Making a True Detective – Minus a Super Power

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Editor's Note:

James Anderson grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He is a graduate of Reed College, and received his MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College. His short fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines, and he previously served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Breitenbush Books. The Never-Open Desert Diner, now available, is his first novel. His next book, The Lullaby Road, will be released in 2018.

When I was trying desperately to find an agent and publisher for my debut novel

I was repeatedly asked the following question: What is your detective’s super power?

Even though I knew what the question was asking for, I was still at a loss to provide an answer. Perhaps because I knew my protagonist – a single, thirty-eight-year-old independent truck driver in the Utah desert – did not have a super power. In fact, in the usual sense of the mystery novel, he wasn’t even a detective. And what was even worse, my novel wasn’t strictly a mystery.

Protagonists that have unique skills, backgrounds, and contacts often populate the mystery-detective-thriller literary world. For instance, a former CIA agent who used to be a Catholic nun and speaks twenty-two languages and has Ph.D.’s in Particle Physics and Italian Renaissance Literature. Or even the slightly more mundane former police captain and recovering heroin addict who is also a Zen monk. These examples are, of course, extremes concocted to serve up my point. I love these kinds of characters and the books they inhabit – well-plotted and exciting and fun and usually filled with specialized knowledge. At the quiet end of the spectrum are books like the Commissario Brunetti novels. I am a huge fan of Donna Leon and her fictional detective, who is an official detective. Brunetti’s gifts are more subtle and the novels are set in one of the most beautiful and exotic cities in the world – Venice, Italy.

But my poor hero/protagonist is a high school-educated truck driver who really is poor, going bankrupt, and has no extraordinary skills other than he gets up every morning and goes to work and tries to do the best he can. He fails as often as he succeeds – not at solving a mystery exactly, but negotiating life, which is a mystery that has no ultimate solution. That description was not going to light up most publishers or agents enough to read the manuscript. Of those who did read it, or in it, I could hear their collective sighs three thousand miles away.

If Ben Jones has a super power, it is that he does get up every morning and goes to work and does the best he can. He thinks, probably too much. He sees magic in the weather and geology of the high Utah desert (though he would never call it that) and he experiences, feels, and describes the natural world and people in it as if they are manifestations of magic. He wants things he will probably never get. He has self-esteem “issues.” He has a temper and begrudging compassion and respect for the people he serves, mostly those who have for one reason or another chosen self-exile in the desert. Ben Jones is ordinary. He is an average person doing a low-paying and often dangerous job in a part of the country he describes as being “a hundred miles up the asshole of nowhere.”

To my way of thinking, Ben Jones is a super hero because he takes on life’s day-after-day challenges with no super powers. He can’t fly. He has no special technologically advanced suit or specialized knowledge. He doesn’t even own a cell phone. (Poor or no reception at all out in the Utah desert.) He isn’t trained in the martial arts, the dark arts, weapons, or Italian Renaissance Literature. His primary contacts are an old man who owns a desert diner that is always closed, a teenage punk single mother, and a derelict crazy preacher who hauls a life-sized wooden cross up and down a lonely desert highway. When Ben is so tired he can’t get out of bed, he gets out of bed anyway. When he sees or experiences injustice, he gets angry and then does the best he can, which is usually nothing more than being an empathetic witness. But sometimes his anger gets the better of him. Either way, there is never a parade, a pat on the back, a commendation from the Commissioner, or a star on the wall of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Readers have been very kind to me and to my invention of a protagonist with no super power. I like to think that is because they recognize their own super power in him – simple raw determination to get up in the morning and meet the average overwhelming mysteries and injustices and small magical beauties of the world with nothing more than coffee and a sack lunch. Ben Jones performs on the tightrope of daily survival without a net. He is the ordinary man clinging to the cliff face by his fingertips with no ropes and no parachute, sustained by hope and a hard-won sense of humor. As most of us know, that ordinary life can be extraordinarily heartbreaking, frightening, and damn exciting.