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The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
John Sandford on Easy Prey
Easy Prey was the eleventh of the Prey novels, written in 2000, involving the strangulation murder of a famous fashion model and heroin addict named Alie'e Maison (Ah-Lee-Ay May-Sone), the former Sharon Olson of Burnt River, Minnesota.
The story opens with a complicated fashion shoot in a wrecked barge on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, with a somewhat sleazy cast of characters on hand to support and direct it. The shoot involved male-style underwear briefs for women, and what at the time was called the "heroin-chic" look: gaunt female models with sunken, shadowed eyes, an apparent bruise or two, and, often, a frightened or apprehensive look on their faces, as though something bad was about to happen. You gotta read the book to get the full flavor of the photographic setup.
Suffice to say, something bad happened.
Let me tell you about my own fashion status.
When I was single, I owned probably twenty-five pairs of Jockey shorts and a vast array of golf shirts, in a vast array of colors. With twenty-five pairs of underpants and all those golf shirts, I only had to do the wash about once a month. That's called The Single Guy Solution; I may do a book about it someday.
In the summer, I'd wear jeans and golf shirts and running shoes. When it got cooler in the fall, I'd put a sweatshirt over the golf shirt. Colder than that, put on a jacket. Colder than that, a parka. When it got warm again, I'd start working back to the vast array of golf shirts.
So where did I, John Sandford, Minnesota muskie fisherman, mediocre country golfer, one-time owner of a banana-yellow Ford Pinto, a guy who, clothing-wise, usually looks like he just got drug through hell by the ankles, get all that information about rich coke-sniffing Euro trash and the celebrity-model high life?
How did he do all that insightful research?
Yeah, about that.
In the late nineties, I was going off to Israel for six weeks every summer to work on an archaeological dig. The dig was in the Beit She'an Valley near the Jordan River in the northern part of Israel, and is about 390 feet below sea level. (Further south, the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest land area on Earth.)
It is very hot and dusty there. Very hot and dusty. One Israeli told me that if the Lord ever decided to give Israel an enema, you wouldn't want to be standing in the Beit She'an Valley when it happened.
Anyway, at the dig site, called Tel Rehov, the noon temperature was rarely below 100°F, and we were doing the hardest kind of work, digging out huge piles of dirt with hand tools and wheelbarrows. Think about it like this: going to the middle of the Mojave desert, at mid-summer, then excavating an underground parking garage with picks and trowels. That describes almost exactly what we were doing.
Because the work was so heavy and hot, our workday ran from five o'clock in the morning until noon. In the afternoon, it was simply too hot to work. So, we'd all go back to our rooms in a local kibbutz, sit in the weak air-conditioning, swill diet soda and fruit juice, and watch TV. There were two English language channels on the television. One would feature the Tour de France, back in its salad days, when Lance Armstrong was winning seven of them... you know how that ended.
The other channel had nothing but European fashion shows. One show after another, this courtier and that one, the models, both male and female, parading up and down the runways in their often-bizarre costumes. As far as I know, fashion was all the channel showed.
In between the films of the actual shows, there'd be short feature stories about the models, about the courtiers doing the designs, about the seamstresses and tailors, and about the photo shoots. This being European television, there was a bit of nudity involved. In the documentaries, you might see a photo shoot taking place, with the models changing clothes in a crowded studio simply by turning their back to the crowd and changing. They wore no underwear.
See, since they were Europeans, and really, really sophisticated, the people present at the shoot paid little head to all those beautiful naked women, because, you know, they were really, really sophisticated, unlike us American bumpkins. (And if you believe that, I'd like to talk to you about an exceptionally nice bridge I happen to have for sale.)
Anyhow, that was John Sandford's research into the celebrity model life, done while lying on a broken-down, plastic-covered couch, usually in nothing but a pair of Jockey shorts, normally so covered with dirt he looked like an oversize raccoon, frozen in front of the TV because if he went outside, he'd have heatstroke.
It took a while to translate all that TV into the Alie'e Maison murder mystery, from Jerusalem to Paris to Minneapolis. I already knew quite a bit about photography and photographic lighting as a reporter, I worked with photographers almost every day but I knew almost nothing about the fashion world.
I did some reading about it, digging around in the public libraries and in fashion magazines (no Google or Wiki yet), but the key thing was those images I had packed into my head on that Eurovision channel.
So much for the research
Still, Easy Prey is a pretty good novel, I think, and in a way, a time capsule: close enough to recognize, with hints of where we are now, but also with a foot back in the past we can hardly recognize anymore.
At a time when nobody had heard of apps, when nobody had heard of Google or Facebook, when computers sat on your desk, and were not tucked in every pocket and purse. Didn't have digital cameras at all the photo shoot was entirely film based, with exposures and lighting checked with instant Polaroid prints. Remember those?
The Twin Towers were still standing.
And what about heroin-chic models?
As a matter of fact, I just read today, in the New York Times, before I sat down to write this, that France was about to make it a criminal offense to use overly skinny fashion models, in an attempt to discourage anorexia.
That's gonna work out really well. Bet you won't see skinny models anymore, huh?
Reading through Easy Prey now, I really am astonished by how much the world has changed. I made a big point of equipping my hero, Lucas Davenport, with a cell phone because, you know, not many people had them then.
It was a time when a lot of investigation had to do be done with shoe leather.
A time before our time now, when Alie'e Maison's murder would be solved as soon as the DNA came back from the lab...
John Sandford, April 10, 2015
10 February 2017
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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