ah, well. No—”

“Oh, really.”

“Er, yes. That is the responsibility of the customer. For one thing, the box is private, and almost by definition we don’t know what’s in there…”

“They are strongly encouraged to purchase insurance for the contents. Which we can do here, although they often go elsewhere. It’s not strictly a requirement. That’s what’s so attractive about a private box in a bank—you have that privacy, plus the assurance of a bank’s security.” 

Monsieur Tremblay stepped in when Noel faltered.

He was going on, but Levain understood well enough.

“…but there are other issues, right?”

“Yes. Absolutely. It’s very difficult to put a value on certain items. There are people, who literally keep the silverware, and maybe the family jewels in a safety deposit box. It is the stuff of legends, but it is also true. It might be a priceless antique, passed down over generations, and they might travel. Security in the home is nowhere near as good. The insurance rates are astronomical. There are too many burglaries and they read the papers, right? People deposit their last will and testament, or the deed to their home in one of our boxes. The value of a piece of paper might be negligible. How do we estimate, the, ah, sentimental value if someone loses a photo of their grandmother in a jeweled silver frame?”

Levain gave Gilles a look.

“Ah. Now I get you.”

Gilles lifted his wrist and checked his watch.

Come on, Chiappe, where in the hell are you?

***

They returned to the vault where the work was progressing.

On the left side of the vault, behind a row of bars and having its own internal door and lock, lay the cash repository. Ten or twenty million francs really didn’t take up that much space, but the money, brought in and taken out by armoured car, was crated, boxed and bagged. The coinage was heavy and bulky compared to the notes. It all had to be counted, coming and going, accounted-for using proper procedures, and then the cash drawers made up for daily business. The bulk of the money was lined up in rows on metal shelves.

For that purpose, along the front wall of the main vault was a long bench, with storage for dozens of drawers underneath. The money was being counted, one block, one box, one bag at a time. While this would take hours, possibly days, according to Monsieur Noel, the place and its stacks of cash, some of them sitting on open shelves in a thin metal locker, appeared to be untouched.

“Naturally, we need to make sure.” He ground to a halt, swallowing, knowing the next part of his life was going to be very tough.

There was a kind of pain written all over the fellow.

Maintenon watched the three young people work, with the detectives and the other civilians on the other side banging and clashing the drawers. It sounded like they were in a hurry to get results, which was not exactly what he had asked for—careful and thorough was what he wanted.

Lorraine turned and eyed up her employer, her dark eyes latching onto first Maintenon and then lingering longer on Levain, still pulling out drawers one by one. She broke off the assessment, simple curiousity no doubt, and focused on the stacks of bills, held together in paper sleeves that she was counting.

“Inspector.”

He turned and went back through the gate into the outer room.

“Yes?”

Levain crooked a finger.

There was another deep box, the small card table sagging under the weight. He had the lid open and there were small steel or polished aluminum bottles inside.

“What have we got here?”

“Looks like gas cylinders, Inspector.”

“Hmn. No hose—”

“No, sir, but don’t worry. We’ll find it.”

“Okay. Keep going.”

The young men were looking pleased with themselves, Tremblay and Samuel, with this box seat on the investigation and their fates perhaps not so closely tied up in the events of the day. 

It was the sort of thing they’d be telling their grandchildren one day, and that showed in their manner.

Noel, on the other hand, was definitely for the chop. Gilles had seen the attitude before, during the war, when people suffered their first major artillery bombardment. It was a kind of shock.

You had learned that you could be killed, and probably would, someday soon. Very, very soon.


Gilles tipped his head up and idly moved around behind those working the security boxes.

There was a strip of lighting up high, shaded and made indirect by a white-painted sheet-metal valence. There were sprinkler heads, and a number of small ventilator grilles as well as cold-air returns. The ceiling of the supposedly-impregnable vault was studded with loopholes…with all of the steel units, there was no room on the floor for vents.

“Andre.”

“Yes, boss?”

“Get a ladder in here.” But things were happening again.

“Bingo.” Samuel had just pulled out the drawer that Levain had abandoned in mid-stride.

“Never mind, I’ll take care of it.” Interrupting men in the middle of a task had always been a mistake in Maintenon’s opinion.

He turned to Antoine Noel. The banker’s eyes were wide as Levain and Samuel pulled out a short length of black hose, spiralled and rubberized black fabric by the look of it, with some very professional looking snap-fittings on both ends.

“Huh.”

Andre’s eyes glittered.

“Oh, my God.”

“Yes, I know sir. And I’m sorry. Uh…you must need to change the light bulbs in here once in a while. Would you have a ladder.”

“But of course—would you like that now?” He had a point, as there were already too many people in the room.

“Not right at this minute, but where might I find it?”

Their one remaining uniformed gendarme half-raised a hand. LeBlanc, as Gilles thought. He was pretty sure he’d seen him around.

“I could go with him, sir.”

“No, you stay here. The bank staff makes a record, and we make a record. Comprene vous?”

“Yes, sir.” The fellow would have to make the best of it, but his hand would be aching by now.

All of those notes. It went with the territory. Gilles had been there, he had done that. You put our time in. down in the mud and the trenches. Your feet ached, your back screamed, and your mouth tasted like too many cigarettes. There was no place to throw a shit—there were all of the usual complaints.

“Please come this way, Inspector.” Antoine Noel, with nothing better to do than watch his bank bleed, took his elbow gently and then let it go.

Maintenon followed him out.

“You have air conditioning in the building.” It seemed to work a whole hell of a lot better than the decrepit old system down at the Quai.

It was distinctly chilly in the old place. The smell was of floor wax and money and perhaps a kind of smugness. There was nothing more bourgeois than a bank.

Their footsteps clattered across the floor, the noise and light of the life outside the mute front doors making the interior, brightly lit but deserted, downright spooky in comparison. There was nothing worse than an empty building. The street outside was life itself compared to this. 

A bank without people in it was just as bad as anywhere else.

They went to the central block of the building and Noel hit the button on the wall. There were three elevators.

“The bank is described as a fine example of Beaux-Arts design, and yet it is equipped with all the modern amenities.” Clad in stone, there was a framework of iron underneath, he told Gilles.

Once the door was closed, Monsieur Noel pushed the button for a sub-level and they descended.


(End of excerpt. )