There was something odd about the couple,
something I couldn’t put my finger on,
but something about these two partners
gave me the unmistakable hint or scent
of partners in crime. Or was it only
my detective instinct working overtime?
As a private eye, my habit is to squirrel away facts
of those I encounter, relying on my wits and instinct
to emerge with all the answers, well, most
of the answers, well, some of the answers
some of the time. No one’s perfect, as Iris Noire
likes to remind me with a look that says it all.
What alerted and attracted me to this little mystery
was nothing more than the ordinary behavior
of a couple complaining their high-tech camera
wasn’t worth the money, having failed to provide
the photo they wanted of seasonal snow pines
suffused and overburdened by heavy powder.
Why they would wish to shoot the sodden,
unsightly pines was a mystery in its own right
as was their thanks-but-no thanks pass
on my offer to inspect the camera for tech flaws
or their own human error, and if they wished,
lend them mine for quick, convenient use.
Determined to get the shot themselves, they moved
from pine to pine, as if relocating for a better angle
or better sunlight might solve their problem
(or was it to leave me and my questions behind?).
Small and seemingly insignificant details such as these
can make you suspicious even if you don’t happen to be a detective.
Suspicion is the key to the fact-finding process,
which is why riddles of human nature catch my eye
even in leisure moments, such as strolling through
a park of sloppy pines bordering the manicured lawns
and gardens of million-dollar mansions. Did my two friends
emerge from that privileged bastion to flounder as photographers?
The camera, I noted, was an expensive new model,
fully up to date and easy to use, leading me to wonder
if the true fault lay with unreasonable expectations
of a camera capable of anything and everything–
from foolproof focus to matchless perspective–
able to make magic even of snow-weighted pines.
Never mind that any sensible photographer
would bypass those heavily-laden branches
of winter trees on the verge of collapse
or that style-conscious photographers would seek
the artful snow sculptures of elegant old oaks since
soggy pines are by no means “visual treasures.”
As I was pondering these facts, scanning as I did so
the snow-trimmed mansions flanking the park and wondering
what their well-to-do inhabitants might think of this pair,
a second photographer approached with silent stealth,
intent on capturing the visual comedy of amateurs
enchanted by the debacle of snow-crushed pines.
When other optimistic photographers appeared on the scene
hunting their own wintry images, a TV news crew pulled up
for a look-see, in pursuit of a story on the fly,
seeking a lighthearted filler for the otherwise
fear-inducing evening newscast–a cheerful relief
from Omicron, inflation, and Russian war games.
In response, a crowd of the curious began to gather–
the same faces you see at fires, collisions,
and police sites, hoping to witness history
or anarchy in the making to enable them
to entertain friends, relations or anyone
with their own vivid, eyewitness accounts.
I struggled to resist the impulse to grab a shot
before the frenzy subsided and opportunity passed,
but succumbed to the lively, snowbound circus,
removed my camera and began firing away,
hoping my conscience would forgive me,
but having a plan of action if it did not.
The plan: I visited a struggling local newspaper
short of staff, advertisers and subscribers,
appealing to the public for stories and photos it could use.
I donated my rapid-fire photos, confident I was rendering
some kind of community or journalistic service
even if my quickies were wastebasket-worthy.
To my astonishment, a crowd photo made front page,
graduated statewide and up to national syndication,
intriguing those who saw something newsworthy and trendy
in a motley bunch of ramblers, bumblers and idlers
going every which way, with or without cameras,
seeking enlightenment or exercise in the snow.
When Paris invited a blow-up of the photo
for display in the Louvre’s new exhibition
“Habits and Habitats of Eccentric Americans,”
champions of native photography fired back,
declaring the work “original and exceptional,”
and insisting I be rescued from “prejudicial elitism.”
Prominent critics rallied to the cause, scolding Paris,
saluting my “sublime folk art” and “classic representation
of unpretentious Americana,” worthy of respect
for its “truth of composition,” “many-sided subjects,”
“multifaceted understanding of crowd psychology,”
and “multifarious angles of uncommon interest.”
Urged to explain myself by the inquiring press
and camera fans seeking clues to my method,
I had no comment, bewildered as they were by praises
such as “Putative father of a new school of photo-realism.”
“a gifted illuminator of unconscious desires,” and
“A master of precisely interpreted chaos.”
Fleeing obsessive critics and excessive controversy, I turned my photo of the odd couple
over to police for identification and connection to a recent rise
in park mansion burglaries, assuming my duo might be shooting sites
for criminal purposes and acting the role of innocent amateurs
to conceal their wrongdoing from friendly curiosity
or, in my case, friendliness masking sleuthlike suspicion.
“Know what your problem is, Sherlock? You’re too damn suspicious!”
laughed Lieutenant Houlihan, identifying my odd couple
as undercover operatives on field assignment
for the sake of crime prevention. I then retired
to the safety and comfort of the Delta Detective Agency
where suspicions yield solutions and pay the rent.
Howard Lachtman is the author of crime and detective stories, film noir studies, and a history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to America. In his Delta Detective series, written for Soundings Magazine since 2018, Lachtman introduced a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes, These have recently been augmented by a short-short story series of miniature mysteries designed for readers on the go who lack time but not interest in playing the game of armchair detective.
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