It Happened Like This . . .

In our second “How’d That Happen?” post, Rex Burns describes keeping the balance between logic and emotion in his story “Constable Smith and the Lost Dreamtime,” which appears in our October 2012 issue (on newsstands now)

The story “Lost Dreamtime” had its beginning in a feeling about place: the empty Northwest Australian coast that gazes across a stretch of Indian Ocean toward the Lacepede Islands. I wondered what Constable Smith would do if he was called to a death at such an isolated spot in this Aboriginal Reserve.

That question led to the familiar litany of queries that contribute to the structure and population of a story: Who died? How? When? Who might have done it? Why? The questions are posed far more neatly than the answers, of course. And both on-line research in Australian newspapers and inquiries to acquaintances from the area brought out complexities of fact that helped dictate Smith’s actions. For example, the conflict between Aboriginal rights of self-government on the Reserve versus the enforcement of state laws by the West Australian Police, while not central to the plot, was a fact that lent realism to the story. However, by itself, that fact seemed extraneous, and in a short story everything must somehow fit the whole. The answer was to relate this fact to the story’s theme: it introduces the conflict between White and Aboriginal Australia, which appears in the act of an elder teaching the younger generation about the Dreamtime before that knowledge is lost, as well as in the dream of non-Aboriginals for their culture’s type of success regardless of the cost. Thus, the story’s title.

More central to the story’s action is the methodology used by Constable Smith as his search leads him from one suspect to the next. Certainly, medical forensics has a vital role to play—this is, after all, a police procedural. But more than his technical knowledge, I wanted Constable Smith to demonstrate a human understanding that transcends race. Alert for any logical deficiency in a suspect’s statement, Smith is basically an observer of the human psyche, and highly sensitive to the nuances of expression and gesture—it is this sensitivity which enabled him, an outsider in two cultures, to survive his childhood. And it is this sensitivity which enables him to ferret out the truth—or at least the near-truth. We see, in the end, that even Smith is not always right in his conclusions.

Rex Burns won an Edgar for best first novel for The Alvarez Journal, which has recently been made available, along with his other books, as an e-book from Mysterious Press.

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