My first detective story (written at age twelve) was a heavily plagiarized if not 100% verbatim version of the exploits of Sam Shovel, a satirical take-off on detective Sam Spade in the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I’m not sure where I came across the Sam Shovel jokes I repeated in my story, but they might have appeared in a skit on the wildly popular TV show Laugh-In (1967-1973) or Sam Shovel might have been featured in Mad Magazine, a source of comic information I consulted every month.
I remember my father giving me the original novel to read and although I found the plot a bit obscure, I was attracted to the mysterious cover illustration.
Last year I found my handwritten story in a box of papers my mother had saved.
It begins: “You’ve all heard of Sam Spade, private eye, well, my name is Sam Shovel, private nose. The other day I climbed out of my chandelier. You see, I’m a light sleeper. I went to my private office, opened my private door, went in and sat behind my private desk and my private secretary came in and poured Murine into my private eyes.”
It continued: “I turned to the door and knocked. The same beautiful blond opened the door. She had a gun in her left hand, a gun in her right and a knife between her teeth. I knew something was holding her back— her garter was caught on the doorknob.” It ended: “Quick, quick,” she yelled. “Shoot him with you .44.” I didn’t have a .44 so I shot him twice with my .22. Just going to prove that Sam Shovel always digs up his man.”
I recall going out to the back yard one afternoon during a dry, hot, howling Santa Ana windstorm, wrapping myself in a blanket and working on this story. I remember thinking, ‘I am going to be a writer!’ Fast forward 40 years to 2008; I had still not become a writer. I had started out as a high school English teacher and later changed careers into landscape design. I did write, of course: proposals, contracts, letters, reports, etc. for work, and I did read mystery and detective stories all the time (I called this research) for fun. But I wasn’t actually writing fiction.
One day, I thought of a possible story. What if a man called a landscape designer and asked her to come and look at some work he wanted done in his back garden. Suppose the man lived in a new area of town in a grand McMansion. The designer arrives on the appointed day. The man tells the designer he had been away in South America on business for three months and had left his wife behind to watch the house and dogs. In his absence, the wife decided to clean up once and for all the ratty succulent bed along the south back wall. She asked her mow, blow and go guy to order a truckload of mulch, wheelbarrow it into the back and dump it on top of the offending plants.
The man returned from his trip. He walked outside his first morning back with a cup of coffee to look at his beautiful collection of rare succulents, given as gifts over the last twenty years from friends at the university. It would be a hot sunny day and the light would beat down on the wide lawn and the south planting bed now covered with pine chips. The man would turn his head to explain what happened and rage would begin to suffuse his face. He would say quietly, ‘I could have killed her.”
So, even though I was not writing, I was thinking about writing. If you want to write novel someday, that’s still important.
I took this photograph of succulents in a greenhouse on the property of the Donnell Garden designed by Thomas Church. I am not sure who maintained this collection, but I loved the colors, shapes and textures.
1930 First Edition Maltese Falcon cover. Source: en.wikipedia.org