You can now download my crime fiction story “Moral Hazard” for your Amazon Kindle or other device, from Amazon.com. Here’s the link; it’s only $2.99. Even if you don’t want to buy the story, you can poke around on the official Amazon Jesse Sublett profile and leave comments if you like.
This story originally appeared in Lone Star Noir, published by Akashic for their noir series in 2010. That same year it appeared in a slightly longer form in French in a great anthology published by 13e Note Editions of France.
This story was inspired by a number of true events that transpired around 2006, when I made the initial short draft of the story. I had recently read a book about the disgraced US Congressman from Texas, Tom Delay, and his corrupt schemes for enriching his friends and political allies, using various sham operations, and also cloaking some of his actions in charity efforts for children. At the same time, money was being funneled through friends in the Marianas, a US protectorate, where poor natives workers produce cheap goods for the US market but the usual US fair and labor practices are not in effect. The workers are abused horribly and the situation is a scandal; yet this hypocrite, Tom Delay, praises the country and the rackets there as the finest example of free market capitalism in existence. Delay wasn’t the only inspiration for the story, however. First of all, I wanted a professional criminal as the protagonist. I’ve always loved the Richard Stark novels (a pen name of the late, great Donald Westlake), in which the plots and dialogue are as streamlined and fast moving as the protagonist, Parker, an amoral professional thief. The protagonist of “Moral Hazard” is identified as “Slim,” although I originally wanted him to be nameless, to help maintain the shadowy, vague atmosphere of the story. However, to reduce confusion, I ended up giving him that nickname. Another bad example for the story was that of a Houston oil tycoon whose name slips my mind at the moment. This guy was raking in billions for decades, legitimately, but that apparently wasn’t enough for him. He became a key player in a conspiracy to funnel funds from the Oil-for-Food program with Iraq that was in operation after the first Gulf War. And this fat cat crook was a Democrat. So not all rich, corrupt people are Republicans. It just seems that way these days.
The other thing I really wanted to incorporate in the story was a case of potential spontaneous human combustion (SHC). I’ve been fascinated by that topic for almost 20 years. I saw a BBC documentary on SHC back when we were living in Los Angeles, and it was written and directed brilliantly. The program examined about four or five cases of people who were burned to death under circumstances that pointed strongly toward SHC as the cause. Each case was presented detective story fashion; that is, SHC certainly appeared to be the only plausible conclusion. And yet, one by one, each case was debunked, and the role played by the peculiar dynamics of fire in each case were responsible for the strange phenomenon found at the scenes. For example, one corpse was found in a living room, the body consumed by fire except for the feet. The victim had been seated in a lounge chair. Nothing else in the room was burned, and only part of the chair was burned. However, on the far side of the room, some items on a shelf were partially melted. The door knob was hot to the touch when the witnesses arrived after the fire. A strange pink waxy substance coated the walls of the room.
Basically, what happened was this: The man fell asleep while smoking and caught fire. The room was closed up, so the fire consumed most of the body and then died out before the feet burned up because the oxygen supply in the room had been depleted. Heat from the flames traveled upward to the ceiling, then came down again, melting objects on the other side of the room–a common effect in fires in buildings. The pink waxy substance? Body fat.
Anyway… The diagnosis in this story is up in the air. It’s up to the reader to decide. Finally, the ending borrows some ideas from the James M. Cain novel Double Indemnity, and the “moral hazard” theme is something that fascinated me the first time I heard of it. The concept came up a lot during the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2007–2008; and again, the kind of predatory capitalism demonstrated during that fiasco outrages me, and helped inspire the story.
Johnny Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press saw my Overton Gang essay in the Texas Observer (“Adaptation” – click here) in 2008 and loved it. When Johnny and his dad, Bobby Byrd, landed the job of editing the Texas entry in Akashic’s noir series, he made Bobby read my story, saying, “We gotta get a story from Jesse Sublett.” Bobby took his time getting around to reading my Overton story, but when he finally did, he grabbed Johnny and said, “Son, we gotta get a story from this Jesse Sublett guy!” And they did. Bobby did a great job making suggestions that made the story stronger. And his own contribution to the collection, “The Dead Man’s Wife” is one of my favorites. For the book signing parties, I took my guitar and sang a couple of murder ballads to liven things up. We had a great time and sold some books, too.
Anyway, I’m working on uploading some more ebooks soon. I’m scanning and doing the OCR conversion of my first novel, Rock Critic Murders, to be one of my next ebooks. The OCR is a real chore and it’s taking a while. Unfortunately, I wrote that novel in 1985. The word processor I was using then went out with the wooden plow, I think.
I will probably also convert some of my “Clapton” short stories soon. I wrote those when we lived in LA in the 1980s. They’re a little rough and tumble, but fun.