Many readers of my recent collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, have wondered about the origin of the group of unlikely amateur sleuths who are featured in most of the tales. Calling themselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society," they meet every Sunday afternoon for deli, debate and puzzling out the occasional whodunnits that come their way.
Just so you know, their exploits fall under the category known to most crime fans as "armchair mysteries." That is, they usually take place in one room, in which the clever main character listens to a story told by someone else in attendance, and, based solely on what's been related, solves a baffling crime.
I first fell in love with this style of crime story as a teenager, when I was introduced--alas, not formally--to Agatha Christie. Her "Tuesday Night Club" stories featured a recurring cast of characters who met on the designated night and tried to solve mysterious crimes. As one self-important person after another invariably failed to figure out whodunnit, it remained only for the beloved Miss Marple to shed light on the problem.
Soon after, I learned that Isaac Asimov, usually known for his science fiction works, had also tried his hand at armchair mysteries. His "Black Widowers" stories featured a similar set of erudite, articulate characters—-all men—-who met regularly for elaborate dinners, during which they'd attempt to solve a crime or untangle a puzzle. When they failed to do so—-as they inevitably did—-their patient, long-suffering waiter Henry helpfully provided the answer.
With these classic stories as inspiration, I decided to try doing such a series myself. But I also wanted to bring a modern-day sensibility to the form. "The Smart Guys Marching Society" is the irony-drenched name chosen by four reasonably successful baby-boomers for their weekly Sunday afternoon bull sessions. Embattled males all, with assorted wives and kids and mortgages, they seek to hang onto whatever dignity is left to them in middle age by contentiously debating the issues of the day.
At least, that's what they thought they were going to do. Somehow, though, what they often end up doing instead is solving crimes.
Or rather, trying to solve them. To their surprise, the newest member of the group—-a wry, somewhat mysterious old man named Isaac—-is kind of a whiz at it.
Of course, there's another difference between the Smart Guys stories in From Crime to Crime, and those by Christie and Asimov I mentioned earlier.
Namely, the Smart Guys Marching Society is real.
Many years ago, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred and I met weekly in my house in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles.
Though other guys joined us for short periods, or even as invited guests, we four made up the core group. As in my short stories—-and for similar, self-deprecating reasons--we called ourselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society." We figured the name would imply that we didn't really think we were all that smart—-which, of course, was exactly what we did think.
Every Sunday, we'd scarf down snacks, drink beer and discuss what Fred invariably called "the big issues."
Trust me, it wasn't as lame as it sounds. Okay, maybe it was.
In any case, there is historical precedent. A similar "conversation group" was formed in 1872 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey, among others. (Apparently, even Asimov's stories were vaguely inspired by a men's club of which he was a member.)
Not that I haven't taken some dramatic license in my own stories. For example, the dialogue and interactions among the characters, though loosely based on the attitudes and opinions of the four of us, are entirely fictional. The Fred, Mark and Bill are all, to a man, more intelligent, articulate and reasonable than my narrative needs required. Believe me, they'll be the first to say so.
Even more importantly, the only mystery we ever tried to solve involved a missing tub of artichoke dip.
However, the greatest difference between the real-life Smart Guys and the stories in my book is that there never was an Isaac. Part wish-fulfillment, part tribute to Asimov's tales, part memories of my own beloved grandfather, the Isaac that populates these stories is—-for better or worse--a figment of my imagination.
That said, the book wouldn't exist without the real Smart Guys Marching Society, and the friendship—-hidden under all the bad jokes, endless debate, and high rant—-that grew out of those weekly Sunday get-togethers.
So thanks, guys. I hope I did us justice.