On March 28, 2019, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli attempted to interview David Shields at a NORMS Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Later he attempted to interview Shields by a hedge and at a bookshop. Later he attempted to interview Shields and Bret Easton Ellis at the latter’s nearby apartment. Luckily, Borgli’s cameras were rolling, and The Millions is proud to present its readers with what is likely the most awkward author interview in the history of American letters.
If you’ve ever felt let down by the end of a mystery novel, there’s a good reason why. The biggest secret in crime fiction is that there are really only, like, four ways to tie up a mystery, and I’m going to show you all of them in 1,200 words. Get ready to have an entire genre irrevocably spoiled.
1. The Obvious Killer
“I know it was you, Ignatius Didit. I knew it when you shook my hand, and I saw something dark crusted under your fingernails. I knew it when I heard peculiar noises coming from your basement and decided not to investigate them for some contrived reason. I knew it when your alibi fell apart. I knew it by process of elimination, because everybody else who might have done it is dead. But, really, I knew it the first time I met you; when I visited you at your place of business, I saw that the sign above the door said: ‘I. Didit, Purveyor of Fine Hatchets, Cleavers, and Shovels.’ Your guilt couldn’t be more obvious. The only reason I thought it might not be you for a while is because it seemed too manifestly self-evident. But it’s apparently you. So, I’ve got to say, I’m pretty disappointed.”
2. The Tertiary Perpetrator:
A. The Forgettable Man
“Who is that? Oh, it’s you. Yes, I recognized you. It just took me a second, because I haven’t seen you for, like, 200 pages. And, to be honest, you didn’t really make much of an impression when we met. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have remembered you, except that somebody very pointedly and deliberately reminded me about you two chapters ago. I should have expected that you’d be showing up again. Otherwise, why would anyone even bother to mention you? What are you doing here? And why have you got that knife?”
B. A Little Too Friendly
“I swear, sometimes this detective job gets to me; drives me to the bottle. You want a swig? No? More for me then. Everybody’s so awful. I know most of them are innocent, at least of the murder, but they’re all so cagey. Everyone here seems to have some dark secret, and they’re so fast to lie or conceal things from me. It just shatters my faith in mankind. They’re so hopeless. All of them except you. You’ve really been a friend to me, these past few days. You’ve been so happy to divulge everything you know and to tell me all about the reclusive oddballs who live in this Norwegian fishing hamlet where the sun only rises for three hours a day. You’ve helped me keep track of the byzantine genealogies of the feuding local families, and you’ve offered your extensive local knowledge in service of my attempts to identify inconsistencies in their stories. I wouldn’t be anywhere without you, and I hope we will remain close friends when this is all over. Why are you laughing so sinisterly?”
C. He Mostly Kept To Himself
“Pardon me, I was just passing by on my way to accuse somebody else of being the brutal serial murderer who has terrorized this neighborhood for the past few months, and I happened to notice an odd stench coming from your apartment. Is everything okay in there? Do you mind if I have a look around? It seems like — OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD!”
D. Here Comes A New Challenger
“Who are you? Oh. You’re the victim’s ex-fiance. Isn’t it odd that I’ve been investigating the murder for the entire book, and we are just meeting now, for the first time, on page 320? I think someone told me about you, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. What? You say you eloped with her, and you were secretly married? I guess that explains the receipt for a plane ticket to Las Vegas that I found in her desk. But if you’re her husband, and the whole family is dead, then that means you’re the sole heir to the largest combination yarn store and kitten shelter in all of New Hampshire! That’s your motive, you conniving rapscallion! And you would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for me, the Etsy detective and my associate, Mr. Mittens, the wiliest tomcat in New England!”
3. The Master Of Deduction Goes To Work
“Watson, you’ll notice from these footprints that the perpetrator wears one shoe in a size nine and-a-half, and another in a size 11.”
“That seems most convenient, Holmes.”
“Yes, I find things usually are. Now, if you examine the footprint more closely, what else do you see?”
“It looks to be the tread of a work-boot.”
“Perhaps I don’t tell you enough that you’re stupid, Watson. I mean, really, you have a special gift for pointing out the obvious. How did you become a surgeon anyway? What happens when you operate on someone? Do you saw open the poor man’s torso, and then notice that his chest seems to be full of organs?”
“What do you see, Holmes?”
“You can see that the boot print contains some red dirt. That’s brick dust. This is very fortuitous, because each clay-bed has dust of a unique color, so I can always tell where someone has come from, as long as they’ve wandered through a brickyard. And criminals are always wandering through brickyards, I guess.”
“That also seems awfully convenient.”
“It’s like I always say, Watson: When you eliminate all the inconvenient possibilities, what remains, however implausible, might as well be the truth.”
“Now, over here, we have a bit of pipe-ash. The leaf from every tobacco store in London is unique for some reason, and therefore identifiable by its ash. I can triangulate the area between the pipe-store where this tobacco came from and the brickyard where the dust came from, and then we have only a three block radius in which to look for the man with the mismatched feet!”
“And wait! What’s this? Why, it’s the pollen of the African violet, which I can identify on sight even though it’s practically microscopic and looks pretty much the same as any other pollen. There is only one window box in that neighborhood that contains African violets. By the way, I evidently know the location of every single weed or blade of grass in all of London. We have narrowed our search to but a single building, and now I know the name of the man we’re looking for!”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t mean to be mysterious, my dear stupid Watson. I shall tell you everything, just as soon as I snort up all this cocaine.”
4. The Big Twist
“Look! It is I! You thought I was dead, but I am not dead. I am still alive, and I tricked you. Also, I am not really a woman; I’m actually a man. I’m the brother of the boy who was hit by the train 20 years ago. I never disappeared. I’ve been here all along, in disguise. Also, are you ready to have your mind blown? You and I are actually the same person. That’s right. We’ve been the same person all along. If you think about it, it totally makes sense. Also, this isn’t really New York City. It’s actually purgatory. But it’s not really purgatory; it’s more like a computer simulation of purgatory. And the computer is a ghost, but it doesn’t know its dead.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
They passed through the city the day following. He kept the pistol to hand and held the boy close to his side. The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes. A corpse in a doorway dried to fruitleather, yellowed newspaper still in hand. Reds lose, five to two. Springtime gardening tips. Ten cents off salsa. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. Not like the things you put into your mouth. Those fall from your bottom.
But you forget some things, don’t you, Papa?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember, but you have to write it down. He knelt, held the boy’s frail shoulders. I cannot stress that enough.
The boy looked down the avenue, pointed towards a bench. Another corpse. Its head had been long ago removed, feet sawn clean at the ankles. Left arm gone, right gnawed to the elbow. A desperate feast.
Will I remember that? the boy said.
The man regarded the ruined figure as they passed, tousled the boy’s hair. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant.
They bore on in the days and weeks to follow, working deeper into the scrub and barren southlands. Solitary and grim through the raw hill country, a fiddler’s cribbled nosegay. In the ruined and empty shoppingcenters, Perkins gave way to Shoneys, PathMarks to Krogers. They passed flimsy aluminum houses, wracked and sagging trailerparks. Rusted truckparts in the sideyards, a longdead satellite dish. Faded beercans, flypaper porches. Remains of a deer. What was it like here before, Papa? the boy said. Was it much different? The man thought for a moment, passed a roadsign riddled with bulletholes. No, he said. Not so different at all.
The blackness he woke to on those nights was blind and impenetrable, a ditchdigger’s bunglet. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees, his softly running pee. He stood tottering in the chill and bleakened air, arms outstretched, eyes closed as his mind calculated its browngreen trigonometry. How to know what lay in the truncheoned dying inkwell? Beelzebub’s snowsuit. To whisper in supplication. A fearsome slant, a sleekening wampum. He counted his steps as he trod the pitchdark wood, the nameless outer. Who was its grumble? Something unfound in the night, beagled and harpy. To which he owed a debt, a skimbled arcane gratitude. Rockhard Easter Peeps, a turnip’s mad prerogative. As the great pendulum in its orbit sweeping through its movements of which you may decline an invitation or respect its velvet welcoming. Half the time he didnt know what he was talking about.
In an old slumpboard smokehouse they found a ham, hidden away in a high and dusty corner. With his knife, he cut into the rockhard porkskin, finding the meat pink and salty. Rich and good. They fried it that night over their fire, the thick slices simmered with a tin of beans. From the few things that remained in their satchel, he made a spinach sidesalad with dried cranberries and bluecheese, candied ginger almonds. Balsamic vinaigrette. Skewers of Portobello mushroom and Vidalia onion, rockshrimp and red pepper. A side of rice pilaf. Crème Brulee for dessert, the boy’s favorite. He stared into the embers as they ate the simple meal. It wasnt much, but it would have to do.
In dreams he found his bride in a warm and dewy lea. Breasts flangent in the soft purple air. Legs white and long. She wore a dress of cream-colored silk, her dark hair to her shoulders. Breath even and sweet. She smiled sadly as the clothing fell from her, revealing to him God’s bounty, the longitude of rivers. When he woke, it was snowing. Icebeads hanging from the trembling branches above. He had a big ol’ boner.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the reaper’s call. Yet he dreamt of skipping through a marshmallow cozyland where chipmunks knitted sweaters and carebears sold cottoncandy to put their cubs through Montessori school but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Staring towards the sightless bottomwater sky, the boy asleep at his side, he would curse himself for the lapse. He preferred the one where he had to give a presentation but had again forgotten his pants.
They plodded on in the wet and sodden cold. At the broan of a hill was a curve and a break in the trees. They walked out and surveyed the valley where the land swumbled off into the dreary gray fog. A lake down there. Dead and still. A leviathan’s idled crockpot.
What is that, Papa?
It’s a dam. It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a river down there.
How did they build it?
They put pieces of concrete one on top of the other.
They lowered them on wires from helicopters. I told you about helicopters, didnt I? The boy nodded. Then scubadivers guided the blocks into place. For the higher ones, they used ladders.
How did the pieces stay put?
Little nubs on top. Like Lego.
Did they need glue?
No. Large nails. Damnails.
What about the fish?
They helped too.
The boy took it all in, looked up at him. How do you know so much, Papa? About everything?
He smiled at the boy. I know what I know, he said.