John M. Floyd is a master of the tight, twisty tale that many people associate with Alfred Hitchcock. In this latest edition of How’d That Happen, John explains how his background and his imagination dovetailed in his story “The Long Branch,” appearing in our January/February 2013 issue. John’s stories have been collected in Rainbow’s End and Other Stories and Midnight, both published by Dogwood Press.
Back when I was working for a living, I spent a lot of my time in banks. Matter of fact, I spent almost all of my time in banks. For most of my thirty years with IBM, I was what was called an “industry specialist,” and my industry was finance. Specifically, financial software applications, which meant I worked with our clients to develop and install programs for their ATMs, check processing equipment, teller stations, etc. (Our clients used to be called customers; they morphed into clients at about the same time I morphed from systems engineer into industry specialist—but that’s another story.)
Since I started writing before I stopped working, I usually spent part of my “working” time daydreaming about story ideas. And since most of my stories involve criminal activity, I often found myself studying the bank’s employees and the bank’s customers from the viewpoint of a mystery writer, and asking myself all kinds of sneaky questions. What if that guy who loads cash into the ATM decides to do some unloading instead? What if that slip of paper handed to the branch manager is a demand for an unauthorized withdrawal of funds? What if the magnetic ink encoding on that check is fake, or altered? What if the guy with the combination to the vault owes money to the mob? What’s up with that shifty-looking guy in the teller line?
Or, in the case of my latest AHMM story (“The Long Branch,” in the January/February issue), that ordinary-looking guy in the teller line. Especially when another customer suddenly grabs him, pins his arms, and asks the lady behind him to remove the gun in his pocket. So begins a tale of deceit and betrayal, and at its core is not a detective or a security guard or an industry specialist; the protagonist here is a lowly management trainee, an underpaid and undermotivated guy who longs for a better life and a warmer climate. With the help of one of the young tellers, he finds that he’s the only one around to deal with the crisis—and the crisis somehow keeps changing, from one minute to the next.
To me, this changing of the plot, the constant reversals that (hopefully) keep the reader guessing and in suspense, is one of the great rewards of reading and writing mystery/crime stories. I believe it was Aristotle who said the best kind of plot contains surprises, and Linda Landrigan told me years ago that she bought one of my stories not because of its twist ending but because it had a double-twist ending, one that offered not one surprise but two.
This story does the same kind of thing. I hope readers will enjoy it.