The Literary and Real-Life Inspirations Behind “At the Coal Face” by Mark Sadler

U.K.-based author Mark Sadler’s upcoming short fiction will appear in the online journal Collateral. Here, he discusses the influences behind his story in our November/December issue, “At the Coal Face.”

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Death and the Compass”(the ending of which I am about to spoil), Detective Lönnrot investigates a series of murders in an unnamed city. He realizes that there will be a total of four killings and that they will form a rhombus pattern when plotted onto a map. Arriving at the location where he has deduced the final murder will take place, he finds that he has unwittingly delivered himself to the site of his own execution. The murders are part of an intricate revenge scheme, orchestrated by the detective’s arch-nemesis, whose criminal career has been enacted under the splendid moniker–Red Scharlach.

The pair spar verbally for a while. Because this story was published in 1942, prior to the James Bond-era, where a villain would happily reel-off the schematics of the death ray they had pointed at Washington, the tenor of the back and forth between the two men leans more toward the intellectual and the theoretical. Lönnrot informs Red Scharlach: “I know of a Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line. Along this line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.”

He advises his nemesis that, should they meet again in a subsequent incarnation, he would be better off abandoning his four-cornered labyrinth and instead opting for one composed of a single line, where the second murder takes place 8km away from the first, the third 4km away from the second, and so on.

I perhaps had “Death and the Compass” in mind back in 2008, when I wrote the first draft of “At the Coal Face”. The story that can be regarded as an attempt at realizing Lönnrot’s proposed linear labyrinth. As I recall, the original version of the tale was very different to the one that has recently been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A few weeks after I finished writing it, my computer blew up. There were literal flames and it was rather spectacular. I did not take writing very seriously in those days and made no effort to reproduce what had been lost. However, the idea for the story persisted and I would occasionally think about it, and ponder upon whether it would be worthwhile recreating.

Five years ago, something happened to me that made the themes in “At the Coal Face” seem suddenly more personal and pertinent, in a way that made me want to revisit the tale: I had been working for a small regulatory body that was supposed to operate independently under the stewardship of a larger organization. The manager of this organization began to single out my co-workers and make their lives unbearable, until, one by one, they resigned. After they were gone, their roles were restructured and were filled by workers who were more willing to keep their heads down and come to heel. When it dawned on me that I was next in line to be picked off, I stupidly made a stand, not realizing that the employee grievance procedure had been fabricated in a manner that would circle my complaint back around to my tormentor, who would adjudicate on it. Predictably things did not go well. In fact, they went so badly wrong that I ended up sleeping rough on the streets of London.

Three years later, I transcribed the copious notes that I had made during the months leading up to my unceremonious fall onto the cold and unwelcoming pavements of the English capital. I hoped that, by writing everything down in chronological order, I would reveal some alternative course of action I could have taken that would have resulted in a more favorable outcome. Instead I found myself, for the first time, fully aware of how skillfully I and my co-workers had been manipulated. There was nothing any of us could have done to extricate ourselves from the quicksand. The only way that I could have improved my situation would have been to walk away earlier.

In our day to day existence, the notion that we have choices available to us can make bad situations seem bearable, and open our horizons up to all kinds of tantalizing possibilities, some of which are more plausible than others. Conversely, when we are aware that are freedoms are being curtailed, to what we regard is an unacceptable degree, we can feel trapped, despite the absence of any physical bars or locked doors. As I write this, on the evening of the 31st October 2020, England is poised to enter a stringent, four-week period of lockdown, in the hope of curtailing the spread of COIVD-19 in time for Christmas. Already the rumbles of protest of those opposed to the lockdown, have begun to reverberate across the jumbled virtual landscape of Twitter.

There are occasions where we may have less control over our destinies than we realize; where our actions are guided by cultural forces, by the machinations of social media, by advertising, or by the stratagems of public and private organizations. We may fall into the clutches of an adept salesperson, or into the orbit of malignant individual who means to do us harm. Often this manipulation is so pervasive that, even when we become aware of what is happening, it is not always clear what we need to do in order to free ourselves. “At the Coal Face” finds a man in just such a bind, attempting to extricate himself from a downward-spiraling situation, without fully comprehending the limits of his captivity.

If you have read the story, then you may have noted the obvious tonal influence is John le Carré–a master of the spy genre, whose works are steeped in the vernacular of the espionage community, much of which he coined himself and which (in the peculiar way that life imitates art) has subsequently filtered back into the intelligence services and popular culture. Part of what raises his novels above the other contenders in this crowded genre is that when you strip away spy-craft what you are left with are a series of books that dwell with great poignancy upon the foibles and frailties of human beings.

The other influence is the aforementioned Borges. The rooftop island of magic realism buried at heart of the story is an homage to his vision, albeit one that lacks the weighty, layered symbolism that is characteristic of his work.

“At the Coal Face” has emerged into this world and onto the printed page at a crawling pace, punctuated by long snoozes. It has been written, lost in a small electrical fire, rewritten and rewritten again, and again, and again. The story’s final published form reflects a traumatic period in my life, in a manner that renders this incident unrecognizable. I hope that the metamorphosis of my personal woes, into battle of wits between a pair of spies, is as entertaining for you as a reader, as it was therapeutic for me as a writer.

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