Molecule Men

“Molecule Men” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Faber, a British graduate student, is investigating the life and death of expat detective author Charles Thornton in Berlin, Germany.

The canal was directionless, its still waters reflecting the arcing sun. Faber suspected that this route would bring him back to Reichenberger Strasse and to Marius’ apartment, and at that moment he preferred not to retrace his steps along Degarmo Strasse. Thornton’s apartment, a large, grey concrete cipher, was something that he would have to return to after he had learned more about the writer and his life in Berlin.

In the back of his mind, tape reels turned relentlessly clockwise, and he thought of the contraband recordings stowed in the pocket of his suitcase. He really ought to have thanked Stephen, should at least have sent him an e-mail. Pulling out his phone, his mind flashed forward and he saw himself scrolling through the contacts to Stephen L, but he soon recalled that his mobile had become nothing more than a hi-tech timepiece since leaving Gatwick yesterday morning.

After ten minutes, he saw Marius’ balcony above him, casting a shadow on the pavement below. Just past the balcony was the turning onto Reichenberger Strasse. The bare floorboards and light, wooden furniture of his friend’s apartment seemed a little cold as Faber made his way through the living room and back to the office. There was a note stuck to the outside of the door that he hadn’t noticed earlier. Scrawled quickly and almost illegibly in Marius’ hand were the words: Back by 9! M.

What he needed now was direction, purpose. Slumping onto the futon, he picked up the cheap Berlin travel guide that he had bought yesterday at the airport. The front cover was divided into two strips: on the left a vertical stripe of red with the word Berlin printed along it: to the left was a photograph of a tall, silvered steel or aluminium sculpture that formed the two-dimensional outline of a man. The figure, one arm and one leg extended in profile, was punctuated with holes of different sizes from its watery feet to the sunspot at the top of its head.

He jumped to the contents page and then on to directions to the sculpture, which appeared to be called the Molecule Man, a 100 foot high piece of modern art in a borough named Friedrichshain. The back cover told him that he could take the U1 there if he travelled several stops further away from Marius’s apartment and on past Thornton’s. Faber scooped a handful of the tapes into his satchel, letting them fall between the books that were already stowed inside it.

He then went back to the suitcase where, nestled between the neatly folded clothes, there was a pea-green Sony Walkman. A remnant of his childhood, it had been stashed in the back of a closet at his parents’ home with a pair of 1980s headphones tangled around it. He could never have suspected that it would come in this useful nearly twenty years later. Though he had substituted the worn-down headphones for a spare pair of iPod ear buds, it still reminded him of the small, warm home in Kent where he had grown up, and of evenings spent listening to 1960s rock n’ roll on hand-me-down cassette tapes.

The satchel was bulging, but he needed one more thing. In the living room, Marius’ laptop was open on the coffee table. Faber swiped the mouse pad and typed “the second murderer thornton” into the search bar. He pulled up a copy of the short story and hit Print.

Stories, he knew, had a tendency to begin. And Thornton’s was no exception. Published in 19__, “The Second Murderer” had been the author’s debut, and as lost as Faber felt, he knew that this was somewhere to begin.

He picked up his bag and promised himself, for the thousandth time, that he would switch to an altogether less heavy career.

₰   ₰   ₰

As he stepped into the U-Bahn for the second time that morning, a trio of middle-aged Germans entered at the other end of the carriage. Two were wearing dark sunglasses, one carrying a guitar and the other a clarinet; the third had a saxophone slung across his chest and a trilby jauntily balanced on his head. Faber sat down and pulled out the Thornton story, but as the train rolled away from the platform, they began to perform.

A syncopated beat on the guitar underscored a familiar melody. It took a few bars for their soft-jazz “When the Saints Go Marching In” to worm its way into Faber’s brain. The melody moved from sax to clarinet, and the saxophonist stepped forward, negotiating with expert balance the aisle of the moving train car, and holding out his hat in search of spare change.

Most eyes remained fixed on the floor as he passed, but by the time his pepper-grey stubble reached Faber, tourist’s guilt had set in and the Englishman was digging in his jeans pocket for some coins. His hand came out with a five Euro note as the sax player reached his end of the train.

“Sorry,” Faber said, directing a wan smile at the old man and so sealing the fate of the five Euros in his hand. “I don’t have anything smaller.”

A gleam in the busker’s eye turned into a grin, and he bowed deeply, trilby extended carefully under Faber’s chin. The note fell into the hat, the saxophonist straightened, and he said: “Thank you. We collect for the Imaginary Manufacture.”

Faber wondered if he’d misheard the old man, suspected that he had heard English words where there had been only German.

“The Imaginary Manufacture?” he repeated.

“Yes. For the blind.”

He turned and gestured back to his accompanists, who, Faber realised, were sightless behind their dark glasses. This seemed to be all the explanation the saxophonist would offer, so he bowed, turned and muttered: “Again, thank you.”

The train was slowing as the man ambled back to join his companions, and when the doors shunted open at Görlitzer Bahnhof, they exited. Faber watched them disappear behind accelerating train windows, then pulled out a ballpoint pen and scribbled at the top of the Thornton story the words “Imaginary Manufacture” and an oversized question mark.

Finally, he let his eyes wander to the first paragraphs of the story, let them skim forward as the U-Bahn did the same.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into his office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room, and Delaney tried to infer the brand from the small twists that she was puffing toward his face. Gauloises, maybe?

She was wealthy, or at least prided herself on appearing so. The shiny silk hugged her figure and then disappeared under a powder-blue bolero jacket that clashed with the scarlet dress. Don’t mention the jacket, Delaney said to himself.

“Nice jacket,” Delaney said. “You’re late.”

But he was interrupted by a THUD. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. Delaney almost spilled his coffee. Then he pulled himself together and tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked—


A voice sounded over the train car’s PA system. Looking up, Faber saw the movement of people and realised that they had reached the last stop. Crumpling “The Second Murderer” into his bag, he stepped onto the platform and followed the stream of people moving towards exit onto Warschauer Strasse.

Moving into the sunlight, he turned right and headed for the canal waters that were glistening below. Berlin’s veins, he thought.

Though his reading had been cut short, he didn’t much care. Like many writerly debuts, Thornton’s first piece of fiction was formulaic, although it showed more of a literary bent than some of his contemporaries’ stories. Faber didn’t need to read it again. In the end, the dame wasn’t the killer. Her boyfriend, a gangster named Lyons who was the eponymous Second Murderer, had roped her into something, and in the end he made her choose between shooting the victim or being killed herself.

Compared to The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, it was a plot piece with little characterisation—Faber had admitted as much in the opening chapters of his dissertation—but it had been the first case solved by P.I Ray Delaney, and for that reason if no other, it was always noted in detective fiction and often reproduced in anthologies on Thornton and the pulp magazines of his time. The year it was published, 19__, Thornton had just returned from his army service, and more likely than not, he was trying only to earn some money by selling knock-off detectives to eager magazines.

Its literary merit aside, the story had served Faber well. Whenever he felt as though his dissertation was nothing more than a feeble attempt at building castles on cobwebs, he had turned back to “The Second Murderer” for its ludicrous similes and cardboard cut-out characters.

He made a left onto a street running parallel with the water, and there it was. A mile or so away, the Molecule Man towered out of the water and reflected sunlight back into the canal below. But he wasn’t alone. The photograph used on the guidebook’s cover showed only one figure, his hands extended outward as though in defence, and one leg pushed forward to form a giant step. Now Faber saw, as he moved closer, that there were three such figures, identically posed, and joined together at the hands and feet. They were surreally still in the summer afternoon.

They must have come after Thornton’s time, Faber thought. Shapes cut out of aluminium and then punctured with holes from head to toe. He wasn’t sure whether that said something about Berlin, or about Thornton, or if it said anything to anyone about anything.

He told himself to stop analysing, and as the Molecule Men grew closer, he placed his palms on the wall to his right and vaulted on to it, then sat, dangling his legs over the edge and above the sodden grass and sand that led to the canal.

Around half of the tapes were in his bag. Some were labelled with years, some with years and months, and others not at all, but he picked them out and lay them in what he could make of chronological order. He needed a timeline, needed to use the tapes to fill in the gaps that existed in Thornton’s biography, from his childhood in England to his move to Boston, from his war service to his move to Berlin. Most importantly, Faber had to discover why he chosen Berlin.

The first cassette buzzed in his ears as he pressed Play on the side of the Walkman. Charles Thornton’s voice was prefaced by a throat clearance and the squeak of new cotton on old leather. Faber glanced at the cassette sleeve again, printed on it the date “19__”. And then Thornton began to speak, and suddenly Faber saw the creases and folds of his skin move in tandem with the words, and the apartment block on Degarmo Strasse didn’t feel so empty any longer.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

The Detectives’ Book Club

he second time I saw Sam Hammett, he strode toward me with an unwarranted rancor, crumpled with a surly air into the chair opposite me, and dropped onto the table a hardback book. The sound of it striking the rosewood made a wizened crone browsing the non-fiction splash coffee on the carpet tiles.

Hammett was greying. With the occasional stripe of black reaching back across the bristles, his hair was the half-used eraser to his pencil-thin body. His mustache draped his upper lip in a great arc. He seemed nonetheless to be sneering.

“This,” he said, stabbing the book’s dust cover with a narrrow finger, “is not what I asked for, Mr. Archer.”

The Second Murderer is a classic work of detective fiction, Mr. Hammett.” I paused, under the illusion that silence might be the solution. But he leaned forward, opened the book to the first chapter and proceeded to read:

Ray Delaney’s coffee smelt like the underside of a bus. As the heat dissipated into the early morning sky, he could hear the counterpoint of city wildlife bubbling just beneath the veneer of civilisation. Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky Californian soil.

The ice in Hammett’s stare burned my face. “Like the underside of a BUS?” he said. “What the hell kind of writing is that?”

“That is, Mr. Hammett, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in detective fiction. Charles Thornton is not quite our best-selling author here at the Mysterious Bibliophile, but we certainly make a healthy profit on this novel alone.”

“It’s about as elegant as as…” He fumbled at the air between us. “As a… tarantula choking down a piece of dog food!”

A cough hybridised with a burst of chuckling escaped from a figure seated in the far corner of the store. He stood, reached with a glabrous hand a black wooden pipe to his mouth, and stepped toward us around a tower of Erle Stanley Gardners. His suit was better upholstered than my couch.

“Good to see you in such festive spirits, Sam.”  In spite of the pipe he enunciated each syllable with an Ivy League exactitude. His jacket and vest were of a heavy tweed, and though his chin was weak he concealed it with copious puffs of smoke. He seemed to have punctured Hammett’s pomposity.

Hammett stood. “Ray,” he said. “I didn’t realize you frequented this place. Is this where they keep your poetry these days?”

Chandler smirked, his eyes watery but keen behind round, thin-rimmed glasses. He said: “I’ve circumvented the need to demean myself in the world of poetry, Sam, and so have you. In fact, much like Mr. Thornton—I’m terribly surprised you’re not a fan—we can bask in the glory of popular success without the expectation of  critical praise.”

Still seated, I watched this Homeric struggle. Hammett’s gaze seemed to soften in the face of this raffishness, while Chandler—quieter, smaller and trying his best not to seem flustered in spite of it all—puffed a perfectly-twisting curl of oak-flavored smoke into the air.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “Please take a seat, I’m sure I can find something to both Mr. Hammett’s and Mr. Chandler’s taste.” I rose and went to the back of the store. A stack of titles as yet unsorted teetered between two leather armchairs. I removed a soft cover and returned to my seat, perched my glasses on my nose and turned to the opening paragraph:

Her features, soft like wax, are half-hidden in the darkness. I wait until the train crossing the bridge screams into a corner and fades before I ask her why she is here. She speaks in riddles, fractal sentences, misappropriated phrases and English half-wrapped in her native tongue. I sputter in German, consonants and vowels spill beneath the underpass and flicker for a moment in the midnight air before obscurity snatches them. We talk like broken glass before, finally, her face leans toward mine and I see a wisp of warmth on her lips vaporise between us.

I could neither gauge their reaction nor draw a deep, well-earned breath before Hammett sprang to his feet and said: “Wonderful, that IS more like it, Mr. Archer—The Laconic German, correct?”

“Yes, one of J. Ford Hadley’s more pop…”

“Good God, Sam!” crowed Chandler, pulling the pipe from his mouth and swinging it in an arc as though dispensing incense. “He just spat at the alphabet and hoped for the best. There’s nothing there that one would be unable to express in a single sentence.”

“What sentence would you suggest, exactly, my dear Raymond?” he said, arching a bushy black eyebrow.

Chandler, now twisted in his chair the better to address Hammett, replaced his pipe and said: “I kissed her,” he paused. “Like she was my last drink of the night.”

Hammett raised a hand to his forehead and his blazer ballooned out from his sides. If he were any thinner he would disappear, I thought. He began to pace like a tiger enclosed, vivacious yet centered, appropriating with embracing gestures of his arms words from the book-dust around him. “All you’re interested in, Ray: Adjectives and nouns. Try some verbs some day.”

“Nouns and adjectives are all that this country is interested in, Sam,” said Chandler.

The words bounced off Hammett as he paced toward the non-fiction. The old woman, now sipping lukewarm dregs from a Mysterious Bibliophile coffee mug, squinted up at Hammett, blind to the author’s stare.

Chandler creased back to face me in his chair and placed his hand on the dust cover of The Second Murderer. He said: “Do you know, Mr. Archer, that Charles DeForest Thornton appropriated this title from me.” It was not a question. “My first novel was, in the original draft, going to be called The Second Murderer. But the agents, second only to actors in their finite wisdom, did not appreciate the reference.”

“Sometimes reference is all we have left,” I said. Chandler nodded sourly, eyes obscured in the glint of his lenses, chin hidden in a wreath of smoke. He rose slowly and traipsed past me toward his corner, and toward his miniature stack of books.

I looked back to Hammett. He was stood in a shaft of light at the front of the store, eyeing the shelves despondently. The sun—creeping in from the steps that led to the curb outside—shone onto the white streaks in his hair to form an afternoon halo. Behind me, Chandler was puffing like an irregular steam train and making notations on a battered copy of Eliot’s Waste Land.

I picked up The Second Murderer.

Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

Delaney was focused intently on the sunlight catching the right-angles of his filing cabinet. It was a dry, stubborn heat that had been many times his savior. Heat always drew from others an unexpected candor.

Delaney did not know it, but today was the first time he would see Sylvia Munroe…

Interview with a Detective

Softly, the patter. His eyelids opened. Above him the ceiling revealed a square of light, a bruised blue behind the raindrops falling against the glass. He gargled the sandpaper at the back of his throat and twisted his neck sideways to read the clock. The numbers were unfortunate. 11:16 a.m. He was due at the Idlewild at midday.

Crumpling to his feet he rolled from left to right. A convenience store polo shirt and a plastic badge reading Hi, my name is: SAM lay beside him on the floor. He kicked idly at the shirt and almost collapsed, seasick, back onto the bed.

Finding his feet proved both metaphorically and literally easier than it should have. This, he knew, was a bad sign. He shaved poorly, dabbed cologne onto his face and dressed in his only suit, a dark blue, shapeless cut of cloth, before exiting his apartment by 11:51.

*      *      *

The rain had let up. His skylight had been the victim of a passing shower. He parked across the street, slipped his car keys into an inside pocket and pushed open the door to the Idlewild.

An L-shaped bar greeted him. Shining glasses unironically, the bartender glanced in his direction; on the long upstroke of the bar sat a woman in her early forties, staring distantly at the glass in front of her. Neither of these was his subject.

His eyes finally came to rest on the short end of the bar. A man was perched on one of the tall barstools, vigilant but deeply settled, as though he did not want his presence to be noticed. Crossing the room, a forgotten scent emanated from the woman, who was now swinging a hand across her torso as though conducting some silent symphony.

He reached the end of the bar and his eyes locked on the stranger, his subject, the detective.

“My name is Sam Butler,” he said, proffering a hand.  “I’m here for the interview and—sorry I’m late—.“ The stranger completed his handshake.

“Yes, from Adventure & Intrigue magazine.” The detective crossed his legs in a manner almost feminine, tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, and tilted his head approximately forty-five degrees to the left.

“Dimmer than a thirty watt bulb at midnight,” he said, thumbing in the woman’s direction as he gestured for the bartender. The young man, close-shaven and handsome, placed a tumbler in front of Butler and moved away in slow motion.

No doubt an out-of-work actor, thought Butler, as the detective picked up a decanter and poured. The light was low but he could make out an autumnal copper stream tinkling and twirling into the glass. The detective’s eyes seemed to glow under the soft lamplight; the colour of his irises matched the background of heavy drapes.

“So what does your readership want to know?”

Butler paused, withdrawing from his pocket a small, black box. He made a May I? motion with his hands and the detective nodded. He pressed rec and said:

“Why do you come here? To the Idlewild?”

“For the atmosphere, Mr. Butler.” He made an expansive gesture and glanced at the conductress. “The smells and colours, the lights at midnight. People tell you what you want to hear by candlelight.”

“And what about real life?” asked Butler. “Pastimes, women—“ glancing at his left hand. “How does life square up to your career?”

The detective laughed. “I don’t go to the cinema or collect stamps. And I’m not married.” His face creased in the right spots. “I come to the Idlewild.”

He leaned in conspiratorially and said: “In subdued lighting the heartbeat slows to almost nothing. The Idlewild, by that reasoning, hardly exists at all.”

Leaning back he took up his glass to drink. Butler did the same, attempting to interpret the words now passing between the bartender and the woman. She was pouting, unpouting, blinking too slowly; he began to appreciate the detective’s assessment of her.

The detective unwound his legs, tied them in the other direction. He straightened and said towards the Dictaphone: “We are all actors in tiny cages, Mr. Butler. We have such a small arena in which to perform.” He paused for no reason. “We are small cogs in a large machine. It’s just that—I would rather be the oil.”

He leaned back for another sip. His aquiline nose and severe jaw were filmic, cast angular shadows on the deep green curtains. He wore his tie loose. Beneath his suit jacket Butler imagined the outline of a pistol like a poorly wrapped Christmas present.

They could hear the conductress’ voice simpering at the other end of the room, as though transmitted through a tin-can telephone. She was pretty in a leonine way, honey-coloured hair pulled back from her forehead, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones. I tipped the remaining whisky into my mouth.

“You’re trying to get to the centre of my philosophy, Mr. Butler.” It was not a question. “You are a poet? A newshound?”

“A writer.” He bobbed his head in agreement and poured again, first for his subject and then for himself. The stream of liquid caught the candlelight and made a perfect arc before coming to rest. A literal spirit level.

“All the great writers in the world, each great detective, they understand one thing: Every production of nature has had a history.” Butler didn’t argue. “Every complex structure is the summing up of many contrivances.”

“Is that what you do? Deconstruct? Decontrive?” He shrugged off the question, picked up his glass and leaned back into his seat.

“In my work I am turned into a sort of machine. A machine built for observing facts, extinguishing lies and grinding out conclusions.”

After some verbal arithmetic Butler said: “Well my job is to extinguish facts, grind out lies and observe conclusions.”

“Newshound…” murmured his companion.

Through the glass sides of his tumbler, the detective’s sharp lines were made bulbous and clownish. As he watched the man taking a drink, Butler imagined oil derricks dipping and rising. Small cogs in a large machine. He placed his glass on the formica counter. It cast a flickering candlelit shadow in one direction; in the other the bar lights produced a stiff, stark phantom.

The detective lifted his glass and made a small circle with his left hand. Half-hearted ice cubes chimed. “To the oil,” he said.

Butler raised his own glass and accepted the toast.

*      *      *

The moonlight shone into his room as he replaced the dark blue suit on its hanger and clawed the convenience store shirt from the carpet. His shift began at ten. Pulling on the shirt and pinning the badge to his chest, Butler lay down on the bed and looked up through the skylight. He was little more than shadows bent around corners.

After his shift, he sat between a shaft of sunrise and an off-white wall typing up the transcript of his interview. The editor at Adventure & Intrigue could hardly be expected to believe this David Lynch dialogue. At the top of the page, he added the title:

We Never Sleep: An Interview with Detective Allan Pinkerton.