Created by Elizabeth McKenzie
It may be just a trifle (the lead character doesn’t even rate a name) of a short story, but the Shamus-nominated “The Big Creep” by Elizabeth McKennzie hits all the right notes.
Come to think of it, it’s barely even a story; it’s almost a character study or a vignette; a noirish coming-of-age story that throbs with pain and hurt, and a savage send-up of some of the most beloved tropes of private eye fiction.
Because, you see, the private eye hero (and narrator) here is a fifteen year old girl. Of sorts, and certainly unlicensed, she has clients referred to her by Joe Fernandez, a Santa Cruz cop and her dad’s best friend. She meets them in “the frozen yogurt place on Mission Street… with the hope the client will get me something.”
Your heart goes out to this cynical-beyond-her-years, hardscrabble kid, scrambling for a free dessert. It’s just her dad and her alone in the world, living in a converted garage down a garbage can-lined alley, scrounging for whatever they can get after her Mom died.
He’s a short-distance trucker trying his best, but he’s not going to win any parenting awards. “As long as I read books at home,” she confides to the reader, “he could care less how I do at school; he just wants me to grow up to be a cynic.”
Well, mission accomplished, Dad. Too bad dear old Dad doesn’t seem to ever be around long enough to notice that his daughter is an alcoholic, slugging down vodka-heavy screwdrivers for breakfast, or whenever. Regular, John Hughes-approved teenage angst would be a luxury for her.
Instead she’s meeting a forty-year-old man she doesn’t know, who worries his son’s affections are being stolen by his ex’s new boyfriend. In less than twenty pages, the author unloads a world of hurt on this would-be Nancy Drew.
“No matter what you do, what could ever be right?” she concludes.
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No, I’d never heard of Elizabeth McKenzie either, but it turns out she’s the well-respected author of the novel The Portable Veblen, long listed for the 2016 National Book Award, while her short story collection, Stop That Girl, was short listed for The Story Prize, and her novel MacGregor Tells the World was a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal Best Book of the year. She also edited My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and has been recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts. But of course she’d really prefer a Shamus.