It happened by accident. Just a trifle. A commercial ploy. A pop hook. I suppose I could have resisted, but I decided to give in.
It came up as I dashed out the first story of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Mind you, it wasn’t a series yet. Just an idea for a short story. A romp. A gas. I was having a blast ripping off a tale of false identities, blackmail and murder. All in a throwback, corkscrew style as a valentine to Chandler, Hammett, Cagney, Bogart.
I’m cranking out dialogue for an interview scene between our nameless, P.I. hero and a new, hardheaded client. The detective’s already long on attitude, fueled further by a customer who’s got something to hide. It all seemed like a natural bit of writing. Organic. Nothing contrived about it.
“You want the old man shadowed,” I nodded. “What for, Mrs. Leblanc?”
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, “I want you to catch him with her.”
“That is delicate,” I said. “You don’t strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc.”
With abrupt confidence she replied, “You strike me as the impertinent type.”
“Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“I’ve been working it into a big ad campaign I’m planning: ‘Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.’ Catchy, don’t you think?”
I thought nothing of it at the time. I liked the exchange between the characters, gave the screen a nice fat smile, and kept writing.
After wrapping up the yarn, I decided to craft another. The first go-round proved such a trip to write that the juices flowed, all right. I had barely an outline in mind for the second story. Merely the loosest notion of plot points. What sprung to mind immediately was an allusion to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”—it’s hard to punch out hard-boiled prose and not see the words of the genre’s big boys before your eyes. So I penned the opening lines:
It’s bad business to plug your client. It’s bad business, bad for P.I.’s everywhere, just plain bad all around.
As a short, first paragraph, I liked its grab. But it needed a quick wrap, a final punch, a knockout line. That’s when that dialogue came back to me. I could see where I was going, but it seemed as perfect a fit as Edward G. Robinson in a bowler. Or Harlow in a teddy. I typed in a closing line to the paragraph:
Sometimes my line of work calls for it.
Now I’d done it. I’d given my hard-nosed gumshoe a tagline all his own. Hadn’t planned to. Hadn’t meant to. But writing’s a funny practice. I don’t pretend to understand the creative process. Once in a great while a literary gem seems to appear right before your eyes. On other occasions, the most shallow devices cry out for use. You bat away and hack and slash and keep at it.
There’s not a whole lot of planning that goes into my craft. I’m winging it as best I can. Sometimes it’s gold. Sometimes it crap. All I can do is give it my best shot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.