A Dangerous Fiction
An Excerpt From
A Dangerous Fiction

Preface

“Start at the beginning, Jo,” he said, opening his pad just like a TV detective. “What happened first?”

As if I knew when it began. Endings are unambiguous—a slammed door, a final chord, the vacant, glassy stare of the dead—but beginnings are always a matter of perspective. Sometimes you can’t tell where a story begins until you reach the end. That’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but in real life, it’s too late.

I explained this. He said, “You’re making it too complicated.”

“‘Just the facts, ma’am’?” I said.

He smiled as one does at an oft-heard joke. I looked at him properly for the first time. The boyishness was gone, but the lines around his eyes and mouth suited him, lending gravitas to his face. His eyes were green, but a darker, warier shade than I remembered, rain forest instead of meadow. I wondered if he’d ever married. His ring finger was bare, which meant nothing. Hugo and I exchanged rings when we married, but Hugo never wore his. It chafed him when he wrote, he’d said.

“A series of incidents occurred,” I said. “But I don’t know how they’re connected, if they even are.”

“Just tell me what happened,” he said. “Let me make the connections.”

How strange, I thought, that Tommy should be giving me the very advice I give my writers. “Just show what happens,” I tell them, “don’t explain it.” He waited patiently, his pen motionless against the pad. I saw that he was a man who understood the uses of silence.

“It began,” I said unforgivably, “on a dark and stormy night.”



Chapter 1

In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them. True, the city sky was overcast; but if every passing rain cloud is to be taken as a sign of impending calamity, we might as well all close up shop, don sackcloth, and take to Times Square with hand-lettered signs.

If anything, the day had been remarkably ordinary. It was the first Wednesday of July, and we’d all stayed late for our monthly slush-pile session, gathering in my office around a battered old conference table piled high with manuscripts and query packets. I presided at the head of the table in what I still thought of as Molly’s place. To my right sat Harriet Peagoody, currently the only other literary agent in the firm. Harriet was a pale, bony, gray-haired woman with long, restless hands, an Oxbridge accent so well preserved it smelled faintly of formaldehyde, and an air of martyrdom for which I was to blame—for until my prodigal return, she had been the presumptive heir to our little queendom. Her assistant, Chloe Strauss, sat on her other side. Chloe was an Eastern cultivar of the West Coast Valley Girl, dressed in a short, swingy skirt and one of those baby-doll shirts all the girls wear these days. Opposite her sat Jean-Paul Devereaux, our intern and resident hipster. Beneath his sports jacket, his T-shirt read: eternity: when will it end? Twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, Jean-Paul was a tall young man possessed of such extravagant good looks that our bestselling client, Rowena Blair, had asked him to pose for the cover of her latest blockbuster, an offer he had declined. He had dark eyes, olive skin, and luxuriant black curls. Chloe, two years older, was pale, blond, and petite, and I thought they’d make a pretty couple, but Jean-Paul never paid the poor girl any attention.

Lorna Mulligan backed into the office clutching a loaded tray in plump, efficient hands. Today she wore a boxy white blouse and a plaid skirt, a parochial-school outfit that added fifteen pounds to her not-insubstantial frame. Although Lorna was my secretary—she scorned the title “assistant”—it wasn’t actually her job to make coffee. Office policy was that whoever finishes one pot makes the next; it lent an egalitarian gloss to the agency, though of course the distribution of profits was anything but. Still, Lorna had herself taken on the task of fueling our monthly conferences. She distributed the mugs and handed around a box of doughnuts. I took my favorite, lemon-filled: a little tartness to balance the sweet. Harriet, as always, chose the old-fashioned doughnut with no cream or glaze, then looked enviously at mine. Chloe passed, and Jean-Paul took two. Lorna never ate any herself, though she must have had a sweet tooth; she took her coffee with four sugars. Now she seated herself at the foot of the table and opened her notebook.

We began, as usual, with the hopeless cases. Other literary agencies don’t bother keeping notes on rejects, because office time is better spent serving actual clients than discussing those we’d rejected. But Molly had always kept records, saying that sooner or later every agent overlooks a great book, and when it happened in her shop, she wanted to know whom to torture. After she retired, I kept up the tradition. Eventually I’d put my own stamp on the agency, and these meetings would be the first thing to go; but for now I preferred to follow closely in my mentor’s size-9 footsteps.

Jean-Paul and Chloe took turns reading out titles, explaining in a sentence or two, sometimes from the work in question, why they recommended rejecting it. They were our first readers of all unsolicited submissions, and most often they were the last.

Chloe opened with a book called The Autobiography of a Nobody. “The title says it all.”

Then Jean-Paul. “The Secret Life of Gerbils. You don’t want to know.”

“Oh, but I do,” Chloe said. “Is it kinky?”

“If you’re into rodents.”

“Speaking of gross, my nomination for submission of the month: To Pee or Not to Pee, by Dr. Wannamaker.”

Even Lorna the Dour laughed.

“You made that up,” Harriet said.

“I swear on my mother’s urethra,” Chloe said. And so it went, with much joking and laughter, for another couple of hours, by which time we had disposed of the hopes and dreams of scores of aspiring authors. Outsiders, listening in, would have thought us heartless, but outsiders never had to wade through a literary agent’s slush pile, which for people who love literature and language is as much fun as vivisection is for animal lovers.

My thoughts wandered. I looked around my office, thought about redecorating, and decided once again against it. I’d kept all of Molly’s furniture, even her desk chair, which was too big for me, because it made me feel as if she hadn’t entirely left. The only personal items I’d added were half a dozen framed photos of Hugo, including one by Annie Leibovitz that I particularly treasured, and the pearl-handled dagger that he bought me in Morocco, which served as a letter opener. Molly had disapproved of the photos. “They give the impression that he’s the reason you’re sitting in this office.” As if he weren’t; as if I’d be running my own agency were I not the widow of the great Hugo Donovan. Only Molly, who loved me like a mother, could imagine otherwise.

The little sliver of sky visible between the towers of Third Avenue was turning green. There was still an hour to go before sunset, but a summer storm had been threatening all day. A burst of hail pelted the window, and it brought back a vivid image from our honeymoon in Paris: the two of us in bed, my head on Hugo’s chest while hailstones clattered against the tiled roof and he recited Emily Dickinson. Wild Nights – Wild Nights!/Were I with thee/Wild Nights should be/Our luxury!

Inside my office, the atmosphere had also changed. Chloe was leaning forward, speaking eagerly. “I know it seems, like, gimmicky? I know it won’t appeal to everybody? But at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned epistolary love story updated to the electronic age. The pages are funny, fresh—the best I’ve ever found in the slush pile.”

“A first novel?” I asked. Chloe nodded, and I sat up, because good first novels come around as often as tax cuts for the poor. “What’s it called?”

“It’s clever, but . . .” Her voice trailed into silence and she looked at Jean-Paul, who immediately took up the baton.

“Titles can be changed. Personally, I like it. If I saw it in a bookstore I’d pick it up.”

“The title?” Harriet demanded.

Chloe held up the title page. “I LUV U BABY, BUT WTF?” it read. “A novel by Katie Vigne.”

I laughed and glanced at Harriet. I was braced for fireworks, but she just looked puzzled.

“Chloe. Do you mind?” My secretary sounded put-upon, and Chloe hastened to turn the page in her direction.

Lorna read it silently, moving her lips, and copied it into her notes. “What’s ‘WTF’ mean?”

Chloe and Jean-Paul exchanged glances. Lorna was twenty-three years old, their contemporary; how could she not read basic texting? “It means,” Chloe said, “‘I love you, baby, but what the fuck?’ The whole novel is written in texting shortcuts; tweets, actually.”

Harriet gave her assistant the look Cleopatra must have given the asp. “And you’re recommending that we read this gobbledygook?”

“Harriet, the girl can totally write.”

“But she can totally not spell.”

“It’s a whole other language, thought and emotion pared to the bone, like poetry.” The pitch was fluent, no doubt rehearsed, but Chloe had wrapped a strand of blond hair so tightly around her finger that the tip had turned white.

“It’s unreadable,” Harriet said flatly.

“Not to people who grew up texting,” Jean-Paul said. “In Japan, there’s an entire industry of cell-phone novels.”

Chloe added, “Even people who don’t text will pick it up from the context. Or there could be a glossary.”

I looked from one to the other. Chloe had excellent taste; and it was interesting that she and Jean-Paul had joined forces on this submission. I was curious, but Harriet was unmoved.

“I do not read books in which ‘love’ is spelled L-U-V. I do not read books with ‘fuck’ in the title.” She turned to Lorna, who sent out all our rejections. “Add a line to the form. Say that while her work in its present form is inappropriate for us, we would be interested in seeing anything she writes in standard English.”

In the silence that followed, I stared at Harriet’s adamant profile in amazement. Even for her, this was way over the line. If she wasn’t interested in this novel, fair enough; every agent has places she won’t go. But she had no right to speak for the agency—to speak for me.

“Ask for a partial,” I told Lorna.

Harriet’s head whipped around so fast I was reminded of The Exorcist. “Excuse me?

“The first fifty pages. Chloe, you read them. If you still like it, I’ll have a look.”

Thank you,” Chloe mouthed.

My fellow agent had gone bright red. “Far be it from me,” Harriet said, “to question your judgment, Joanna. But as someone who has worked in this office longer than you have, let me remind you that there is a reason we represent the kind of writers we do. This agency has a reputation to uphold. That novel is symptomatic of the devolution of the language that we of all people must oppose.”

Harriet often took it on herself to lecture me, but “Joanna” was a particularly nice touch; I hadn’t been called that since the age of nine, when I first read Little Women. Her resentment had nothing to do with this particular novel, which was just one more in a long line of proxy battles. She saw me as a usurper, although in fact I’d joined the agency before her. Working as Molly’s assistant was my dream job, but I kept it only for a couple of months before meeting and marrying Hugo. Harriet came on board a year or so later, and she’d settled in for the long haul, hoping, perhaps even believing, that one day the business would be hers. But when I returned to the agency after Hugo’s death, it was as a partner; and when Molly retired last year, I bought her out and became the sole owner of the Hamish and Donovan Literary Agency, while Harriet remained an employee—well-compensated, but an employee nonetheless.

“The language is always in flux,” I said mildly, “and good writers like to play. At least it’s not something I’ve read a thousand times before. If the kiddies think so highly of the first few pages, I think it’s worth a look.”

“The kiddies?” Jean-Paul sounded offended. I raised an eyebrow. At twenty-two, he was thirteen years my junior. How else could I see him but as a kid?

It was dark out by the time we finished, and the hailstorm had dwindled into fitful rain. We said our good nights and the others filed out, carrying stacks of rejected proposals like little baby corpses. We’d rejected 122 submissions and decided to ask for more pages from two, the texting novel and one other: about average for a slush-pile session.

There was no time to go home before my evening engagement, a book launch in a SoHo restaurant, where I hoped to get something to eat in between air kisses and paying court to Rowena. I’d dressed that morning with the evening in mind, in black silk trousers and an unstructured jacket, cinched over a lacy white camisole. All I had to do was slip on high heels and fix my makeup. There is such a preponderance of women in publishing that many don’t bother anymore. Not me. An agent needs every bit of leverage she can get, and looks are leverage.

In the private bathroom adjoining my office, I brushed my hair to a dark sheen, removed my makeup, and started from scratch. The face in the mirror was pale and smooth, unmarred by lines of worry or sorrow. No gray showed in the sleek black hair that fell straight to my shoulders. At thirty-five, I was older than I looked but younger and prettier than I felt. There was something Dorian Grayish about this disparity, but I couldn’t regret it. That was the face Hugo had loved. Not just the face, of course; but I knew my husband too well to imagine he’d have married me if all my other assets had come wrapped in a plain face and dumpy body. A person who grows up on her own learns to make the most of whatever she’s got. Sooner or later, what I was would catch up to what I seemed to be, and then there’d be a reckoning. For now I was living on the cusp: young enough to possess a young woman’s power and old enough to know how to wield it.

I left my office and walked down the hall. As I entered the dimly lit reception room, a figure rose suddenly from behind a desk. I let out a shriek. Jean-Paul came forward, hands raised. “Sorry, Jo, sorry. Didn’t mean to spook you.”

“I thought everyone was gone.”

“I wanted a word, if you have a moment.”

“A moment is all I have. Tonight’s Rowena’s launch, and she’ll never forgive me if I’m later than she is.”

I locked up and we turned toward the elevators. In addition to my purse and umbrella I was carrying a heavy manuscript bag. Jean-Paul took the strap from my shoulder and put it on his. I smiled my thanks and in the dim light of the corridor thought I saw him blush. The elevator arrived, and we got in.

“Jo,” he said, “I was wondering if I could stay on after the summer, not as an intern, but as your full-time assistant.”

“What about law school?” I asked, for he’d been accepted to several.

“I can defer for a year or two. If I even go.”

“You’re having second thoughts?”

“I never really had first thoughts. The thinking was done for me.”

I considered it. When Molly retired, I absorbed her entire list. Six months later I fired Charlie Malvino and took over a dozen of his clients as well. My workload was Sisyphean. I needed another assistant, one who read submissions. Lorna didn’t, which I couldn’t really complain about because she’d been upfront about it. “I’m a first-class secretary,” she’d said. “I’ll organize your files so you never lose anything again. I’ll screen your calls, answer your correspondence, keep your schedule. The office will function like it never has before. But I’m no judge of writing and I won’t pretend I am.”

Not your usual agency hire. But my last assistant had just left me for a subrights job at Viking, and the one before that had run off to start her own agency with an editor friend. I was tired of smart, ambitious kids with minds of their own, for all that I’d been one. Lorna was young, but one had only to look at her, with her sensible flats, bargain-basement clothes, clunky glasses, and the excess weight that encased her like an old down coat, to know that she was the very antithesis of her flighty predecessors. She had worked for a temp agency that specialized in publishing, so she knew the business; and because she’d temped for us on occasion, I knew she was a hard worker and brighter than she looked. And she was happy to work for the salary I offered.

Jean-Paul wouldn’t last long, I thought. He’d come to his senses and go to law school, or he’d accumulate a bit of experience and find a job that paid better. But he’d undoubtedly be an asset for as long as he stayed. He had a nice touch with clients, friendly but respectful, unlike Lorna, who, despite her youth, seemed to regard them as unruly children.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “But you should too. Publishing’s a tough racket, and the pay’s ridiculous compared to what you’d make as a lawyer.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“You should. Money matters. Have you talked to your parents about this?”

I knew at once I’d said the wrong thing. Jean-Paul scowled. “I’m old enough to know my own mind.”

“At twenty-two?”

You did.”

Meaning, I supposed, that I’d married Hugo at twenty-two. What a strange turn this conversation had taken. I was relieved when the elevator shuddered to a halt and the doors slid open. The building was prewar, but the lobby had been sleekly redone, all glass and polished black marble. The night man was reading a magazine at the security desk. He glanced up as the elevator opened, then shoved the magazine into his desk, stood and touched his cap. “’Night, Ms. Donovan.”

“Good night, John.” There would come a day, I thought, when I would enter a room and no man would notice; but that day was not here yet. I started opening my umbrella as we left the building, but there was no need. The rain had let up, for now at least, and through a parting in the clouds a bright crescent moon shone down on the glistening avenue. After the rain, the Manhattan air smelled as fresh and clean as a sea breeze.

Jean-Paul handed me my tote bag, and we parted on the sidewalk. As I walked south, a man burst from the alley beside our building and rushed toward me. “Jo! Jo Donovan!”

I stopped and turned to face him. He wore a belted trench coat, sopping wet, and a fedora tilted down over his face, so that in the dark I could hardly make out his features. He’d spoken as if he knew me, but I didn’t recognize him except from old Bogart flicks. “Sam Spade, I presume?” I said.

“What time do you have?”

Reflexively I glanced at my watch. “Seven fifty.”

“Mark the time, Jo. Remember this moment. Both our lives are about to change.” His voice throbbed with emotion. It was the sort of voice that sounds good on the radio, deep and smooth. I noticed a parcel under his left arm that looked suspiciously like a manuscript.

“Let me guess: you’re a writer.”

“Not just a writer,” the voice said, “any more than you’re just an agent. I know what you really are, Jo. And soon you’ll know what I am.”

One has to make allowances for writers, especially the unpublished ones. Rejection gets to everyone after a while, and those poor bastards swim in a sea of it.

“Look,” I said, “if you have something to submit, use the guidelines on our website and I promise we’ll read it. This isn’t the way.”

“I did. It never reached you. Someone in your office intercepted it and sent it back unread.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because if anyone had bothered to read it, they’d have recognized it for the work of genius that it is. Also, you failed the test.”

I sighed. “Let me guess: an upside-down page?”

“Which came back the same way.”

“What page?”

“Two hundred sixty-two.”

I laughed, couldn’t help it, though I knew it would only make him angrier. Presumption, thy name is Writer. Our guidelines ask for synopses and the first five pages only, no more material except by request. At least a quarter of submitters ignores those guidelines and sends us their full manuscripts. Clearly Sam Spade was one of those. Even so, it was impossible not to feel sorry for him. A person can pour his heart and soul into a book and still end up with something only a mother would read.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get the answer you wanted,” I said, “but we take on very few new clients, and once we determine that a book is not for us, we don’t continue reading. We get hundreds of submissions a month; if we read them all in full, we’d have time for nothing else, as I’m sure you understand. But of course you should try elsewhere. I’m just one agent. There are any number of good ones out there.”

“Not for me.” He held out the manuscript. “You’ll understand once you’ve read it.”

There’s a reason agents barricade themselves behind assistants and secretaries. Rejection is unpleasant for the rejecter as well as the rejected; a little distance makes it easier to bear. But I had no intention of being bullied into reading something we’d already turned down.

“I can’t help you,” I said firmly. “And for future reference, this is hardly the way to recommend yourself to any agent.”

“You still don’t get it. No other agent will do.” He slid closer.

“I know what you are, Jo. You were Hugo’s muse. Now you’re going to be mine.”

A jolt of fear ran through me. I had misjudged the situation. This wasn’t the usual writerly egotism. This was something else.

You can’t live in New York without occasionally encountering crazy people. They used to scare me till I learned the protocol: keep moving, look straight ahead, and feign deafness until they go away. I was good at feigning deafness, having practiced it often when Hugo’s old girlfriends called.

He stood in my path. I stepped to the side, but as I made to pass him, he reached out and grabbed my arm.

I didn’t stop to think. The umbrella was in my free hand and I swung it, striking him solidly across the chest. He flew backward into a lamppost and came back at me.

I faced him squarely, fear banished by anger. How dare he touch me? How dare he mention Hugo, compare himself to Hugo! Dropping my tote, I grasped the umbrella stock with two hands and struck a batter’s stance. I heard steps, running hard; then hands clutched me from behind and pushed me aside. Nose to nose with my accoster, Jean-Paul shouted, “Get the fuck away from her!”

Too angry to welcome interference, I tried to slide past him, but Jean-Paul wouldn’t budge. He shoved the writer hard in the chest. “Grab me, why don’t you?”

Sam Spade backed away, cradling the manuscript to his chest. “Kid, you just made the biggest mistake of your life.” He inclined his head toward me, shadowed eyes groping. “I’ll see you later, Jo.”

He turned and walked away. Jean-Paul lunged after him, but I grabbed his arm. We looked at each other. His face was flushed, fists clenched. I could smell his rage. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I could have used a few more whacks.”

“Who was he?”

“Nobody. Some idiot who can’t take no for an answer.”

“A writer? Someone we rejected?”

“Apparently.”

“What an asshole!”

“Comes with the territory,” I said, but that was just to calm him. Overeager writers were indeed a fact of publishing life, and I’d met my share at writers’ conferences; but this felt different, creepy, and far too personal.

Jean-Paul mastered himself with a visible effort. “I never realized agenting is such a contact sport. Nice umbrella work, by the way.” He picked my tote up from the sidewalk and slung it over his shoulder. “I’ll see you to the subway.”

“I’m fine,” I said, but he walked me anyway.

A Dangerous Fiction

A Dangerous Fiction

A Mystery