My sci-fi murder mystery, In Retrospect, comes out this week, and in keeping with the title, it seems like a good time to reflect on a few of the experiences in my life that informed the book. In chronological order:
As a child in the Sixties, I listened to the news with my family every night, and every night on the news, Walter or Chet or Howard would tell me how many Americans had been killed in Vietnam that day. I remember the numbers: 14, 6, 9, 21, 8. I remember that once—just once—it was zero, but I could not be glad.
There are two wars in In Retrospect: one a thousand years before start of the book, when the planet itself was shaken to the core and mighty civilizations fell, and another, smaller war that ended just before the start of the book. My protagonist, Merit Rafi, a time-traveling investigator, was a member of the militia as long as that conflict lasted, and a resistance operative long after. Readers of my stuff often ask why a peacenik like me writes about war. The answer is: Because the theme is deeply embedded in my psyche because of Vietnam; it is who I am.
A long-time science fiction fan, I’ve always been especially drawn to time-travel tales. I read A Wrinkle in Time as a teen, and was smitten by the Star Trek episode with Edith Keeler (“The City on the Edge of Forever”). But it was The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, that made me think “I want to do that!” Not a book known by mainstream audiences, this sweet tale of how a man gets his revenge on the cut-throat corporate world that takes advantage of him utterly blew my mind.
Watching the pieces of the puzzle that is The Door Into Summer fall inexorably together in the last quarter of the book remains one of the highlights of my reading life. The story is poignant, exciting, and wholly satisfying. I can’t claim to have accomplished that with In Retrospect, but I can say that I wrote the book with a single goal: that of making my readers’ heads explode when the pieces finally fit together, the events are seen in their proper order, and the mystery is solved.
The other thing I learned from The Door Into Summer is that it’s not the complexity of the science behind the time travel that gives the story its depth; it’s how much you care about the characters. Which brings me to the tea man.
There is no more minor character in In Retrospect. He is only mentioned twice, and he does not have a name. But his presence is essential precisely because he is unimportant. Because he is the there representing the rest of us; the people to whom adventures do not happen. He is there to show that we are connected on this Earth, no matter where we are from; that all of us have value.
“A kerosene lantern flickered in the middle of a table. Four men and four women, the most experienced of the remaining militia captains, huddled around it, talking in subdued voices. A gnarled old man with a scarf wrapped around his head measured tea from a paper sack into cups. A tiny coal fire burned under an ancient kettle. There was no other light…. The sound of vehicles approaching brought the cellar to life. Dark figures appeared as if out of the walls, crowding around the entrance. The table was cleared, more chairs brought forward. …The lower-ranking officers remained on their feet, ringing the table, listening as the leaders talked. Laughter erupted at some joke or other. The tea man squeezed in and out of the circle, delivering his concoctions.”
During my fifteen years living in Egypt, I met many tea men—and door men, and tinkers, and knife-sharpeners. I rarely knew their names. They did their jobs and disappeared. But they affected me with their kindness, and I will not forget them.
Ellen Larson’s first story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. More recently, she has sold stories to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (Barry Award finalist) and Big Pulp and is the author of the NJ Mysteries, The Hatch and Brood of Time and Unfold the Evil, featuring a sleuthing reporter (currently being reprinted by Poisoned Pen Press). Her current book is In Retrospect, a dystopian mystery (“Carefully crafted whodunit” -PW starred; “Cleverly structured mix of science fiction and mystery” -Booklist).
Larson lived for seventeen years in Egypt, where she worked as a substantive editor in the field of economic development and developed a love of cultures not her own.These days she lives in an off-grid cabin in upstate New York, enjoying the solitude.
Ellen is giving away one Advance Review Copy of In Retrospect a a U.S. or Canada resident who leaves a comment on this post before midnight Friday, December 13th (Mountain Time). The winner will be posted here on Saturday.