The Fractal Murders: The Story Behind the Story
Editor's note: Originally self-published, Mark Cohen's The Fractal Murders won tremendous praise from reviewers and was a Book Sense Top Ten Mystery in 2002. Impressed by Cohen's voice, creativity, and humor, Mysterious Press purchased The Fractal Murders and will release a hardcover version in May of 2004. A sequel, Bluetick Revenge, is in the works. In this Q&A, Mark takes time to discuss The Fractal Murders (TFM) and how it came to be.
Q. First tell us, what is a fractal?
A. A fractal is a geometric shape with a pattern that repeats itself at different scales of magnitude. Most objects in nature are fractals. Ginger roots are a great example; every ginger root is unique, yet they all look somewhat similar. And the "branches" of each root have the same general shape as the root as whole.
Q. How do fractals come into play in TFM?
A. The mystery begins when math professor Jayne Smyers discovers that three other math professors in different parts of the United States - all specialists in fractal geometry - were murdered or committed suicide within a short period of time. Unable to chalk it up to coincidence, she contacts the FBI. When the feds tell her the three deaths are unrelated, she hires private eye Pepper Keane to find the connection.
Q. Tell us about Pepper Keane.
A. Pepper is a former Marine JAG who got burned out practicing law and now makes his living as a private eye. He lives in the mountain town of Nederland, Colorado, west of Boulder with his two dogs - Buck and Wheat. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock 'n roll and a knack for quoting song lyrics at just the right time. Although he is only 5'10" tall, he was a heavyweight boxer and is not easily intimidated.
Q. He does not seem like a typical "tough guy." I mean, he reads philosophy for fun and flirts with vegetarianism. Where does that come from?
A. He's a deep thinker, though you might not know it by talking to him. He's struggling to make sense of life, and he's more comfortable doing that by reading western philosophy than through organized religion. He jokes that his authority problem prevents him from believing in God.
Q. He also has some strong feelings about soft drinks?
A. Definitely. He loves Diet Coke, but only if it is from a fountain - not from a can or bottle. It irritates him when someone asks, "Is Pepsi okay?"
Q. Jayne Smyers is an interesting woman. Can you tell us a little about her?
A. She's very bright, of course. She earned a doctorate in mathematics at Harvard and teaches at the university in Boulder. Pepper finds her attractive even though she is as tall as he is. She volunteers at a women's shelter. Her parents were killed when terrorists blew up an airplane over Lockerbie in Scotland, so she has strong views about right and wrong, which is one reason she wants to prove that the deaths of three specialists in fractal geometry were not a coincidence.
Q. One character I really liked is Pepper's sidekick, Scott McCutcheon. Where did you come up with the idea of an unemployed astrophysicist as a sidekick?
A. A friend I have known for many years did graduate work in astrophysics, but couldn't find a job and ended up as what he describes as, "a self-employed techno geek."
Q. Some of the banter between Pepper and Scott reminds me of the relationship between Spenser and Hawk in Robert B. Parker's "Spenser" novels. Were you consciously trying to achieve that?
A. I love the "Spenser" novels, but I was not trying to imitate Parker. The relationship between Pepper and Scott is in some ways similar to the relationship between Spenser and Hawk, but the relationship between Pepper and Scott is based on my real life experiences with male friends.
Q. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was the humor. Where does that come from?
A. I've always had a gift for that. As a kid I often assumed the role of class clown. In my twenties and thirties I competed successfully in humorous speech contests. I think part of my sense of humor arises from the fact that my father was Jewish and my mother was Baptist; the absurdity of that has helped me see other humorous inconsistencies as I go through life. Even when I try to write something dark and bloody, the humor just seems to come to me.
Q. You've practiced law for more than twenty years. When did you decide to write a mystery?
A. In 1993. I had just gotten divorced and had time on my hands. I was reading several mysteries each week, really enjoying them, and at some point I told myself, "I can do this."
Q. How did you decide to make use of fractals in the plot?
A. It's funny. I remember reading an article about fractals while sitting in a dentist's office, and years later when I decided to write a mystery I remembered that article and thought fractal geometry might be a fun concept to include. Then I just had to figure out why someone would want to kill three math professors with expertise in that area.
Q. Are you a "math person?"
A. No, that's one of the great ironies about the success of TFM. Math was always my worst subject. I hated math, and I'm sure one reason I went into law was that I lacked the mathematical skills necessary for some of the other professions. I became interested in math only after I started studying philosophy. When I was reading Descartes I realized there are aspects of philosophy that overlap areas of mathematics, and so I became something of a "math buff."
Q. One of the things I liked about TFM is that even a person with absolutely no background in math can understand and enjoy it.
A. Yes, I'm proud of that. I explain the concept of fractals through dialogue. I have a knack for explaining complex concepts in plain English. I believe TFM will expose many readers to the concept of fractals and the role they play in our world, and these are readers who otherwise would be completely unaware of the concept.
Q. Critics have stated that your writing is exceptionally clear. Have you always had a talent for writing?
A. I think so. My father was an English teacher, and when I was young he actually made me write letters to my grandparents every month. He would check them for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Later, as a judge advocate, one of my duties was to draft correspondence for high-ranking officers. My boss was a Colonel and he would review each document, using a red pen to cross out unnecessary words. It helped me to develop a very concise style.
Q. You went through quite a bit to get TFM published. Tell us about that.
A. By the time I had completed the first draft I was confident I had written a darn good mystery. My first three agents were unable to sell it, and I knew I'd never write another one until I got TFM published, so I decided to form my own publishing company - Muddy Gap Press - and we printed 2,000 copies. It was somewhat frightening when the truck showed up with all those books, but we sold them in fairly short order. One day I received a call from a literary agent named Sandra Bond. Her sister had read TFM, liked it, and passed it on to her. She asked whether I had an agent. I told her I did not and we agreed to meet when I did a book signing at The Tattered Cover in Denver. She was enthused about TFM, and I felt that was something that had been lacking in my prior agents. She also impressed me with her professionalism; I knew she wouldn't give up after one or two rejections. So I hired her and she began contacting publishers. Sometime after that Book Sense named TFM one of its Top Ten mysteries for the Fall of 2002 and people began taking it more seriously.
Q. And the rest is history?
Q. The next Pepper Keane mystery is Bluetick Revenge. What's that about?
A. It begins with Pepper's theft of a bluetick coonhound from the leader of an outlaw biker gang. Karlynn Slade is the girlfriend of the gang's leader, Thadeus Bugg. Karlynn decides to leave Bugg and steals a lot of cash from him when she does. The feds are pressuring Karlynn to testify against Bugg and then go into the witness protection program. She refuses to cooperate unless she can get her dog, a bluetick coonhound, from Bugg, so her attorney hires Pepper to steal the dog. Her attorney then asks Pepper to keep an eye on her. In the meantime, not knowing that Pepper is serving as Karlynn's babysitter, Bugg hires Pepper to locate her. Pepper figures there is no harm in taking Bugg's money, so he agrees, though he has no intention of doing any work for Bugg. Karlynn gets scared and gives Pepper the slip. Pepper must find her before the feds arrest her or Bugg kills her, and thus begins a multi-state journey. Then Bugg learns that Pepper was protecting Karlynn all along and puts a contract out on Pepper. While all this is going on Pepper crosses paths with biker gangs, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, gradually obtaining leads on the identity of the man who who killed his cousin, a Denver police officer. In the end Pepper must protect Karlynn, avoid being killed by Bugg's gang, and find his cousin's killer.
Q. Wow. I'll look forward to that.
A. It will be a fun read.
Copyright © 2004 Mark Cohen
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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