Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watts Up

"Watts Up" by Doc Finch, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2011.
East over the peaker by Peter Baer
East over the peaker, a photo by Peter Baer on Flickr.

Note: This photo is by Peter Baer, who says it's a Peaker. How would I know? I do not intend to imply that this particular unit is involved in the sort of nefarious dealings that occur in the story. End of legal blather...

Dr. Samuel Johnson said "Only a fool writes for anything but money." I don't mean to denigrate the pecuniary impulse, which is no doubt universal, but I would argue that there are other reasons people choose to write what they do.

People write fiction to entertain, to thrill, to amuse, to persuade... the list goes on. But let's not forget what we might call the educational impulse. The writer writes fiction in order to teach you about something real.

A smart writer is careful not to turn it into a lesson, because people will stop reading. But done well it can be quite enjoyable.

One writer who was excellent at it was Dick Francis. People think of his books as about horse racing, and indeed the ponies appeared in every book. But his protagonists belonged to many different occupations and told us about them. So, depending on the book, you might get a guided tour of the wine industry, glass-blowing, meteorology, etc.

This story is at least the second by Doc Finch concerning Vlad Hammersmith, an energy consultant. And just as Dick Francis seems to know an infinite number of ways to cheat around horses, Finch wants to show us everything that can go criminally wrong around power plants.

Which does not mean you have to sit through a lecture on Our Friend The Electron. Here is how the story starts:

I was in the plant's control room with Joe Lee, examining the vibration readouts on the turbines, when the naked man fell into the room. He blasted through the wood and tarpaper roof, scattering lumber fragments, and was deflected by the equipment racks toward me. He was tumbling, head over heels, with his legs straight and his arms up over his head. For some reason I remember he still had boots on. Muddy Leather ones. Ankle high. And I remember thinking when he collided with me and the blackness gathered quickly, Funny, he looked softer than that.

Has Doc got your attention? He certainly had mine.

When Vlad regains consciousness he finds himself in the middle of the investigation of the mysterious death of the falling naked man. He is helping a female forensic cop who is convinced that the coroner is sweeping things under the rug.

You'll learn a good deal about the kind of power plant called a peaker unit, and you'll have a good time along the way.


  1. Dr.Johnson's remark is usually rendered as "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." (You can very likely infer why the precise language of the observation has stayed with me.) I wasn't there to hear him say it, despite what you may have heard, but I've always felt he was speaking less of the importance of money than of the futility of expecting anything else for one's efforts.

    So I take the words to be expressing resignation for more than mercenary cynicism. And even then I doubt they represent the gentleman's true convictions. His written words belie them—he wrote far too much far too well with the very clear intent of informing, elevating, and indeed entertaining his readers.

  2. Thanks for the note. My memory of Doctor J's line was closer to yours but I went with what I found on the web. (Shame on me, a librarian.)