Finding Trouble in “Elvis Duty” by Matthew Wilson

The first mystery story I published was “Burg’s Hobby Case” in the Department of First Stories, over at Alfred Hitchcock’s sister publication, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It features Hans Burg, an aging German detective haunted by his war memories. I had set the story in 1977 in the spa town of Bad Kissingen. I was a kid in Bad Kissingen in 1977, brought there by my father’s work as a soldier in the U.S. Army, so I knew it through a kid’s eyes, and it was fun to imagine an intriguing, grown-up suspense story taking place at that time and in that place.

I was so fond of Burg, that I decided to write a few more stories with him as my lead. But instead of setting them all in the 1970s, something I had seen done by Martin Limón with his Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea, I decided I wanted to move Burg around a bit, to imagine him at different moments his career, and I decided on the time frame of 1945-1989. I find these years particularly interesting in the history of modern Germany, from the moment the war ended and the Third Reich crumbled, through the years of two Germanys, to the night the Berlin Wall fell (or as the historian Mary Elise Sarotte suggests, accidentally opened).

In my notebook, I started jotting down ideas, and these came out as sentence fragments: A Cadillac joyride in Bad Kissingen. Honor among pickpockets. A Bad Kissingen war widow and her suitors. A defector takes a spa. Ideas like these often go nowhere. They are only momentary flights of imagination. Sometimes I take one of these ideas and write a few paragraphs, not a story at all, but more like a rough treatment of a story, often with a beginning, some trouble in the middle, but no specific ending. And then somehow, I’m not really sure how other than stubborn persistence, a whole story comes out. This is the case with my current story, “Elvis Duty.”

I started it with just this little fragment: Elvis comes to Bad Kissingen. I liked the idea because now, instead of the aging detective approaching retirement, Burg is in the middle of his career. It’s 1959 and the biggest pop star on the planet has made his way to Germany, and he happens to wind up in Burg’s spa town. Elvis in Germany has always intrigued me because of the family legend of my parents meeting him in the Munich Hauptbahnhof a few days after their wedding. My mother would say Elvis looked like other GIs except for the diamond rings on his fingers, and my father would say Elvis complimented his jacket. They were both boys from the South and they had similar tastes in style. This was a story I’d found thrilling as a child but grew skeptical of in adulthood. How many people exaggerate their brushes with the very famous? It was an idea I came to use to open the story, as you will see in the first paragraph. Later, I lost my skepticism after reading Peter Guralnuik’s Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. I was able to confirm that Elvis had, in fact, traveled to Munich on a three day pass around the same date as my parent’s wedding. So I thought, if my parents could meet Private Presley, so could Hans Burg.

Still, I needed a plot. That came to me from another story from my parents, and another book. When I was three years old, my mother left me and my two brothers in the care of a neighbor so she could travel to Hawaii to spend a week with my father, who had been granted R&R from his duty in Vietnam. All I can remember is crying for a week. But I’ve seen the pictures of them in their swimsuits on the beach in Waikiki, my mother with her fair skin, my father with arms and neck burned by the tropical sun of Southeast Asia. In my mother’s recollection, my father was jumpy at the sound of slamming doors. The banging must have echoed the explosions in a war he was only a few hours removed from, and to which he would soon return. My mother also remembered the pills. She said my father popped them in his mouth regularly, and when she asked about them, he said, “It’s just medicine.” She let it go at that, but she was suspicious.

Later, I read about the “pep pills” distributed to soldiers during my father’s war. In “The Drugs That Built a Super Soldier” (The Atlantic, April 18, 2016), Lukasz Kamienski describes how the Vietnam War became known as the “first pharmacological war.” But I discovered that was not quite accurate after reading Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Ohler writes of the pervasive use of amphetamines in the German military, particularly during their rapid invasions of Poland and France. Because the German attacks relied so heavily on up-tempo movement of forces, there was no time to rest, so a systematic use of amphetamines allowed combatants to “go on working for thirty-six to fifty hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue.” The GIs in Germany in the 1950s were most likely introduced to similar “pep pills.” Indeed, Guralnuik notes of Elvis that “with the pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr, he was so full of energy he never had to slow down.”

With Hans Burg a veteran of that German army of the Blitzkrieg, and with Elvis’s army of 1959 almost certainly dabbling in similar pharmaceuticals, I could see some trouble, and from that trouble, I could see my plot. Now, I just needed an ending, which I will leave for you to discover when you read “Elvis Duty” in this month’s Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

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