A few years ago, as I was tinkering with my first crime fiction manuscript in my favourite café, I received a phone call which shook me. The caller asked if I’d answered my husband’s phone. I explained this was my number and asked who was inquiring, after all, the voice sounded cagey. The man revealed he was a detective senior constable and my heart raced. Had something happened to my husband? Had he been in a car accident? All manner of technicolour horrors flashed before me, as I spilled coffee on the table and frantically tried to guess what the detective was about to tell me next.
Surely, in each of the grim scenarios, they would have his phone so why were they ringing my number? Was this man even a real detective? He certainly didn’t speak like the one in my manuscript. This guy made errors in syntax and what should have been a raspy sexy voice was a clipped pedestrian tone.
The detective asked if I knew a Chris Trotter. I searched my brain, never good with names, and wondered what my husband was caught up in. ‘I don’t think I know him,’ I answered. The conversation then became even more cryptic, the detective clearly not wanting to lead a potential witness. Eventually, he conceded Mr Trotter was a local car mechanic.
Oh, you mean Chris.
‘Yes, he services our car. Has done since before we bought it from a friend. He’s a great mechanic. Cheap.’ I didn’t mention he only accepted cash. Again, my head was busy: how was my husband embroiled in something sinister with our mechanic, when he doesn’t even particularly like cars.
The detective senior constable referenced an appointments diary at the garage on Millbank Street. The phone number he had called me on was written next to my husband’s name in the diary. Now everything became clearer. It was like watching the badly written opening for a crime show on Netflix and having to assemble the context: we’d put our car in for a service about a month ago.
Could I remember exactly which day? This was a very slow scene indeed. It lacked pace. He asked if I knew a second man called Keith Foggin. ‘You might have seen his picture in the paper or on posters around town? He’s missing, last seen at the garage speaking to Chris.’
At this point a different scene took shape—a flashback to the moment before the crime itself. The mechanic and his son were working on a dusty white vehicle with the bonnet up. They wore blue coveralls covered in grease. The son was beneath the car, on his back, doing something important because he was huffing. His father curled into the engine, a giant wrench in his hand. Fluro tubes ran the span of the creaking tin ceiling, but it was the sunlight wafting through the open roller door that showed me the glint of the wrench. (Later, I would revise this sunlight to streaming.) The missing man, Keith Foggin, leaned with both elbows on the laminate counter beside an A3 diary which sat open, detailing the work scheduled for that week. At this stage, the tall man with his weathered Akubra (I had given him a hat) made small talk with Chris. He told him a joke which was a little off-colour which made the mechanic smirk. Much later, I would add a scratchy carpet to the floor beneath him, after hearing it was used to wrap his body in. But for now, this was the scene I had.
‘I do know who you mean, detective, but I can’t be certain I saw him.’
The detective gave me his number. Said to call back later to confirm the date of our car service and to let them know then if I thought of anything. To be honest, I was sure I’d thought of way too much, but agreed and politely hung up.
Untangling fact from fiction can be difficult for writers. I have multiple conversations occurring simultaneously in my head and sometimes I forget what’s real. The conversation I later had with the female lead in the Criminal Investigation Unit helped clarify this when we discussed actual dates and times. Our car service didn’t fit the window when Keith Foggin had attended the workshop. My recollection of him had most likely come from ‘Missing’ posters and newspaper articles. Except, I did drive past the garage on Millbank Street to drop my kids at school each day, and his face rang a bell.
I’m going to cut the scene where I was dismissed as a witness, unlike a friend who was subpoenaed for his ability to give real evidence. It was clear I’d invented everything but my sighting of the victim’s car prior to him going missing: the grey station wagon which had been parked on the grassy verge opposite the garage. Keith Foggin never drove it to Queensland to be with his daughter as intended. My way of knowing the vehicle was real and not fiction came from a feeling at the base of my skull. This throb, and the fact the station wagon’s presence was later corroborated at the trial, confirmed the soundness of my writerly instinct.
If I had genuinely witnessed the crime, or seen the victim and suspect together, I believe I would have known fact from fiction. But if I’m completely honest, I can’t say for sure. Organisers of the Staunch Book Prize criticise crime writing for perpetuating myths which influence jury outcomes and lower conviction rates. Perhaps my own obsession with crime fiction is having a similar effect. Memory is delicate at the best of times without my compulsion to shape it into a compelling narrative. Or maybe I’m just an unreliable witness, like the characters in my stories, the ones who make things far more interesting. I have found myself a new mechanic by the way, even though Chris Trotter was acquitted of the murder of Keith Foggin, who remains missing. This poor man’s body (and fictious hat) have never been found.
Jem Tyley-Miller is an emerging crime writer from regional Victoria whose stories have been shortlisted for many awards including last year’s Margaret River Short Story Prize. Jem is a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, and her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland and We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories. She works in film and TV to fund her writing and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time.