My 9-11 detective novel: Investigating the broken chain of custody of evidence

At a recent BoucherCon (http://bouchercon2011.com) murder-mystery writers’ and fans convention held in St Louis this year, I’m still getting all fired up by the “Who Dun It” question.

When we first arrived, everyone who attended was given a ton of free books — nothing better than that. Then at one event I attended, they honored Robert Randisi, an excellent crime-novel writer who, among other things, has written 550 books. “At one point, I could finish an entire book in only three days,” he told me later, “but I’m getting older now and can only manage writing a couple of books a month.” The man wears out four keyboards a year, he types that fast. Genius.

Next, I went to an interview with Charmaine Harris, a gentle kindly well-mannered typical Southern lady — who also just happens to write vampire books. She is the creator of that hot new HBO series, “True Blood”. And she doesn’t feel bad about killing off any of her characters either, “because it’s fun to write death scenes.” But sometimes she resurrects them if she likes a particular character a lot. “In vampire mysteries, you can always do that.” Plus her kids now think that she’s actually cool.

Then I went to a panel discussion on how to write books in the post-9-11 era. That was interesting, sure, but I think perhaps that the panelists missed one very important point.

One author stated, “I’m British. We are used to terrorism in Britain. But Americans before 9-11 lived in LaLa Land.” Too true.

Another author said, “People have an arc to their lives and some of them who worked at the Twin Towers never finished that arc. And that’s one way of approaching a book on this subject. But whatever you write on this subject, someone is going to misinterpret it. No matter what you write, you will be in for a kicking by someone because 9-11 is still too fresh and too new. Like Vietnam, we have to distance ourselves from the event before it can be approached through literature unemotionally.”

A third panel member said, “With all the coverage it has received, there is little to add to the actual event per se — but you can tell individual stories about people who were involved.” Another author was disgusted by the rampant commercialism of the recent tenth anniversary events.

One of the authors also said that, “As writers, we have chosen to make things up in order to put life events into perspective. So isn’t it our duty to write about 9-11? It is our job as writers to make sense of things that happen. And things have changed irrevocably after 9-11. It’s much darker now. For instance, we all had to go through security lines at the airports in order to get here. Writing has become much darker since then.”

Someone also commented that, “It is the job of a writer to take you where you cannot go in real life. The best example of this is still ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. If you can’t be inside a war, this books shows you the absolute horrors of war. Your characters can bring these events to life and give your readers a better feel for what it was like on September 11, 2001.”

Another comment: “Detective novels are written at street level — which is why detective novels don’t work for big-themed events.”

And, “The real book waiting to be written is about how we now live in a world where there is always a war — where for young Americans, being a soldier is now a common career choice. And returning soldiers are now becoming a new under-class, violent, perhaps with drug problems. You could also write about what happens when the vets come back home.”

These are all good observations. But no one on the panel nailed it regarding what could possibly be the greatest detective story of all, the ultimate Who-Dun-It — who was really responsible for 9-11. For all too many thoughtful American citizens, this question has never been answered satisfactorily. So I started outlining my own detective novel on this subject.

“Jane Stillwater, hard-boiled NY private detective, was hired by a mysterious stranger to investigate what actually occurred on 9/11/01. Stillwater was dubious abut this assignment but started rounding up the usual suspects — the Saudis, Osama bin Laden, the CIA, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

“Stillwater, just another street-level down-on-her-luck gumshoe, had grudging taken on this difficult task for several reasons — her love of justice, her love of country, being patriotic as hell, and her burning desire to finally discover once and for all what actually had happened at the Twin Towers that day — but, most importantly, her rent was due and this huge new retainer would keep her landlord from throwing her out in the street.

“The first thing Stillwater did was check out the chain of custody of evidence: What kind of evidence was involved here and who had been in charge of it. ‘Time to start doing some legwork,’ she sighed, starting with obvious — the New York Stock Exchange. Who had bought up all those put-options on United and American stocks right before 9-11? The banks? Weapons dealers? Oil companies? The Saudis? The Cheney-Rumsfeld-Papa-Bush rat pack? Who had motive, means and opportunity? Dead end trail there. The chain of custody of evidence had been broken.

“Stillwater would have just loved to have grilled Osama bin Laden about 9-11, but the chain of custody trail was broken there too. Now the only ones who can give OBL the third-degree are some fishes.

“Next Stillwater went out to the landfill at Fresh Kills to see if she could find any evidence from the WTC building material itself. Clearly the chain of custody had been highly contaminated here. Burial in a landfill will do that. Plus how can one maintain a chain of custody of evidence after it has been hauled around Staten Island in a dump truck?

“‘What about all those airplane black boxes?’ Stillwater next asked herself. Maybe she could get her hands on a Black Box? But apparently American citizens’ right to know stops somewhere far short of the chain of custody of evidence here. And, frustrated, Stillwater couldn’t get a hold of any videotapes of a plane hitting the Pentagon either.

“But what about that L.A. Times report that Mohammed Ata and others had been training at U.S. military installations? That Saudis were flown out of the country after the attacks? Or the bizarrely-coincidental NORAD training exercises staged the very same day? Who even HAS the chain of custody there? And, since the chain has obviously been broken many times, then who broke it?

“Next, Stillwater tried to put a tail on Dick Cheney — but that trial led nowhere. That trail was as covered up as a Yeti in a snowstorm. That trail was cold. And unbeknownst to Congress, Cheney had already put a shadow government in place just hours after the attacks. How could Stillwater possibly shadow a government that was already a shadow itself?

“Next Stillwater tried to check out the air traffic controller interviews right after the attacks. Broken chain of custody of evidence there too. They’d disappeared without a trace.”

So. How is my new 9-11 crime novel going to end? Can’t tell you that! Because if I did, I would be instantly labeled a conspiracy theory nutcase instead of the next Dashiell Hammett. Or else I would have to be killed. So you’re just gonna have to wait until after my new book comes out (if I can ever find a publisher, that is.)

No wonder nobody ever writes murder-mystery novels about 9-11!

PS: The next exciting and wonderful BoucherCon http://bouchercon2012.com/ convention is going to be held in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2012. See you there! And maybe we’ll be able to see Cleveland’s congressional representative Dennis Kucinich there too. He’d fit right in at BoucherCon — because Rep. Kucinich is absolutely the best crime detective in the U.S. House of Representatives today — or ever! http://kucinich.us/index.php.

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