Friday, December 9, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Calculus for Blondes" by John H. Dirckx

This week's entry in my Dissecting the Short Story series is, unless I'm mistaken, the first I've covered from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. As with all entries in this series, my intention here is to look at a story which was sold to a pro-rate fiction market, generally one of the large digest magazines, and see what we -- as writers -- can learn from it.

As always, I won't be shy about including spoiler material in this analysis, so if you have a copy of this magazine, it might be worth your time to read it first.

"Calculus for Blondes" by John H. Dirckx
Published in:
January/February, 2012 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
Approximate Length:
3200 words
Third Person with Multiple POV Characters, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Ashleigh Deventer is sitting in her first-period Calculus class and reflecting on her unhappiness with her teacher who once remarked that "although there was a book called Calculus for Dummies, he'd never seen one called Calculus for Girls." Partway through the class she hears air brakes on the street outside and looks out the window "to see a familiar sight."

The next morning Ashleigh's mother Mary, who is the county coroner, gets a call about a homicide. Ashleigh asks if she can tag along to the crime scene but she is reminded that she has a modern Greek class at the local Orthodox church to attend. Her mother goes on to the crime scene, a strip mall where a dead body has been found in one of the dumpsters. The deceased was a Canadian truck driver named Archer Smythe, based on his license. No vehicles with Canadian plates were in the lot.

Mary picked up Ashleigh and discussed the case with her on the drive home. Later, Lieutenant Doyle comes by the house to talk with Mary and let her know that the truck -- a nine-car carrier -- had been found about a mile from the strip mall. Four cars had been delivered to each of two dealerships but neither dealer could remember if there had been a ninth car on the carrier. Ashleigh looks up and says that it was probably "a red sport coupe with Minnesota license number XPHMA-49." She explains that she seems that same car on top of a truck every Friday through the window of her calculus classroom. (This was the "familiar sound" at the beginning of the story.) The Lieutenant notes that it's unlikely at best that a carrier would have the same car in place week after week and questions her as to how she can be so sure of the plate. She explains that "XPHMA" is the Greek word "chrema" or money.  The Lieutenant checks but finds there are no Minnesota plates with that designation.

Doyle and Mary go to where the carrier was found, Ashleigh riding along. While they're investigating the truck, a man stops by and asks if something's wrong. The Lieutenant asks if he knows anything about the carrier. The man says he does, and they go into his business -- AAA Upholstery. He explains that he rents out space in the parking lot to the truck driver among others. He said that he didn't see the rig actually be parked the day before and that he didn't recall seeing any cars on it when it arrived.

Doyle gets a call. When the three of them leave the upholsterer's shop he tells Mary and Ashleigh that a car has been found with the XPHMA-49 plates. The plates are fakes made by a company that sells them to people who aren't required to have front license plates. An inspection of the car reveals that it was likely used to transport the deceased truck driver's body and that it also was probably used to transport cocaine. They determine that the dead trucker was smuggling cocaine in and selling it to people wanting some for the weekend. A nearby bar cashes checks. With each check cashed, they include a Sacagawea dollar, several of which were found on the dead trucker.

The company which sold the fake license plate is called and reported that they sold the XPHMA plate to Ari Simonides in Anchorage. Fingerprint-like marks left on the car are described by evidence technician Roger Tredwyn as coming from canvas gloves with wax or glue soaked into the fabric. The upholsterer is arrested. Tredwyn gives the Deventers a happy grin on the way out of the upholsterer's shop. The Lieutenant "trying to persuade himself that none of Ashleigh's juvenile inspirations had had any real influence" on the case, brushes them off.


One of the things I wanted to touch on relating to this story is that it's the second story Dirckx has had published in AHMM featuring these characters. (AHMM has a short blurb about each writer in the issue in their section "The Lineup.") Dirckx also has written "numerous stories" for the magazine featuring Detective Sergeant Cyrus Auburn. I didn't know that this was a series story before I read it, but as I was reading it I was struck that it seemed like it was one. I can't say 100% what made me think that; I wish I had thought to key in on that more while I was reading it. Here are a few things, though. There was a bit of family interaction which was extraneous to the story itself -- noting that Mr. Deventer was heading off to the Forensic Club to watch basketball, several other things like this -- in a standalone those might not have as much value, but I could see in a series them adding a bit to the "history" of the character. Also, there was a reference to "those TV cameras last fall at the power substation" and a suggestion that Ashleigh had ended up on TV as a result. This seemed like a reference to an earlier (published) story, though it certainly could have just been a bit of "color" for this story as well.

The reason that this being part of a series is of interest to us as writers is that I've noticed that a non-trivial percentage of the stories in the major mystery digests (maybe especially AHMM?) are part of ongoing series. If I counted correctly, five of the 11 stories in this issue appear to be part of a series. So, I would say that if you're looking to write mystery short fiction there's at least some merit to considering whether you want to create a series "universe" in which to write. (I have a character that I intend to do a series of sports-themed mysteries shorts around. I wrote one story with him about four years ago and have a first draft of another that I wrote a couple of months back and need to go back to...)

Aside from that aspect of this story, another thing I noticed about this one is that it bends or breaks some of the "rules" that we hear about writing. For one thing, the introductory scene is almost completely disconnected from the rest of the story. It shows us Ashleigh experiencing the key bit of information in the case (the XPHMA car on the carrier) and maybe gives us a bit of character insight into Ashleigh, but otherwise the bit with her calculus class has no bearing on the rest of the story. (This was especially striking since the title comes from that scene.)

The other bent rule is the story's point of view. That first scene is clearly in Ashleigh's POV. The second scene starts out essentially in her POV but then she is dropped off for Greek class and within the scene we switch to Mary where we mostly stay. The very final paragraph is from Doyle's POV. Now, I don't think this in any way hurts the story. I had no trouble following what was going on. In fact, I think it's highly likely that six months ago, I wouldn't have even been conscious of the POV switches.  (This brings up another thing I've noticed -- since I've been back to writing, my reading is much more "conscious" of writing technique than it used to be. This is probably great for me as a writer, though it's occasionally a bit annoying as a reader.)

What can we learn from this? Well, that's a good question. If a friend had written this story and shown it to me for crit, I suspect I would have suggested axing the first scene altogether. (The clue itself isn't given in that scene, just that Ashleigh hears air brakes and sees something "familiar.") Which, you know, just goes to show what I know since obviously the AHMM editor liked the story just fine as it was.

I would say that what we can learn from this is that these writing rules are -- in the end -- subjective, and that editors won't necessarily bounce our story just because we haven't followed them all. If you've written the story one way and you're really confident that it's "right" that way, then maybe you need to stick with it even if it breaks one of these "rules." You may be wrong, and that individual story might have a harder time finding a home. Then again, you might be right and rewriting to follow the rule might be pointless or, worse, damaging -- especially if you don't really believe in the changes you're making.

It's a bit tricky, isn't it? Ultimately, you've got to write the story you want to write and then let the chips fall where they may.

Did The Story Work For Me?

Yes, it was an entertaining enough story. Not my favorite, but a good solid story with lots of nice characterization. I'll be pleased to see other stories featuring these characters in the future.

Thanks for stopping by to read this write-up. Happy reading and writing this weekend!


  1. Sounds like a good one; thanks for the review. I should probably frame the warm rejection I received from them -- probably as close as I'll ever get!
    Write1Sub1 Reloaded

  2. Milo,

    While I wouldn't discourage framing the warm rejection, don't give up, either! Almost every month there's a story in these magazines where it's noted that it's the author's first in the publication.

    And if you got that close with one story, that means that you've got a darn good chance of hitting the mark again. That time could be "the one."

    Best of luck!