Mark Milstein is a Michigan author and restaurant owner. He is currently working on a historical whodunit, but here he tells us about writing his story “A Curious Transaction” from the current March/April 2019 issue of AHMM.”
Is there a story in that?
It’s a question I ask myself daily, as I suspect many writers do. You can wait for inspiration to strike, out of the blue, like the proverbial bolt of lightning. But I prefer to hunt it down aggressively, armed only with a mug of steaming coffee, a pair of earbuds, a mouse, and, increasingly, the tips of my thumbs. Two of my favorite silos of inspiration are NPR and The Drudge Report. Yeah, I know: strange bedfellows indeed.
I hit the Goebbels-esque clickbait on Drudge shamelessly, like a hungry smallmouth bass slamming a topwater plug. “Muslim Takeover of America,” it proclaimed. I was redirected to a story about Hamtramck, Michigan, where the tension between the growing population of Muslim immigrants and the Polish citizens who have long occupied the city was on the rise. The Poles were concerned, understandably, that their way of life was changing forever, disappearing. There was a lot of anger over a loudspeaker that called Muslims to prayer at a local mosque five times a day, justified by the largely symbolic argument that it was drowning out church bells from nearby, predominantly Catholic churches. There was even—gasp—a Muslim majority on the city council. I asked myself if this wasn’t appropriate for a representative democracy.
I also asked if there was a short story in all this. Turns out there was—it was the birth of “A Curious Transaction,” which appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I knew right away I didn’t want the focus to be on the ethnic tension in the city. It is there, of course, lurking just behind the scenes. But I wanted to focus instead on how very different people, of all ethnicities and creeds, can work together, complement each other, and even thrive. And, oh yeah, since the story was intended for the illustrious AHMM, and wasn’t dark and twisty and sleep-depriving, it would need to be one heckuva mystery. Perhaps a new and original Pakistani sleuth who solves complex crimes by asking three simple questions? It was a tall order for a short story; I was pleased and a bit surprised to pull it off without straying into novella territory.
The fictional setting, a quick-service restaurant named Burgie’s, was a no-brainer, as I happen to own an establishment in Northern Michigan just like it. What better way to inject authenticity without wasting precious time on research? Every one of my employees, even the high-schoolers who can’t see past their smartphones, would instantly recognize their workplace, which is an integral part of the plot. While the old writer’s adage “Write about what you know” isn’t set in stone, it’s a good highway to take when you can get away with it.
The protagonist, Saalim Sayyid, a devout Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, is the general manager at Burgie’s, working toward a college degree in criminal justice. He has convinced the Polish owner of the restaurant, Mr. Micolajczak—whose name was chosen, I guiltily confess, as the most likely entry in an online group of Polish surnames to frustrate a reader attempting to pronounce it—to begin serving Halal food, which has significantly increased the customer base, and hence the sales. Saalim is also a burgeoning detective, and this story chronicles his first case (hint: not his last), which he must solve in order to prevent his incarceration and deportation.
Whoa, how can the son of a Russian Jewish father and a Swedish Lutheran mother write about the immigration experience of a Pakistani Muslim? Is that even allowed? Well, of course it is. Great writers (no implication intended) have for centuries brought every conceivable character in the universe to life, no matter the ethnic, cultural and ideological chasm between author and character. This they accomplish by avoiding stereotypes at all costs, doing an appropriate amount of research, and, most importantly, making their characters believable and intrinsically human (even the Vulcan Mr. Spock is essentially human at his core). Saalim is brilliant, confident, calm, kind, responsible and eternally optimistic. He also, like most people in the world—Agatha Christie wasn’t translated into every conceivable language for nothing—relishes a good mystery, and has a particular affinity for Hercule Poirot, whom he is able to emulate at the conclusion of the story.
I don’t believe it is possible to be even an average writer without being a voracious reader. Sadly, I find that many young people I know today aren’t passionate readers. There are many reasons for this, but I am grateful that my parents encouraged me to read at a very young age. They didn’t define or limit the subject matter, instead encouraging me to read whatever brought me joy. This included the latest issue of AHMM on my father’s nightstand, right next to the Playboy, which I of course, as a discerning young lad of ten years, avoided like the plague.
I literally grew up with AHMM; we were both Eisenhower babies, born in 1955. The magazine, a lifelong friend, has brought me a lifetime of joy. My favorite author was Jack Ritchie. I would scan the table of contents and jump to his stories first; they never failed to bring me joy. He was a master of dialog, and spinning a tale implicitly, between the lines. He was incredibly witty, with a wonderful, macabre sense of humor. Attempting to emulate him, an impossible exercise, fostered in me a passion for writing. I wouldn’t be appearing as a guest author on this blog today without Jack Ritchie and AHMM. I am deeply honored, beyond mere words, to appear in AHMM and as a guest author on Trace Evidence. I wish to express my warmest appreciation to Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow for helping to make my dreams come true, and I sincerely hope that all of you can someday know how that feels.