On VENGEANCE and The General

Revenge has always been a human passion – as well as a problem for any civilized society. Early on, Jehovah reminded the Israelites that ‘vengeance is mine,’ while Aeschylus immortalized the blood feuds of the House of Atreus, which took a goddess to end, thus establishing the rule of law.

Dramas of revenge were popular enough in Renaissance England to spawn a distinct genre, the Revenge Tragedy, ironically most famous for that reluctant avenger, Hamlet, whose dithering raised the body count without ultimately sparing the king. Of course, Shakespeare knew a good thing when he saw it: revenge not only calls upon a variety of visceral and ancient emotions, it also offers excellent plot possibilities.

I’ve been rather fond of these, myself. Looking back over my short stories, I find revenge plots constructed around a variety of characters, ranging from a middle aged archeologist (male) to a restauranteur (female) with stops along they way for several wronged wives and husbands, an angry daughter, plus a disgruntled academic dean and a traumatized student. Most of these stories are told from the avenger’s point of view.

“The General” is different in just about every way. Most of my short mystery stories arise from police reports in the press. Looking back in my invaluable notebooks for the first glimmer of “The General,” I find neither a clipping nor a plot summary but the bare idea of a South American general haunted by his gardener.

I have no idea now where this notion came from, but most likely it evolved from an awareness the many dictators and dodgy strongmen, often rightist, who have fled Central and South American countries, as well as Asia, the Balkans, and Africa, to find refuge here.

A Nice DriveIn the story, I made the General Central American, probably because of the continuing troubles in Honduras and Guatemala, and because I knew a bit about the politics of the area. The first mention of the story was late in the notebook that ended in 2005, but the story was not completed until two years later, a delay not unusual for me. The initial four lines – I can hardly even call it a paragraph – indicates that I had no clear idea of what the General’s crimes involved or even if the gardener were real and not a projection of the General’s guilty mind.

Which brings us to the other unusual feature of this particular story of vengeance, it is told strictly from the General’s point of view. I don’t remember if I considered the more traditional approach, but I am convinced it would not have worked as well, considering the vast discrepancy in power, wealth, and influence of the two men and the presence of the boy, loved by both, whose inevitable suffering suggests why civilization is always, and rightly, hostile to personal vengeance.

Janice Law is a novelist who frequently commits short mystery stories. Her first, “The Big Payoff,” was nominated for an Edgar, and her stories have been reprinted in the Best American Mystery Stories, The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Alfred Hitchcock’s Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense, Riptide, Still Waters, and the fabulist anthology ParaSpheres.

Check out “The General” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.