When I created my historical mystery series, I needed a protagonist who was troubled, heroic and vulnerable. As a veteran, I understand that emotion one feels when one is discharged from the military and one has difficulty assimilating back into civilian life. War and the military have codes of honor that do not match-up with the civilian codes. We honor the war dead, but we don’t do much for the war living. All I need to give as evidence are the high suicide rates amongst returning vets and the abysmal lack of support given by the Veterans’ Hospitals around these great United States.
The first two mini-mysteries in my series have a lot to do with veterans and their post-traumatic issues and the hospitals that care for them. In my opinion, if the living amongst us who are not veterans would spend more time caring about these two issues, then returning veterans would be much obliged. In my first novel, Pat O’Malley cannot have a physical, romantic relationship with a woman because of his war experiences. The American Civil War was the most horrendous war we have ever experienced as a nation. More lives were lost because of the terrible field hospital care for the wounded than there were lives lost on the battle fields. In addition, as I point out in my novels, there were draft riots and other crimes that also took their toll on the populace. In summary, the Civil War took more American lives than any future wars, including World War Two.
I love veteran authors. James Jones, J. D. Salinger, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Tim O’Brien, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk, and even Miguel de Cervantes, were all vets who put passionate rage, humor and intelligence into their work following service to their countries. Salinger, who was one of the young men who invaded Normandy Beach on D-Day, once mentioned Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address. I believe it was in his mini-novel, Seymour: an Introduction. Seymour Glass, a veteran and family mystic from World War Two, stated that “Lincoln should have just shaken his fist at the audience in Gettysburg instead of giving a speech.” I think the vet authors I have read were all shaking their fists at civilians in their writing. That’s what I am doing in my Pat O’Malley series. We need to understand more about what causes the wars and we need to understand vets who return from wars. Memorializing the dead is only a mental exercise for those who have not been in the military. We vets carry it all with us to our individual graves. You need not remind us.
My father was a Pearl Harbor Survivor. He never told me or the family what happened on that day of December 7, 1941 until he was well into his sixties. He did “act out” in his alcoholism, womanizing and other negative behaviors. However, just before he died, in 2001, we were sharing literature, and he was sober over twenty years, and I was on my own road to slow recovery. The books we shared were by Lawrence Block, a veteran mystery novelist, and they starred Matthew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and police officer. Dad and I would each read the books, comment about them, and share a few laughs. Little did I realize that my subconscious was storing away the framework for my own mystery series set in post-Civil War New York City. Patrick James O’Malley is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, but he’s unemployed and living in Poe’s Cottage in the Bronx at the behest of the government. He has sworn off booze, like Matt Scudder, and he also has a prostitute, Rebecca Charming, as his intellectual paramour. Block also uses a prostitute as Scudder’s girlfriend and confidante in his novels. I was, unconsciously, creating an historical version of Block’s formula for a mystery series set in 1865 New York!
My father died before I could show him my new mysteries. He would have loved them, I know, because he loved the Matthew Scudder books we shared together in sobriety. These are the moments to memorialize: two vets, father and son, who can share something precious that talks about recovery and doesn’t glamorize violence, and yet these books have the intensity of war and its aftermath. My Dad and all vets live with this “intensity” every day of their waking lives. Sometimes, they have difficulty communicating the need for peace they harbor deep inside, and it often kills them. The civilians memorialize them, but they often fail to understand that intensity and its root causes.
Art soothes the savage beast in all of us. I hope you can get soothed by reading my mini-mystery series. I am soothed by writing it. And, somewhere, somehow, my Dad and other vets will download (in my father’s case, “upload”) a copy and also get infused with the message I have attempted to capture within. The warriors do it because they want you to have peace. Try to understand them when they return. They just need a little time alone to get it together again and become human like the rest of us.
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