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THE BIG MAN’S DAUGHTER
Amateur Sleuth Mystery
BY OWEN FITZSTEPHEN
18 year-old Rita Gaspereaux is suddenly “orphaned” when her con-artist father’s illegal enterprise blows up around her. Alone and broke in San Francisco 1922, she must now navigate his criminal world, all the time haunted by tales of a black bird statuette reputed to possess otherworldly, wish-fulfilling powers. Rita has learned much from her father about the dark fringes of society. But has she learned enough? Fortunately, she is not without her own resources. What helps her most to cope with the greed, cruelty, and deceit around her is her almost obsessive reading of fiction, particularly the novel she possesses (and is possessed by) at the time of her father’s death. This book-within-the-book, a source of escape and solace for the blossoming young con-artist, tells the story of another 18 year-old, a Dorothy G. from Kansas. The two young women couldn’t be more different. But as the story proceeds their lives become entwined in unexpected ways. The haunting conclusion is breathtaking.
Before we get started talking about your writing, tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from, what you do for a living (if you’re not a full-time writer) what hobbies you have, etc.
My name is Owen Fitzstephen and I am a full time writer of fictions, “the literary grift” as Dashiell Hammett described it in The Dain Curse. My hobbies include diamonds and good sherry.
What appeals to you about the genre that you write? / Are you a plotter or a pantser (one who writes “by the seat of your pants”)? / What is your favorite part of writing?
I can answer these three questions as one, as they are closely related. What most appeals to me about writing mysteries is working out the plot as I move forward through a text; this process requires a writer to inhabit both the mind of the perpetrator and the mind of the investigator, and to continually glean the fresh and unpredictable angles this invites. I enjoy the interplay of criminal plotting with investigative analysis, leading to something unexpected.
If you had to give up writing and do something else, what would you do instead?
The diamond trade appeals to my larcenous side; being an importer of fine sherry appeals to the sensualist.
What’s your favorite meal of the day?
Whichever meal is coming next.
Which are your favorite characters to write, the female characters or the male characters? Why?
My preference for writing female characters is on fine display in my latest book, The Big Man’s Daughter. Why this preference? Because female minds are more labyrinthine than men’s minds. Good writers have recognized this since Genesis: Adam is a passive dolt while Eve is an imaginative adventuress. Little has changed since then. Sorry men.
If you had a superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it?
I do have a superpower. Buy The Big Man’s Daughter. See what you think.
Many writers dream of having the ideal location to write. If you could live anywhere in the world or live a particular lifestyle, where would you be answering these questions right now?
I think that from the tenor of my previous answers it must be obvious that my ideal locale would be an isolated monastery and that my lifestyle would consist of rising early each day for prayer. Just kidding. Need I describe to you the glimmer off the blue Mediterranean as viewed from a villa high over Cap d’Antibes?
Do you have any rejection stories to share? Reviews that meant something special to you?
I do not dwell on rejection, though I have experienced it as often as most. Nor do I dwell on even the best reviews, but instead I prefer to focus on the next work. However, I must admit to being quite moved by a review in Paste Magazine about my first novel, Hammett Unwritten, that said I had given Hammett’s life “the hard-boiled second act it most certainly deserved.” I care about Hammett, almost as if we’d once been personal friends.
Tell us about your next book & when is it being published?
I would love to do so but I am currently prohibited from doing so by court order.
Please provide links to your website, blog, books, etc.
I do not indulge in social media; however, my sometime collaborator Gordon McAlpine, a good writer whose courage extends to occasional literary bravado (though his private life lacks my preferred degree of reckless panache), can be reached at gordonmcalpine.net.
The smallish girl of eighteen, Rita Gaspereaux, placed her right hand into the consoling hands of Theodore Blaisedale, the funeral director who had asked her to join him for a moment alone in his office. Even here, even now, she could not help noting that his cutaway morning coat and striped trousers seemed better suited to the Belle Epoch—her father’sgeneration—than to these days, the Twenties, when simpler, more business-like attire best expressed the “serious” professional man. Rita considered what wearing such old-fashioned clothes suggested of a man not more than thirty years old. Had Blaisedale an overwrought sense of the romantic past? Or a taste for formality that ran to religiosity? In either case, he would be an easy mark for a pretty girl of eighteen who was well practiced at confidence games. For such a man she would play the damsel-in-distress, Rita thought. She had done it a hundred times before. Life with herfather had taught her to consider all human characteristics as vulnerabilities. The way a man walked, the way he sat, theway he spoke, the way he dressed—one need only observe, analyze, and then create a fiction suited to the circum- stance. She closed her eyes as if falling into a swoon, and leaned into Blaisedale, who could do nothing but hold her up.
“Miss, are you all right? Miss!”
In the past, she’d have continued the ruse until she seemed to lose consciousness. A dead faint provided opportunities.Matrons, who only a moment before might have felt jealous of the girl’s beauty or youth, would flutter about her suddenly unconscious form, regretful for their resentments, sentimentally identifying her vulnerability with their ownlost girlhoods. “Let the poor dear breathe!” they would cluck. And any man into whose arms Rita fell (whoever he might be) would dis- cover within his embrace the meager weight of her body, the porcelain smoothness of her face, the softness of her hair against his neck, the sweetness of her breath, before discovering in his own “heroic” heart a sudden, almost overwhelming sense of responsibility for her welfare, whereupon Rita would “regain consciousness” to aworld more amenable to her desires than the one from which she had departed just a moment before. She had been takingadvantage of such maneuvers since she was six years old. But now, after initiating the ruse in the funeral director’s office, she stopped herself short. She was not here, after all, for business. At least, not the sort of business to which she was accustomed.
This visit was legitimate.
She straightened in Blaisedale’s arms, stepping away from him.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he repeated.
“Yes, thank you.” She had no intention of scamming the undertaker. She was through with all that. “We can just get onwith things. You said you wanted to talk to me?”
“Yes, your late father . . .” Blaisedale said. “The shock of the circumstances . . .” He shook his head. “It’sunimaginable.”
“I don’t know if I’d go quite that far,” she answered, sitting in the plush chair he offered her beside his giant,uncluttered desk. “The imagination can be a powerful thing.”
“You may feel alone now in the world, but you are not,” he continued.
Yes I am, she thought. Even her father’s business associates were gone. Of course, none of them had ever been trustworthy or reliable. Nor had they ever shown much interest in Rita, except as a vehicle for their schemes. Nonetheless, she couldn’t help missing them a little. Emil Madrid, for example—for all his preening, lilac-scented, self- centeredness—had taken her to the opera a few times, translating the Italian for her at critical plot moments. And once in Greece he had introduced her to his aged mother as his “little American Aphrodite.”
Likewise, red-haired Moira O’Shea, the most beautiful “older” woman (over twenty-five) that Rita had ever met, had taken time these past months to instruct her on finer points of make-up and hairdressing that were not to be found in the advice columns of the fashion monthlies. Wilbur Clark, her father’s bodyguard and murderer—a nasty little bastard—had once put a jazz recording on the gramophone in a hotel room in New York and taught Rita to dance the Charleston. She hadn’t even minded when he kissed her that night—that is, until he became drunk and slobbery. And Floyd Bradley had taught her to smoke a hookah in Casablanca and to roll a marijuana cigarette in Juárez, though she could not claim tohave ever enjoyed his company. Still, so many of them dead. And the others in prison.
Yes, she was alone. “You said you had some ‘special concerns’ you wanted to discuss with me?” she asked.
Blaisedale focused his eyes upon her with the same practiced expression of sympathy she had seen before in the eyes of countless funeral directors. Of course, most people do not know that what is said and done in such places as this is so standardized. Most people only bury their father once. Still, she thought it strange that this occasion should be so littledifferent from the many other times she had been comforted for the loss of a father by one or another embalmer as saccharine as Blaisedale.
Well, authenticity was bad for her business too, she thought.
The funeral swindle worked like this: Rita’s father Cletus Gaspereaux (known to some in the rackets as the Big Man) would visit a morgue in whatever city he and his daughter were currently residing. There, he would claim to be looking for a brother who had gone missing a week before. Medical examiners would show Gaspereaux whatever unclaimed“John Doe” bodies had recently been discovered in back alleys or floating bloated on the river or stinking up a flophouse bedroom, at which time Gaspereaux would identify one of the corpses as that of his brother and proceed to makearrangements for its delivery to a mortuary under the care of this fictitious brother’s fictitious “daughter,” for whom he naturally gave a fictitious name. The city morgues were always happy to clear space. A few days later, Rita would arrive at the mortuary in the role of the grieving daughter from out of town. For these occasions she wore her black dress and her pearls, cutting a lovely and prosperous figure. Same as she wore now. Tears, grief, a dead faint . . . always the same. At last, after arranging a funeral fit for an emperor—complete with a hired string quartet, local soprano, ebony casket, artisan-fired death mask, leather-bound memorial booklet, cemetery plot with a view and four foot granite headstone with sculpted angel—she would remove her alligator skin checkbook to pay to the by-now charmed funeraldirector a fee of two thousand dollars or more. At the last moment, however, she would ask him to advance her a few hundred dollars cash (“Which I’ll be most happy to write into the total of my check . . .”) so that she could immediately wire funds to relatives for rail passage to the funeral. Otherwise, as local banks might not cash her out-of-town check, the whole funeral would have to be postponed. Just two or three hundred dollars . . . What could the funeral director say?Didn’t he already have repayment of the cash written into the bank check he held now in his hand? And didn’t he possess the father’s body as collateral for the check? Besides, how can you say no to a grieving girl, especially a pretty one? “Maybe you could make it four hundred,” Rita would add. Naturally, the out of town bank check was no good.
The undertakers’ cash was always good.
What became of the bodies was anybody’s guess.
Owen Fitzstephen is a pen name for Edgar Award nominated Gordon McAlpine, author of the literary mystery novels Holmes Entangled, Woman with a Blue Pencil, and Hammet Unwritten, as well as other acclaimed novels and non-fiction.
He is also the author of an award-winning trilogy of novels for middle grade readers, “The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe”. He has published short fiction in journals and anthologies both in the U.S.A. and abroad. A graduate of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at U.C. Irvine, he taught for many years at Chapman University in Orange, California.
McAlpine is a member of the Author’s Guild, PEN USA, The Mystery Writers of America, the International Association of Crime Writers and The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He lives in Southern California with his wife Julie and their always-glad-to-see-you dogs, Finnegan and Diego.
Links to Owen’s website, blog, books, etc.:
Thanks, Owen, for sharing your book with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!