Let's talk about setting the mood of a story through the use of descriptive detailing.
I have to admit (or maybe, I have to confess, I don't know which would be more accurate) the visual scene
of a story's opening is what gets me writing. I see an image first in my head. And then I write the story around that image.
Verbal photographs, kiddo. That's the key.
And I think it's a good technique--one that is becoming rare these days. I find it rare, in my opinion, to find a writer who can make a Polaroid shot in words so clear, so vivid, it instantly comes into sharp clarity the moment one reads the passage to themselves.
Yet isn't that one of the key ingredients needed to be perfected if a writer wants to be successful?
Words describing images, or individual actions, sets the tone for the entire story. In any genre I'm thinking. But so especially true if you're writing noir/hard boiled detectives. The mood
of the story sets up the interaction between characters. Ultimately sets up the motives
for each of the characters involved in the story. So important. So critical for a story to succeed.
Take the photo above. When I wrote this Turner Hahn/Frank Morales story you're about to read the image that exploded in my head was very much like the one above. I saw it clearly. Absolutely crystal clear: Turner and Frank moving around in a dark basement filled with boxes and boxes stacked on top of each other, their flash lights throwing out long beams of white light cutting through the darkness.
Maybe I'm all wrong. (What?! Me? Wrong? Oh Pissssshawww, Maude!)
Read the story below. Tell me what you think.
We Found Beatrice Bonner
The dark basement smelled of dreams
Of memories unremembered.
In the inky darkness the startling
white beams of our flashlights cut through the cobwebs and layers of dust and
decay and played across the clutter of a lifetime’s worth of hoarding in stark
silence. Carefully we made our way
through the narrow corridors of the blackened basement, the white beams of our flashlights arcing across the canyon walls of
dust covered boxes stacked clear to the floor jousts above our heads to the
darkly moist cement floor.
The place smelled. Smelled old.
Ancient. With a whiff of decay–a
sharp sting of disease.
Newspapers. Books. An assortment of bicycles. Steamer trunks, one atop another, locked and
sealed shut back when Nixon was president.
Clothes. Boxes and boxes of
clothes neatly folded, covered in a fine coating of dust; smelling dank and
fungal infested. A life time of someone
never letting go. Never discarding
either the important or the frivolous.
Our flashlights danced across the
darkness to our left and right.
Seeking. Looking for what we
already knew was down here. In silence
we made our way deeper and deeper into the basement of the old house knowing that
we were eventually going to find the grisly prize at the end of our
Behind me I heard my partner grunt
and then heard a box slide to one side ominously.
Twisting around I played the beam of light
across his face and then at the tall column of boxes towering over his head
suddenly beginning to tilt dangerously toward him.
The red headed wannabe
Gorilla braced the leaning
stack with one outstretched hand with a look of growing frustration playing
across his rugged looks.
“This place is fraking nightmare,
Turner. One wrong move and we’re going
to be buried in a mountain of shit.
It’ll take a month for the forensics boys to find us.”
I turned back to face the front, a
grin playing across my lips.
both big men.
But Frank was the
proverbial Spanish bull in an English china shop.
He had shoulders that would make the prow of
an aircraft carrier feel slighted.
as thick as the main cables holding up the Golden Gate
Finesse, my friend, is not his main
Blunt trauma is more his shtick.
The flashlight in my hand roamed
across the curtain of darkness in front of me and there, just visibly at the
far end of the flashlight beam, the image of a brick wall and an edge of a
large, deep, wash basin.
“Over here,” I said quietly.
And we found what we knew we would
find. In the middle of the deep wash
basin. The bloody stump of a person’s
leg. Ripped from the victim from just
below the knee cap. Still wrapped in the
tan cloth of a pant’s leg. The foot
encased in a black, worn old shoe with a bleached out, formless blue sock
partially covering an exposed ankle.
A heavy coat of coagulated blood
covered the bottom of the wash basin. Lying flat in the sink beside the single
shoe was a hack saw. A bloody hack saw
with a broken blade. Playing the
flashlight across the dust covered cement floor of the basement to my left and
right I could find nothing else for a body.
But I did find a fifty-five gallon drum, black and dull, with white
letters that said ‘Hydrochloric Acid’ stenciled across the middle of it. The lid of the barrel was partially
closed. The stench of the acid . . .and
some other smell I didn’t want to dwell on . . . overwhelming.
I didn’t want to pull the lid to one
side and look inside. Fortunately I
didn’t have to. Frank’s voice behind me
“Turner, looky-here. In the wall to the right and above the wash
basin. See it?”
I saw it. It was unmistakable.
Two dark red bricks were missing
from the wall. Visibly in the light was
the smooth round curve of a human skull partially filling the gaping hole. Both powerful beams of our flashlights
latched onto the wall and didn’t move for a long time. Neither of us said anything.
We found her. Beatrice Bonner. A thirteen year old girl missing for the last
twenty years. Found her stuffed into the
basement wall of a dilapidated wreck of a house owned by a hermit named Charles
Friedman. But the missing person file
would soon be replaced. She was no
longer missing. From the large round
hole in the top of her skull–a clean, sharp puncture wound made by something
long and sharp–the Missing Person stamp would soon be changed to Murder.
“Call the boys,” I said quietly as
the flashlight turned back and illuminated the bloody stump standing upright in
the sink. “Tell’em we found the old man
and the girl. Tell’em to bring enough
boys over. This is a double-homicide
Cautiously we trekked our way out of
the basement and slowly moved up the rickety steps of the basement to the
kitchen. The house was empty. Old and empty. Forgotten and empty. It sat in the middle of a corner lot almost
hidden from prying eyes by weeds and rows of untrimmed bushes. Visible from the west side windows of the
kitchen was the sagging frame of a detached garage. One garage door stood at a severe angle. Held upright by a single hinge still attached
to the garage. Glancing out the window I
could see the trunk lid and tail lights of an old car. A car that hadn’t been moved in
generations. Hugging up against the car’s
sides were boxes and boxes of newspapers.
Dried, faded, fungus-infested newspapers.
The kitchen itself was amazingly
clean and tidy. There were no dishes in
the sink. They was nothing on the flat
surface of the kitchen counters that seemed out of place. In the middle of the kitchen floor was a
small white painted table with four matching chairs. Chairs precisely aligned.. The table’s surface spotlessly clean.
“What’s wrong with this picture?”
Frank grunted, turning to look at me and lifting a questioning eyebrow.
“Someone has a cleaning fetish,” I
answered, frowning myself. “In a house that’s been turned into warehouse of
Our suspect was a forty year old
recently released mental patient by the name of Jacob Friedman. The son of the home owner, Charles
Friedman. Four hours earlier Jacob
walked into South Side Precinct, took the ancient elevator up to the second
floor which housed the homicide section, found Frank and I sitting at our desks
doing paperwork, and confessed he had just murdered his father.
Just like that. A nervous little man with hands that wouldn’t
stop shaking and watery blue eyes that could not look you straight in the
face. Confessed standing beside our desk
in a soft voice of quiet resignation. He
said he had killed his father. Said he
knew where Beatrice Bonner’s remains were.
Said he wanted to go back to the hospital. Wanted to go back to the lock up ward. Back to safety. And never wanted to left
Jacob Friedman had spent the last
eighteen years in an insane asylum. Ten
of those eighteen years in a high-security section of the asylum. Behind locked doors and barb wire fences. In a padded cell. With eyes observing him eighteen of the
twenty-four hours of the day. Twenty
years ago the state accused him of kidnaping Beatrice Bonner and murdering
her. Circumstantial evidence, of course,
since a body was never discovered. Jacob was already known by the neighbors as
being a sick, twisted kid. Several
testified it was Jacob who had stolen their beloved pets and had abused and
tortured them in the woods behind the Friedman’s house. The same neighbors, and other witnesses, said
this scared, frail and pale creature of a man and the girl had been seen
together that day walking down to neighborhood convenience store. They remembered him walking back from the
Beatrice Bonner was never seen
I remember the drive out into the
suburbs to find the Friedman’s house. It
was an overcast, sour, despicable day of random showers, high humidity, and
sweltering heat. It seemed that day the
weather had every one in a bad, scurrilous mood. As I drove the Shelby GT350 Mustang, my favorite
car, with Frank sitting in the passenger side bucket seat to my right, I
remember listening to music of Depeche Mode playing on the radio. It was their Policy of Truth. A rumble
of bass guitars lamenting about a love gone bad. A perfect cover tune for this case, I thought
to myself, as I drove.
Thinking about the case the music
still plays darkly in my mind.
Eerily, as we drove back to the
precinct house hours later after the forensic boys went over the place
minutely, the song played again over the radio.
A couple of days later Assistant
District Attorney Anthony Scarborough beamed up at us and said we had did a
find job in this investigation. The case
was opened and shut. This time Jacob
Friedman would get the gas chamber and no smart lawyer would get him off by
copping an insanity plea.
“Did he sign a confession?”
“Hasn’t said a word or moved a
muscle since the day he walked in and told us he did it,” I answered
sourly. “Been sitting in his cell like a
statue. Hardly eats. Never says a word. Doesn’t move a muscle.”
“Well . . . that’s okay,” the DA
growled and nodded. But the furrows of
lines creasing his forehead looked worrisome. “As long as you to testify he
confessed to the crimes when he approached you.
That, and the evidence we have, should be enough for a conviction.”
“What evidence, Jethro?” Frank
grunted, frowning, and looking like a maleficent volcano about to explode.
I fought hard to hide the grin that wanted split my lips in
two. Jethro was a moniker my
mountain-gorilla lookalike for a partner use to label people he thought were
blithering idiots. And he pegged Deputy
DA Anthony Scarborough at the top of the list.
“I am not Jethro, Sergeant
Morales! How many times do I have to
tell you that? And the evidence? Try this out.
He’s a known sadist. He’s
father’s remains–what little there is of him–was found in a basement sink in a
house he and his father occupied. He was
last seen with the girl as they walked to a local store. And his fingerprints are all over the weapon
used to chop his father up! What more
evidence do you need?”
Open and shut.
Even I felt the guy was probably
guilty. But . . .
This nagging voice in the back of my
head. An insistent whisper that just
wouldn’t shut up. Couldn’t make out what
it was trying to say. But I could tell
it sure as hell wasn’t happy in the way this case was playing out.
Brother . . . if you’re a cop . . .
you get these nagging little voices occasionally. Listen to them. More times than not they start yapping at you
just below the surface of consciousness when something’s wrong in the investigation. Not yelling loud enough to slap you up the
side of the head with a brick and tell you what’s wrong. But making noise; an irritating noise that
tells you you’ve screwed up somewhere.
You missed something. Or
overlooked something. Or something just
doesn’t add up.
Or maybe . . .just maybe . . . it was just too damn easy.
Frank and I rode in elevator in
silence. Just the two of us. Both of us had our arms folded across our
chests and frowns on our lips. We eyed
our sour mugs in the reflections coming off the stainless steel doors in front
of us. We both knew something was
wrong. Something didn’t fit. Something was out of whack somewhere.
“Do you think maybe . . . ?”
“Damn right,” he nodded before I
could finish. “A guy keeps his kitchen
spotless yet leaves the basement sink looking like a butcher’s table. Doesn’t make sense.”
“So he’s possibly not our . . . . ,”
I started to say.
“Hell no! Some other freaking sicko did the murder of
the old man!” Frank snapped angrily, nodding in head decisively. “And I’d bet next month’s paycheck Beatrice
Bonner’s murder was a frame-up as well!”
“So maybe we should . . . ?”
“You took the words right out of my
mouth, kiddo! By god, we ought to go
back to the house and go over it like a fine tooth. Cover that fucker from antic to sub
basement. There’s gotta be something we
missed over there. Gotta be!”
I grinned as the elevator doors
opened and glanced at my pal.
“Glad we talked,” I said, nodding,
as we stepped out of the elevator.
“Turner, sometimes you talk to
The grin widened as we made our way
out to the parking lot and to the Shelby Mustang.
Hours of searching the
basement. The ground floor. The upstairs.
Combing through everything. Probing
ever nook and cranny. And finally,
tackling the piles of newspapers that seemed to be tall, silent columns of
deadly silence littering the basement floor.
And . . . . epiphany.
Something clicked. Something slapped together in our collective
heads. Those little voices bothering
both of us suddenly shutting up. We
looked up from the piles of newspapers almost burying us and just stared at
“I’ll be go to hell,” Frank snarled,
shaking his head in disbelief and looking down at browned, brittle paper spread
out across his lap. “Gag me with a
spoon, California Girl, and call me stupid!”
“Stupid!” I said, smirking, as I ran a hand through my hair. “But who the hell would have caught it
fifteen years ago?”
“Yeah. But still . . .”
Buried deep in one pile of newspapers
were six papers which had blazing headlines across the front page in big
letters saying, Body of Dismembered Girl Found In Woods.
Six of them.
Two in Kansas
One in Missouri
Two in Illinois
And Beatrice Bonner.
identical stories. Cases that stretched out across decades. Girl snatched off a sidewalk in a quiet
residential neighborhood. Missing for
weeks. And then pedestrians, or hikers,
or construction workers, stumble onto the scattered bones of the dead in a
forest. The girls were killed by two
holes punctured into the back of the head.
And then dismembered.
The murders went back eighteen
years. The first two happening when
Jacob Friedman was only two years old.
“Jacob Friedman didn’t murder
Beatrice Bonner,” Frank growled, looking up at me and frowning. “His father was the killer. Apparently a serial killer.”
“But I betcha our sicko killer
didn’t try to hide his little secret from his son.”
“You think Jacob helped the old man
kill these girls?”
“Don’t think so,” I said, shaking my
head no. “But the kid knew. Knew for a long time. And knowing what his father was doing made
him go off the deep end.”
“Say,” Frank said, lifting an
eyebrow in surprise and half turning to look at the brick wall and the hole
where we found Beatrice Bonner’s remains.
“You know, we haven’t found a thing that mentions Jacob’s mother. No divorce papers. No funeral notices. Nothing.
You don’t think . . . ?”
We both looked at the brick wall of
the basement and narrowed our eyes thoughtfully.
Yeah. She was in there. Behind a cement patch in the casement
wall. It took a team of forensic boys
three hours to dig her out. But she was,
like the other victims, dismembered and with two holes punched into the back of
We had solved seven old cases of
murder. But we still didn’t know who
killed Jacob Friedman’s father.
“Jacob could have,” Frank said,
rubbing his chin thoughtfully as we stood watching the lab boys insert bones
into plastic baggies and label each one meticulously. “Could have come back from the crazy house
and just . . . snapped. The old man must
have said something and Jacob just lost it.
Went bat-shit crazy.”
I was half listening to Frank’s
musings. But I was more interested in a
newspaper I found which detailed the disappearance of Beatrice Bonner. It was a concise, well written story. So well written two things leapt out at me
The first one was Beatrice Bonner’s
family lived directly across the street from the Friedman’s house. The second one was the dead girl’s father was
a plumber. When I read that I stopped,
looked up and at the now gaping hole where Beatrice and Mrs. Friedman had been
resting in for all these years.
Sure enough. Water pipes snaked in through the casement
wall and twisted their way down toward the washtub sink in front of us.
“Come on,” I said, tossing the paper
to one side and turning to leave. “I
think I know who killed Old Man Friedman.”
He was an old man now. Patrick Bonner. White haired, bone thin. Skin dark brown and rawhide tough. Dressed in an old shirt long faded with time
and baggy blue jeans. He was sitting on the front porch in a battered looking
rocking chair, one leg thrown over the other, smoking a cigarette and eyeing
the comings and goings of the police and lab boys with a dispassionate
interest. Didn’t blink an eye or move a
muscle when he saw Frank and I come out of the Friedman house, walk down the
sidewalk, cross the street, and start up the sidewalk leading to his house.
“Did you figure it out, boys?” he
finally said in a casual, almost friendly voice, as our feet slapped on the
first step leading up to the porch.
“Yes sir, most of it.” I said, nodding. “But you can fill in the details if you
One eye narrowed and watched us for
a moment or two as the cigarette hung in his lips and blue smoke drifted up
past his face. Finally he shrugged,
lifted a hand up and pulled the cigarette out and snapped it out into the lawn
in front of him.
“Sure. Why not.
It’s all over now. The waiting. The unknowing. The anger.
All of it. Gone. I hope that sonofabitch burns in hell. Burns for eternity.”
“What happened, Mr. Bonner?” Frank
“Charlie’s been in a wheel chair for
the last three years. In poor
health. Living off what little
retirement and Social Security he could get.
When he found out Jacob was getting out of the hospital and was coming
home he called me and asked me if I would be willing to fix a leak down in the
basement. I didn’t like the
sonofabitch. Never did. Always thought he was an odd old coot. Thought his son was nuts. But I said okay. I’d come over and see what I could do.
That’s when I found her. Beatrice.
I had to knock a hole in the brick wall and take a peek at the
plumbing. Just happened to pick the
exact spot Charlie used to hide what he did to my daughter. I went . . . . well, you know. You know what happened next.”
“And Jacob?” I asked.
“Where does Jacob come in to all of this?”
“I dunno,” sighed the old man,
shaking his head and looking thoughtful.
“He must have found what I did to his father in the basement. What little sanity he had left him decided to
check out. I saw him get into a taxi and
disappear down the street. Apparently
the taxi took him straight to you guys.
Hell, I’ve been sitting on this porch and waiting for you guys to show
up for the last three days. Was
beginning to wonder if I was going to get away with it.”
We took him downtown. Booked him for Murder One. Then we went over to deputy District Attorney
Anthony Scarborough and told him he was a fucking idiot. Well . . . not so bluntly. But when we left he had no doubt what we
thought of him. After that we drove
Jacob Friedman back to the insane asylum.
We left him smiling at us dreamily as two male nurses gently took him by
his arms and started walking him down the wide garden path of oblivion.
Justice is a cruel bitch.