NOTE: Anonymous is Part Two of a murder investigation led by San Francisco Police Inspectors Hieu Trang and Larry Leahy, characters introduced to readers in Pretty City Murder. The first short story in the series is “Deaf,” and the second story is “Anonymous”. Both stories were written during the COVID-19 lockdown. “Deaf” has been submitted to online publishers, and the story awaits their decisions. “Anonymous” continues the story started in “Deaf." Because you cannot read “Deaf” until a decision has been made, I will summarize it here. This will help you have context for “Anonymous.” In "Deaf," Trang and Leahy investigate the death of a popular radio announcer. Trang gets a tip directing him to a blog. The blogger is deaf. In response to why she never posts her boyfriend’s picture, she says that he is travelling. Anonymous asks the blogger how her boyfriend could be traveling during lockdown. Trang visits the blogger and discovers her deadly secret. In “Anonymous,” the second story, which appears below, Trang suspects the murderer in “Deaf” had help moving the body to the edge of San Francisco Bay. Trang gets into trouble but perseveres and trails his suspect all the way to the truth.
COVID-19 ammonia disinfectant and a closed window in Hieu’s office made him feel as if he were choking. San Francisco’s lockdown compounded the unease brought on by a phone call saying that the video camera pointed at the front door of 748 Innes was broken and nothing was recoverable. That could mean Case Number 23, the Rocket murder, which was solved on May 7, just two days ago, might end before all the loose ends had been tied up.
A swig of iced S’mores Frappuccino from the Mason Street Starbucks slowly, slowly re-energized the flagging feeling that was supposed to arrive much later in the day. The smell of mint and an illusory campfire filled the troubled space between the right and left temples of Hieu’s coppered face. Yet, each time he sipped, a sweet, smoky aroma dreamily masked the ammonia.
Chief Inspector Larry Leahy, mentor and training partner, faced Hieu from the other side of the gray office desk. Hieu’s training period had ended months ago, and Larry had picked him for Case Number 23, but now he and Larry disagreed over what to do next, or if they should do anything at all. Rachel Spillane, the accused, stated earlier that morning in her holding cell that she had strangled Brock Rocket, her boyfriend and local radio announcer, on January 31, 2020, sometime around 1 AM. The murder weapon, they knew, was a looping cord that ran from the apartment doorbell to her hearing aid, and it was Brock’s brother, Terry, who had found the decomposing body months later at the bay’s edge.
Larry said, “I don’t think Terry is involved in this murder. We believed he was telling the truth in the first interview, and nothing in the second interview indicates he was lying. He might have thought the blog, which led us to Rachel’s apartment and the looping cord, was unimportant or irrelevant.”
“Did the Chief put the case on hold, or are we just…just done?” Hieu asked, trying to control a mental boil.
Larry sat back and sighed. “All he said was work on the other cases we’ve got, and we’ve got plenty.”
The numbers of the calendar pinned to the bare wall behind and just above Larry stared at Hieu and seemed to say, “What next, wimpy?”
“I say we interview Terry again. I say Terry helped move the body. It’s only half past ten. He’ll be at home and he will answer.”
Larry shimmied in his seat and said, “I came in on a Saturday, my day off, because you asked, but there’s no reason to go on.”
“I...I’m going to talk to Chin.” As Hieu stammered out the name of another inspector, he stood up forcefully and his metal chair squealed, and he felt keen, keen for the first time, knowing his mentor had hearing aids.
“Hieu, stop and think about what you and I are doing. We were given a task—solve a murder—and we did. The rest will work itself out. You did a great job, and I won’t even bring up the mistake you made in the case before this one. It doesn’t matter now. If I haven’t said it enough, I’ll say it again. You are one of our best inspectors, and you are smarter than I am.”
The disinfectant is making my eyes water, Hieu thought.
"Hieu, sit down and think. Terry Rocket could not be Anonymous on Rachel’s blog or the anonymous tipster who told us to look at Rachel’s blog.”
“Sure, he could. It’s all about the timing. Terry doesn’t tell us about the blog and then the tipster does. I’m calling him.”
Hieu pulled out his cell before he sat down, realizing this was the first time he had forged ahead without waiting for Larry, who looked like a spurned whore, but not a disappointed one.
“Mr. Rocket, this is Inspector Hieu Trang. How are you?”
When Hieu heard a yelp on the other end, he looked over at Larry with a feeling or wish that Larry explain such an odd noise.
“Why are you calling?”
“I apologize, Terry. Forgive me for being a nuisance so early in the morning, but I need to see you. It’s a little past 10:30, and maybe I can pick you up and bring you down here to Central for a short interview. How does that sound to you?” Hieu heard the TV blaring on Terry's side of the call.
Police just announced there has been an arrest in the case of Brock Rocket, the man found in the bay. The alleged suspect is Rachel Spillane, 29, resident of the Bayview. No other details were given.
“The plastic-hair announcer is saying something about an arrest,” Terry said. “The TV dude’s got my Boss brow-line eyeglasses that fade black to gray! Uh, well…I just finished off a Death in the Afternoon, but I’m fine and licorice puts me in a good mood. The virus has closed my hair salon, so I leave the TV on to keep me company, and I have a drink now and then. Believe it or not, I got myself ready to go. Somewhere. Anywhere.”
“I have a few questions about Rachel. I believe she had help. Can you help me out? I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.”
All he needed was to hear an affirmative and he was off. Upon arriving, Hieu saw a vintage cream-colored Dodge Dart parked in the driveway of 84 Dorland Street. He stood in front of a single-family home that had been carefully renovated.
Terry opened the front door. A white fixie lay against a short log with an ax embedded in it, and Third Planet music played upstairs. Terry beamed in his skinny jeans and chukka boots. A black-and-blue-checkered hoodie overlaid a black baseball cap with its blue bill bent down on both sides. He looked to be about 6’2", 175 pounds, a sturdy Viking large enough to move Brock. The entry hall was immaculate, making Hieu think the rest of the house was, too.
With his back to Hieu, Terry took the first step up and started to say something.
“Terry…stop. We don’t have time. Please follow me out to the car. Love your Dodge Dart, bud.”
“I’ll take the Dart,” Terry answered.
Hieu kept Terry in his rear-view mirror.
On the sidewalk in front of Central, Terry said, “It’s my second time at a police station. I’m a good citizen, Inspector, but, uh, can I smoke a Parliament first?”
“Would you like my jacket, Terry?”
“It’s chilly, but I’m fine, I’m fine.”
Hieu watched Terry shiver and light a cigarette, and he left him there to finish his smoke.
Inside Interview Room #2, for the sake of social distancing, Larry stood to the right of the two-way wall mirror. Hieu assured Terry they were six feet apart by sitting on opposite sides of the desk.
Terry checked his surroundings carefully and brushed off his seat with a light blue handkerchief he had pulled out of his left back pocket with great exertion. “Do I need a mask?” With two hands he stuck the handkerchief into his right front pocket, which was not as tight, and sat down, a row of tiny sweat beads ringing his forehead.
“No, Terry. We observe social distancing inside Central. This will be an informal interview, but it will be recorded. Do you understand?”
“Terry, were you close to Brock?” Hieu asked.
“Very close. I loved him.”
“Anonymous said some pretty awful things about his girlfriend, Rachel, on her Discord blog. What was your relationship like with Rachel?”
“The news said she killed him, and she’s been arrested. Right?”
“Yes, absolutely right, but...isn’t there more to the story...wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I can tell you about Brock. He and I argued a lot. One time he threw an ax at me.”
“I saw an ax in your foyer. Was that the ax he threw at you?”
Larry interrupted, “Were you Anonymous on the blog making all the negative comments about Rachel?”
Hieu knew it was the wrong time to ask that.
Terry stood up. Out flew his arms and he raged, “Are you accusing me?”
Larry answered quickly, sternly, “Trang does the questioning. You know what he wants.”
Hieu spoke up quickly, “Listen, Terry, I’m not here to accuse you of anything. We want to know who might have helped Rachel. Anything you tell me will be helpful.”
“I’ll testify at Rachel’s trial because I love my brother. Last time you and I talked, I admitted I read her blog, and, if you want to know the truth, I suspected her all along.”
Terry’s statement of suspicion triggered Hieu’s memory.
Rachel said one of her “clients” attempted to strangle her. Is it just a coincidence that Brock was killed by a looping cord wrapped around his neck?
“Did you visit Rachel at her apartment?” Hieu asked.
Terry remained standing, arms crossed, looking big and sweaty and churlish.
“Terry, please sit down. Uh, stay here. Inspector Leahy and I need to release a young man in another case. It should take five or six minutes. All right?”
Terry re-seated himself, and Hieu and Larry exited the interview room.
“Larry, can you run a background check on Terry?”
Before Larry moved to fulfill the request, he reminded Hieu, “Let him talk himself into a hole.”
Hieu reentered the interview room and noticed Terry looking groggy.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, just a little tired. When you called, I had just gotten out of bed.”
That’s odd. Terry said he was dressed and ready to go.
“Terry, tell me about Brock and his howling.”
“He had lycanthropic intermetamorphosis. He thought he was changing into a wolf.”
“Was he seeing a psychiatrist?”
Larry reentered the room and handed Hieu a folder.
Hieu looked through it and said, “Terry, you’ve had several arrests for assault on women, but none stuck, because the women were afraid to testify.”
Terry opened his mouth and snarled, “Not true,” and squeezed out a hiss between clenched teeth.
Did I screw up or did I get the reaction I wanted?
“Well, tell us more about you and Brock.”
“I see a psych. It all began when we were kids. I like the night. Thee knoweth not what that means.”
What the hell is that?
“Tell me about the life you and Brock had as children.”
“You have no evidence against me. I didn’t do anything illegal and you can’t arrest me!”
“Inspector Trang, can I see you outside?” In the hall Larry said, “This is not going well. What are you planning to do?”
“Get him to tell us more. There’s something about his relationship with Brock and Rachel he’s not telling us.”
“Be careful not to get into a position where you make an arrest too soon.”
“Yeah, I know, Larry. You've said that before.”
They reentered the room.
Terry said, “I take Linzess for irritable bowel syndrome. I have a lot of body pain. I might have to leave.”
Larry asked, “Where’s the pain?”
Larry laughed. “Well, a lot of shit comes out of there.”
“Terry, Terry...pay no attention to that comment. If you’re not feeling well, help yourself to the bottled water in front of you. Do you want a smoke?”
“Yeah, I do, but I think I can help you understand Brock if I tell you about a dream I had. Can I?” he asked, almost meekly.
Hieu said, “Sure.”
Terry’s eyes became fixed and his body frozen as he told his dream. “It was like this. I said, ‘Why are you ganging up against me? All of you are family. Brock, you’re my brother. You’re supposed to be on my side.’ Their stony faces stare at me. Why? Why? I can’t focus. They are disappearing, and I run after them but cannot find anyone. I feel terrible, as if I’m dying, and no one is around to help me.”
He slowed. “A weird thing happened during the dream, Inspector. A woman was talking loudly outside, somewhere in the back, which was something I hadn’t heard since COVID-19 began. I heard, ‘Get up. Get up!’ But it was me talking. I walked to the bathroom. I had hair all over my body. My fingernails were growing fast. I turned around quickly. No tail. I turned around again. My beard was thick and long.
“I’m as fit as David Beckham and just as good-looking. I like myself. The mirror is super clean. I own this home and can keep the TV blaring if I want, and it’s a mecca neighborhood.”
Hieu asked himself, What is happening? Is he somewhere between dream and reality?
Terry went on. “Easy to understand why Brock was so roughly smitten by Rachel. My brother was a bastard and deserved what he got. Same for Rachel. So, now I carry on the Rocket name alone.”
“Were you the one who called in the tip?” Hieu asked.
Terry bent over and clutched his stomach.
“Did you hate Rachel?” Hieu asked.
“I loved her at first, but that changed.”
“When did it change?”
“I used to see them together. I knew about her lifestyle. She used Discord to solicit men…or men and women.”
“But you said you loved Brock. Then you hated him. Why?”
“For falling in love with her.”
“You hated Rachel and you hated Brock. So, you helped Rachel kill Brock and then you called in the tip, making us believe that she was the killer and you were not involved.”
Larry, who had been quiet, quickly put himself between Hieu and Terry, and said, “Mr. Rocket, you are free to go. If stopped on the street by the police, tell them you were called in for an interview by Inspectors Trang and Leahy.”
After Terry had left, Larry lit into Hieu. “You had no cause to make an arrest!”
“I didn’t do anything, but he’s guilty. I know it. I know it.”
“Guilty of what?”
Hieu stormed out of the room, and Larry followed.
They reached the front lobby. Terry was standing outside Central, vaping.
“We should look at the cell phone record—calls between Terry and his brother before his death,” Larry said.
“Or calls between Terry and Rachel. Larry, I think we should follow Terry and see what happens. He’s already in wolf mode.”
“I wouldn’t do this, Hieu. It’s a waste of time.”
“I can go alone.”
“No. Don’t do that. I’ll go with you.”
Hieu hustled into the garage, Larry close behind, and they hopped into Hieu’s black Toyota 4Runner.
Hieu spotted the Dodge Dart heading up Columbus Avenue at a mere 15 miles per hour.
They passed under the Transamerica Pyramid.
“I’m hungry,” Larry said.
“Larry, I know I’m right. I’m going to follow this through to the end.”
“Drop me here.”
“No. I need you. When he stops, we will stop.”
For the next two hours, they followed him up Market, down Castro, into Dolores Heights, and deeper into Noe Valley. On Duncan Street, which ended on a cliff, Terry got confused and was forced to backtrack. Hieu turned quickly onto Castro, which dead-ended at another cliff, and hid out next to a family of four crows feeding on roadkill.
Terry headed down Dolores Street to 17th, where he turned off his motor in the driveway of 414 Dolores and was greeted by a flamboyant man who threw his arms around Terry’s neck.
Larry knew the pastor at Mission Dolores a couple of blocks away, called him, and told Hieu he was going to have a late lunch at the rectory.
Hieu sat alone, surveilling Terry from the front seat of the 4Runner.
At 4 PM, Hieu called his parents, checking in on them as he did every day, even though they lived three blocks apart.
At 4:15 PM, Hieu called his wife and asked what she was doing. He said, “No, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
At 4:30 PM, Hieu called Larry, who said he was bringing Hieu a sandwich and coffee.
Terry reappeared outside the apartment building looking more agitated than when he had entered.
Hieu called Larry back and told him to run.
Larry held the coffee cup and sandwich while Hieu got behind the Dart.
Hieu managed to gulp it all down during the next few hours as they followed Terry through SOMA, Dogpatch, and finally to India Basin Shoreline Park, where the body had been dumped. Terry stopped on Hunters Point Boulevard under a purplish-red sky, a short distance north of the park.
“Stop here, Hieu. We don’t want him to see us.”
“Terry thinks he’s alone. I succeeded in trailing his ass.”
Terry looked out at the bay. He seemed to dawdle around the back of the Dart. Then, suddenly, he opened the trunk, pulled out a blue tarp, and carefully laid it down on the street.
Hieu and Larry looked at each other.
Terry delicately extracted an ax. Hieu could clearly see the head of the ax, which was a bright blue, different from the red ax in the apartment.
Hieu leapt from the 4Runner and got behind Terry, who was still standing with the ax in both hands and staring into the trunk.
“Terry Rocket, you are under arrest for the murder of Brock Rocket.”
Terry turned, looking completely surprised, and said, “How did you know I helped Rachel?”
At that moment, Larry, who had caught up, answered, “Brock was missing a hand.”
Terry dropped the ax onto the tarp. “It’s a big deal over nothing. Rachel had called me about 1 AM asking for help. Brock had hit his head and been knocked out chasing her around the apartment with his hunting knife. Now I had the chance to take care of things. I loved Rachel and wanted her for myself, and I hated Brock. He bullied me my whole life. I tried chopping off both hands and feet to hide his identity, but Rachel got scared and wanted to go home.”
“You didn’t need to cut his hands off, Terry. The bay water saturated his body and obliterated his identity,” Hieu said. “What made you turn on her?”
“I was the tipster, like you thought. I wanted a permanent relationship with her, and all she wanted was a man to pay the rent, which is all she ever wanted from Brock, and now I don’t care about her, but there’s something else. Rachel knows about another murder. The murderer was one of her johns.”
Hieu placed Terry in handcuffs, and Larry called in the arrest.
They waited for a squad car and the Situation Investigation Team to arrive and take possession of the ax.
After Terry was whisked away, Hieu said, “Rachel didn’t know Terry was the tipster and had betrayed her. That’s why she would not identify him as the man who helped kill Brock. She thought Terry was still her lover. Terry might have been Anonymous on Rachel’s blog, the man who attempted to strangle Rachel. Thanks, Larry. Without you, I don’t think we could have done this.”
“You’re welcome. That dream Terry told us about...well, a dream can be a source of self-knowledge or self-loathing. For Terry, it was the latter.”
Imagine yourself in a dangerous country where you don’t speak the language and the enemy is after you. The enemy hides behind the innocent while stalking you, and you don’t know when he will strike. I know such a man who faced this kind of danger, and I want to share a little bit about him because, although we never met, he influenced my life and my novel Pretty City Murder. His name is Father Joe Devlin SJ.
Father Joe was a Jesuit missionary in Vietnam from 1970 to 1975. He fled Vietnam on one of the last helicopters to lift off from the American Embassy in Saigon at the end of April 1975. Father Joe later said he could be seen on American television as the events unfolded.
I am connected to Father Joe through his brother, also a priest. Father Ray was my brother’s high school religion teacher and gave us instruction in the faith at home.
San Jose State University Professor Larry Engelmann interviewed Father Joe for the April 1999 issue of Vietnam magazine. I found the interview when I googled Father Joe’s name, and I was pleasantly surprised at the exchange between the professor of a secular university and a priest who otherwise could have been overlooked by history.
In the interview, Father Joe does not recount the threats to his life during his years in Vietnam but focuses, instead, on the efforts to get out of Vietnam and extricate his people, the refugees he had helped at Camp Pendleton. Later, he refers to the plight of another group of Vietnamese refugees who fled to Thailand. His account of their ordeal is both horrifying and uplifting.
In the interview, Father Joe said, “Someone from the CIA came to the village and tried to get me out and to Saigon. I went along because they ordered me. And when I got to Saigon I went to see George Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy and said, ‘Mr. Jacobson, please, I left my village too soon and I want to go back to it. Do you think you can help me? I don't want to run away like this.’ He replied, ‘I understand. We have a small plane going to Nha Trang this afternoon, and if you want to get on it, you can, and it will drop you off at Phan Thiết.’ So, I got on it and went back to my people, and they gave me a big ovation when they saw I'd come back.”
This speaks to Father Joe’s selfless concern for his people, which is the highest form of Christ-likeness few of us will ever be forced to exercise.
As I delved further into the interview, I discovered something else -- the source of my peculiar kind of Catholicism.
Father Joe said, “I never put what I did in a religious context. There is a famous expression: Primum est esse, quam esse tale. It means that before you become something, you have to first exist. With the refugees I thought it was more important . . . to try to keep the refugees in existence, give them being, before I tried to make Catholics out of them . . . Because, as that expression [Primum est] tells you, you must first keep a man in existence before you try to make him something different. A man or woman must be able to live first before they can become anything. So, my effort has not been, primarily, a religious effort. Because I don’t like to change a person’s religion. I want him to do his own thinking and then do what he thinks is the proper thing. But there is a very important step in his life first, and that is to keep him in existence, to hold him up, to be his brother . . .”
I found myself agreeing with the Latin phrase, Primum est esse, quam esse tale – before you can become anything, first you must exist. My personal contact with the Vietnamese diaspora in San Francisco and San Jose in the 1980s can attest to that. I did not try to convert anyone. I attended several Buddhist services, but I never considered another faith, and I was never a seeker. I had already found truth. Nevertheless, in my own ragged way, I tried to help the Vietnamese exist in America. In the process I had to apply what I knew to situations which were sometimes difficult, awkward, or unfamiliar. In a previous blog post called My Experience with the Vietnamese Community, I described how I had to push through situations as best as I could; I may have erred and rationalized, but I was always learning . . . and learning from others who were like me, yet different.
As I continued to read the interview, I saw something more startling. Father Joe said, “I don’t feel guided by the holy spirit or anything in my work. Not really. I don’t look at my work with the Vietnamese from a religious point of view. I pray but not too much. And my prayers are not always answered. I never expected divine intervention in Vietnam. I just felt that God . . . says, ‘You got to do your own work, fella. So, do it.’ And so, I did it.”
Like Father Joe, I don’t pray that much, and I don’t ask God for help. Many Catholics would criticize me for saying that, but, like Father Joe, I know God expects me to do the work. He just watches. I don’t expect divine intervention, although there are times when I ask for it. Has divine intervention ever happened in my life? I don’t think so. God has come to me through my parents, three conversion experiences before I reached 18, and other people, some in small ways and others, mostly priests and largely in the confessional, in a big way.
Father Joe may have lived a heroic life in Vietnam, and it’s possible he could be canonized someday, but we should step away from a fascination with saints long enough to hear the real feelings and thoughts of a man who only did what he thought was necessary.
Father Joe’s Catholicism and its impact on his people was real. The way he applied his faith was multiplied like the loaves and fishes by the people he cared about, as reflected in the following quote: “I think the people I helped remember me sometimes. I think I live in their hearts . . . I can remember their faces but not their names. I can’t even speak their language. But I am sure they remember me . . . If they remember me, they will someday be inspired and perhaps do good also, and if they do, when they do, then what I did was worth it . . ..”
What I learned from Jesuits like Father Joe is real and practical, namely, duty and purpose. Most men are task oriented, and my brother and I and the Jesuits are no exception. The Jesuits gave us an understanding of what a man is and what he should be about, and for that, my brother and I will be grateful forever.
Here are some links to the interview and other treasures:
The interview: http://www.historynet.com/joe-devlin-the-boat-peoples-priest.htm
For more about Father Joe, there is a short biography on Amazon which can be found here
Vietnam is about 10% Catholic, and the faith is flourishing. Learn more here
For those interested in a little more about history, see a fascinating Fordham University speech given by Madame Nhu, an important and influential Catholic in Vietnam during the 1960s.
Then, check out my novel, Pretty City Murder, and try to figure out how the novel multiplies Catholic realism and the peculiar kind of faith best exemplified by Father Joe.
As you know, my faith is important to me, and so I like to incorporate elements of the Catholic religion into my work. Pretty City Murder is my attempt to portray Catholic realism. The novel is not about saints or people living lives of heroic virtue. It is about real people trying to live according to the Ten Commandments, the foundation of the Catholic moral code.
Realism obliges a person to accept his faults and take steps to correct them, which begins with an examination of conscience before confession. It is inside the confessional where one’s pride falls to the floor – not the pride that everyone needs to thrive, but the pride that prevents a person from making an honest appraisal of himself.
There is a scene in my novel that highlights the need to confess. In this scene, Joyce Contorado goes to Father Ralph for confession and expresses her love for him again. There is an earlier episode at James O’Hara’s home and one in the sacristy that reveals an inappropriate relationship between Joyce and Father Ralph. He tells her to go to another priest because he is involved in the same sin; he has the same feelings for her. One could say, rather crudely, that the pedal hits the metal in the confessional – in this unusual case, for both priest and penitent.
A good confession is in three parts: 1) a penitent admits that she has done something wrong, 2) she expresses remorse and 3) she promises not to do it again.
In Joyce’s confession, she has not admitted to doing something wrong and she has not broken off the affair. Her confession is not complete, because she isn’t really asking God for forgiveness.
Her sin and Father Ralph’s sin and their attempt to overcome it is an example of Catholic realism. Neither Joyce nor Father Ralph are saints, and neither is living a life of heroic virtue. They can amend their error and go back to confession, but a firm purpose of amendment must be present.
Dissenters, too, cannot go to confession, because they object to some part of the moral code or because they are living a life that does not conform to it. There are examples of dissenters in my novel.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Catholic realism in Pretty City Murder! It is available on Amazon. Spread the word and write a review.
One of the police inspectors in Pretty City Murder is a Vietnamese-American. On the surface, this may seem like an unusual choice. However, throughout my life I've had a lot of contact with the Vietnamese diasporic community in San Francisco and San Jose and I’ve always wanted to write about it.
In 1981, I befriended a young man who fled Vietnam in April 1975, when Saigon fell to the communists. His story proved extra poignant because he was 21 in 1975 and had taken three of his siblings, ages 17, 14, and 8, with him. His mother had passed away a few years before, and his father had refused to leave Vietnam. He told his son that he wouldn’t know how to survive outside his country. Back in 1954, the family had fled Hanoi. By Vietnamese standards, they were well-to-do.
My friend became guardian for his younger siblings, which was a heavy burden for someone who was just 21. When we met, he was 27 and I was 28, and his youngest brother, who was then 13, was living with him. We became fast friends, and he introduced me to others commonly referred to as “the boat people”. He practiced Vietnamese Buddhism, and I attended their services, mostly in the homes of the diasporic community in San Jose. I met a former South Vietnamese general, who was such a kind, old gentleman. Often, I was the only Caucasian person at the services, but I felt welcomed, and they treated me like an honored guest. I’m Catholic, and exposure to another religion uplifted me and helped me understand my own faith better.
My friend was self-employed. He opened a business which imitated the Supercuts model for haircuts and styling, and after expanding to two salons, he was making much more money than I. Because his ability to read English was poor, I did his bookkeeping. He had never received any formal education in English, but he had an excellent American accent, surely acquired from listening to, and speaking with, hundreds and hundreds of American soldiers on the streets of Saigon. In 2004, I purchased a tutoring franchise and used what I had learned from him to maximize my profits.
Once, during our years of friendship, we attended a Vietnamese concert in San Jose, and he asked the featured singer, Lệ Thu, to sing a song and dedicate it to me. I was flattered. My friend had come to know Lệ Thu and Khánh Ly, another famous singer, when he was still living in Saigon.
Another time, my friend introduced me to a Vietnamese woman running a brothel in San Francisco near the Stockton tunnel. I won’t say the name, to protect the innocent (or the guilty). We visited for several hours, and, no, not for nefarious reasons. She prepared lunch for us, which was delicious, and we sat on floor mats covering the floor of her office. At one point, we were interrupted by one of her girls, complaining or asking for direction (in Vietnamese), and she, too, was lovely. My eyes opened to the reality of survival, and I found that I had no negative feelings for her business. This experience left me with a new understanding and empathy for others.
My overall experience with the Vietnamese community in America was extremely positive and greatly enriched my life. As a tribute to the community, I made one of the police inspectors in my novel a Vietnamese-American. I fashioned him after a patrol officer I had worked with at the Academy of Art University. He was Cambodian, not Vietnamese, but I needed a visual while I wrote, and he was so unusual and interesting that he became the visual. He knows he’s in the book.
I get excited whenever I hear the Vietnamese language. Though I don’t speak a word, I know it when I hear it. I follow current Vietnamese singers on You Tube, such as the lovely Băng Tâm, just so I can hear the language. In my time spent with the Vietnamese community, I attempted to learn how to speak the language but whenever I uttered a Vietnamese phrase, such as “Saigon Dep Lam,” my dear listeners would say, “What?” My pronunciation was so bad that I knew I would have to immediately follow up with what I had to say – in English.
Although I’ve never been to Vietnam, I have a fond spot for this country in my heart. Vietnamese cuisine is definitely among my top five, and, yes, I can smell fish sauce a mile away, and Phở is the best soup in the world. Today, the country is recovering because it is an entrepreneurial society with great investment potential. Religion is making a resurgence. Catholicism always does well under persecution.
There are many videos of Saigon and Hanoi on YouTube, and I encourage you to take a look.
Here is a current video of the Saigon streets, motorcycles, and businesses, and here you will find a famous song known by almost every Vietnamese man, woman, and child. I hope you will take a look!
I would love to hear from American soldiers or people who did business, or are doing business in Vietnam, and, of course, I would love to hear from the diasporic community and readers in Vietnam today.
If you’d like to see my Asian character in action, the Amazon link is below. And, if you have a Kindle, the book will be available for free from June 19 - June 23.
Thank you so much for reading!
Purchase Pretty City Murder here
In previous posts, I've discussed how my novel was inspired by my own life experiences and personal beliefs. Like other writers though, my work has also been greatly influenced by other artists and works of art.
Two of the most influential writers are Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Greene was a Catholic writer, so I connected to that perspective of his work. He wrote over 25 novels that explored moral and political issues. Pretty City Murder also explores significant issues, though a little different from Greene's.
Raymond Chandler is another author who inspired me. He is one of the most widely-known novelists of crime fiction and suspense. If you haven't been introduced to his work, I recommend you read one of his books!
My work is also inspired by television and film. Most of my favorite TV series are cop dramas and true crime series. I admired San Francisco Beat and Perry Mason in the 1950s-1960s, and the Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s, and I enjoy watching current fare, such as Investigation Discovery (Deadly Women!), Forensic Files, and Snapped.
When it comes to film, I enjoy Film Noir, especially the films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Visually, I just don't think the films made today compare (below I've put some images from my favorite films!).
I've been told that Pretty City Murder has an "Old Hollywood" vibe in that it has a lot of the themes that are explored in the classic works of Film Noir, which probably comes from my love of old movies, but I think my novel feels contemporary in the social and moral issues explored.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about the art that inspired me, and I hope you will look at some of the work that I have mentioned here, and please purchase Pretty City Murder.
Here is a link to purchase my book.
The Lineup (1958)
Rear Window (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
My protagonist in Pretty City Murder is a San Francisco police officer named Larry Leahy. This character was formed by my own experiences in law enforcement. His decisions in the book are made using the protocol that I used in my own line of work, and the procedures that are used by him and his fellow officers are based on the methodology for investigating crimes in real life.
For some years, I worked at the Academy of Art University. Sometimes, when people saw me on duty, they were confused over whether I was a security guard or a police officer. In fact, I was neither; I was a non-sworn, uniformed, unarmed patrol officer.
There are similarities and differences in the functions performed by security guards, patrol officers, and police officers. At the Academy of Art University, I performed all the functions of a security officer and a police officer, except that I did not have the power to arrest or detain. Often, I interviewed a target before the police arrived and then sat in on the police interview. Our interviews were virtually the same.
A security guard reports on what he's seen but does not conduct investigations. In contrast, I led short and long investigations into missing persons, threats of violence, graffiti, stalking, homeless encampments, burglary, robbery, sexual assault, marijuana possession or selling, and students with suicide ideation. I responded to elevator entrapments and sick or injured students.
The school where I worked has over 400 security cameras, and we viewed them every day. In Pretty City Murder, the hotel, which is the scene of the murder, has security cameras, and the inspectors on the case view videotape, but, as is the case so often, much about the crime is still unknown.
In my own experience, security cameras can be crucial for solving cases. In one instance, I relied on one of our campus safety hosts to find a student who had taken school property. She spent hours viewing several cameras and eventually found the thief. He was expelled. We were stupefied over the reckless actions taken by a student who had been in good standing, and we were saddened to see him go.
If you are interested in crime stories, you'll definitely enjoy my book. My experience in law enforcement adds realism to the story, but Pretty City Murder still has many elements from classic crime fiction novels.
You can purchase Pretty City Murder here.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy your weekend!
Pretty City Murder is finally here! I’m so excited to share it with all of you, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
In this post, I want to share a little about religion in my book and how I crafted my work from my own life experiences and beliefs. They say that you should “write what you know”, so I guess it makes sense that my book centers on religion.
I am a Roman Catholic. My stepfather-to-be, Joe, had recommended St. Ignatius High School to my older brother, Tom. Joe was Catholic, but my family was not. When Tom decided to go to St. Ignatius, he was enrolled in religion class. His teacher heard that Tom was not Catholic and asked if he wanted to convert. As Tom recalls, he said, “Um . . . okay.” (Ha!)
His religion teacher gave us instruction at home. I wasn’t seeking religion, and I had never even seen a priest before, but none of that mattered. After just a few words from the priest, I received the gifts of understanding and faith. Don’t underestimate children! My family was baptized on April 1, 1961--April Fool’s Day. God was laughing, but it was serious business.
San Francisco has a very large Catholic community. Even today in SF, there are 25,000 students in Catholic schools and 55,000 in public schools. I know two religious – Jesuits – who left to marry, but two of my classmates from St. Ignatius, who became Jesuits, are still happy priests.
There was even a time in my own life when I considered the priesthood.
What really attracted me to religious life was living in a religious community. Religious life is based on family life. There are no real differences, as the religious community you join becomes your family in every way. By the end of high school, I had been around priests for seven years, and I saw in them fathers and brothers. I might have joined, but I never did.
Perhaps, my own thoughts about joining the priesthood explain why I wanted one of the main characters in my novel to be a priest. This character is named Father Ralph, and he is trying to come to terms with the murder while facing a midlife crisis. He must choose between his vows and having a chance at romantic love.
Father Ralph’s struggle mirrors the struggle I might have faced had I ultimately decided to take vows. Would I have left religious life if I had become a priest? I don’t think so—but I don’t know for sure. Father Ralph is also directly based on someone that I knew growing up. It’s a rather scandalous story! A priest in my dad’s family actually left the priesthood in his sixties for a woman. My mom described her as “dumpy.” My mother thought she was not worth the loss of a vocation. There were even rumors that before he left he was having an affair with someone else – a very handsome woman who was a prominent member of society.
Pretty City Murder also explores characters who are struggling with ideas of right and wrong and who commit various sins—adultery, murder, robbery, cohabiting, and more. My own personal ideas about morality are reflected in my work—and those ideas, of course, ultimately come from the Almighty.
Today, I am active in the Church. I am currently involved in setting up three youth groups in my parish of All Souls, South San Francisco: ages 11-13, 14-17, 18-40.
Obviously, you’ll have to read the novel to get a better understanding of what I have referenced here (which I hope you will!). The amazon link is provided below. I also hope you’ll leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads!
If you have any questions about the Catholic faith, or, if you would like to share your experiences, please send an e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great week!
Purchase Pretty City Murder here!
Pretty City Murder is officially available on Amazon! Click here to purchase!
Kindle Free days are June 19, 2018, through June 23, 2018. Be sure to download your free copy.
About the Photographs
Credit goes to Allan Pineda, photo enthusiast, Academy of Art University, San Francisco resident, dear friend of many years, and amazing artist! Recent pictures he took can be seen throughout my blog, which include the Blue Angels, City Hall, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Palace of Fine Arts, fog, cable car, the Bay Bridge (a stock picture), and Chinese New Year Parade.
About San Francisco
There are 120 unique neighborhoods in San Francisco. The considerable number of neighborhoods is the result of hills that form unofficial boundaries. Development accelerated after the Gold Rush in 1848. City planners laid a grid over the new city, and the result was steep, straight streets, but it was inevitable that some streets would curve around the hills and disrupt the well-ordered grid. Market Street, the city’s main street, dislocated the grid, too. The Outlands, a name applied to the western half of San Francisco, developed more slowly, and sand was everywhere. John McLaren’s Golden Gate Park was built on the sand. The park is four miles in length and extends from Stanyan Street to the Great Highway, which runs along Ocean Beach, a cold and blustery place with a wicked undertow. Fog often obscures the Golden Gate Bridge, and the weather is generally cool.
About the Novel
Walk into the Greenwich Grand Hotel, a twelve-story edifice in downtown, and see its basement, where the owner keeps his Silver Cloud Rolls Royce. Foot it to Central Station, a fortress of graying concrete in North Beach, and here you meet the main character, Inspector Larry Leahy, 59. He spends most of his days pouring over reports with his trainee, Inspector Hieu Trang, 30, with boyish, movie-star looks. Climb the hill to Loyola House and bump into Father Ralph MacKenzie rushing to a meeting of his colleagues, deans at the University of San Francisco. Drive through the cobblestone pillars marking the entrance to Sea Cliff and see the Greenwich’s owner, James O’Hara, as he prepares for a 4th of July gala. There are no gated communities in San Francisco, and residents and tourists alike can move about freely, including criminals.
As of 5-10-18, almost 8,000 people are engaged with the novel on its Facebook page.
About the Author
My name is Robert Dunn. I’m called Bob. I grew up in San Francisco. I worked at the Academy of Art University from 2008 to 2016 as a patrol officer and drew upon my experiences to write this novel. I hope you enjoy it.