Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.
My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.
Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.
Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.
Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?
No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.
It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.
For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.
Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.
All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.
I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.
I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)
Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.
I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.
It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.
Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out TheGentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.
I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.
All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.
What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.
So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!
K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.
Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association for her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).
Aside from some rare omniscient inserts, Vargas tells her stories primarily through the eyes of the police characters, primarily Adamsberg. We see Adamsberg’s chief lieutenant, Commandant Adrien Danglard, through Adamsberg’s eyes. Danglard is OCD, possessed of nearly photographic memory, a polymath with vast knowledge of science and history, subject to anxiety attacks. At the beginning of An Uncertain Place (tr. 2011) Adamsberg is racing for the Eurostar to meet Danglard and board the Chunnel for a conference in London when he gets Danglard’s text:
“Rdv 80 min GdNord Eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U.”
In this abbreviated text Vargas telegraphs Danglard’s character and his relationship to Adamsberg. We instantly see that Danglard is clock-bound, controlling in his insistence on proper attire for Adamsberg (correctly predicting his boss’s over-casual packing), and terrified of traveling under the Channel.
Vargas develops her protagonist and his foil by giving us each character’s point of view on the other’s mental processes. In An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg sees Danglard like this:
Adamsberg imagined Danglard’s mind as a block of fine limestone, where rain, in other words questions, had hollowed out countless basins in which his worries gathered, unresolved. Every day, three or four of these basins were active simultaneously.
On the other hand, Danglard often despairs of Adamsberg’s unconventional mental processes:
It was less easy to seize hold of him when his mental equipment was dislocated into several moving parts, which was his usual state. But it became completely impossible when this state intensified to the point of dispersal…Adamsberg at such times seemed to move like a diver, his body and mind swooping gracefully without any precise objective. His eyes followed the movement, taking on the look of dark brown algae and conveying to his interlocutor a sensation of indeterminacy, flow, non-existence. To accompany Adamsberg in these extremes…was like swimming into deep water…
Indeed, the members of Adamsberg’s squad are split on his intuitive approach, which they call “cloud-shoveling.” Many in the squad would frankly prefer a more Cartesian, rationalist approach. An Uncertain Place begins with the discovery of severed feet (i.e. from corpses) lined up in pairs of French shoes at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London. (I told you the plots are wild.) Back in Paris, when Adamsberg eventually connects the severed feet to a Serbian legend tinged with vampirism, part of his squad rebels:
At this point, the antagonism which divided the members of the squad resurfaced: the materialist positivists were seriously annoyed by Adamsberg’s vague wanderings, sometimes to the point of rebellion, while the more conciliatory group did not object to a spot of cloud-shovelling from time to time.
Adamsberg tries to convince the magnificent woman lieutenant, Violette Retancourt—a positivist irritated by Adamsberg’s vagueness—that there is indeed a connection:
“We’re not looking for a vampire, Retancourt,” said Adamsberg firmly, “we’re not going out into the streets to search for some creature who got a stake through his heart in the early eighteenth century. Surely that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant.”
“No, not really.”
Vargas highlights our variation in mental processes—how we each investigate, , how we think—in Have Mercy on Us All (tr. 2003), whichdraws heavily on Vargas’s own research into the Black Death and bubonic plague (published as Les Chemins de la peste or “Routes of the Plague”, 2003). Someone in Paris is drawing a symbol like a backwards number four on apartment doors in highrise apartments, leaving inside each apartment ivory envelopes which contain fleas, with messages inside that draw on medieval Latin texts about the plague’s arrival, first in Paris, later in Marseilles. And, yes, the fleas are nosopsyllus fasciatus, connected with the plague. These details draw us from Paris highrise apartments to the itching swollen bites in Danglard’s armpits and the image of the anglophile commandant leaping out of his I-love-the-English tweeds into déclassé black jeans and a baggy t-shirt—confounding the other members of his squad.
Meanwhile, dead bodies appear in the streets. Modern Parisians become terrified when news outlets report that the last arrival of the plague in Paris, in 1920, was hushed up by the authorities. Adamsberg vainly points out that the dead bodies being found were each strangled and the black splotches on their bodies are merely powdered charcoal. With the investigation stymied, he senses that he himself missed a step, missed a clue. He decides to spend the afternoon in a Paris square waiting for the local Breton newscaster—a former sailor named Joss whose gig is to read aloud to the waiting audience the “news” envelopes submitted by various listeners:
Adamsberg enjoyed listening to the harmless small ads in pale sunlight. An entire afternoon spent doing bugger all except letting body and mind wind down had helped him recover…He had reached the level of animation of a sponge bobbing about on a stormy sea. It was a state he sometimes sought specifically.
And at the close of the newscast, as Joss was announcing the wreck of the day, he jumped, as if a pebble had just hit the sponge hard. The bump almost hurt physically, leaving Adamsberg nonplussed and alert. He could not tell where it had come from. It was necessarily a picture that had hit him while he’d been drowsing with his shoulder leaning on the trunk of the plane—a fleeting frame, a split-second flash of a visual detail of some kind.
Adamsberg straightened up and scanned the whole scene in search of the lost image, trying to recover the sense of shock.
Haven’t we each sometimes waked up with the sense we missed something, something we heard, something we saw? And tried to retrieve it? No spoilers here as to what Adamsberg will recall.
Of course we need logic and intuition, visual and auditory memory, history and scientific analysis. Vargas’s hypercreative plots, often rooted in French myth and history, require not only Danglard’s enormous historical knowledge and ratiocination, but Adamsberg’s “swimming into deep water.” What initially looks like ordinary murder in Paris, or Normandy, becomes, at Vargas’s hands, a mythic quest, a trip down the rabbit hole where, finally, an unexpected mystery is solved. We think we’re just cloud-shoveling, but suddenly all the threads come together and we see the whole picture—far more complex than we’d dreamed—at last.
The Adamsberg books are a treat, but anyone who has ever been a grad student will also relish Vargas’s unlikely trio of graduate students and their roles in solving murders: The Three Evangelists (tr. 2006), Dog Will Have His Day (tr. 2014), and The Accordionists (tr. 2017). A new Adamsberg will arrive in August. More cloud-shoveling!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.
At the June Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas meeting, Detective Dave Fugitt presented an overview of the Austin Police Department Homicide Unit. Local mystery author and Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor introduced Det. Fugitt as the best homicide investigator in the Austin Police Department. In his capacity as ADA, Mr. Pryor and Det. Fugitt have worked together on murder cases in Travis County.
Fugitt is a member of the Homicide Investigators of Texas and the International Homicide Investigators Association. The International Homicide Investigators Association holds annual symposiums for detectives from around the world. During these meetings, detectives share ideas for solving cold cases and keep up to date on new techniques and technology in forensics and crime solving. The association also holds regional training events around the United States.
As an APD homicide investigator Fugitt has been the lead investigator on 48 homicides in his career and has closed 45 of them. He would still like to solve those other three cases, one of which is the first case he was ever assigned as a lead detective. Fugitt also has assisted in over 500 homicide investigations as a member of the homicide unit. Of these cases, the detective said that cases involving victims engaged in risky or illegal behaviors tended to be difficult to solve and his first case that remains unsolved falls into that category.
According to Fugitt, each detective in the homicide unit is assigned 3 to 5 homicides each year as the lead investigator. While working those cases, each officer also investigates suicides, accidents, and deaths from unknown causes and assists with murder cases assigned to others in the unit. Cases are assigned using a unique rotation system. This detective rotation system is different from systems used by homicide units in other cities and has been very successful for the Austin Police Department. Other cities have sent representatives to Austin to review this rotation system to see if it would work for them.
The detective provided a wealth of information about homicide investigations for audience members, including describing the interrogation rooms, layout of the homicide unit, and the equipment available to detectives.
Fugitt explained that police officers undergo training and classes to keep up to date with new investigative practices. He has had approximately 5,722 hours of training from the police department. One recent class was “Crime Scene Shooting Reconstruction.” Fugitt also reads Forensics Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine to learn new methods of evidence analysis and collection. He recommends books for reference material, including Practical Homicide Investigation and The Death Investigators Handbook.
Fugitt has been involved in high-profile investigations, several of which have been documented in books and movies. He participated in the investigation into the death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and investigated the murder of Jennifer Cave. During the meeting, Fugitt answered a variety of questions for local authors regarding evidence collection and investigation practices. He admitted that he tries to see the victim’s body as evidence to be reviewed, but that it is harder to separate emotion from cases involving the murder of children. He stated that family support is critical for members of his unit because of how much time they spend working on new cases as the lead investigator.
The detective shared anecdotes from his own personal experience working in the homicide unit. For example, Det. Fugitt told a story about a case he assisted on when he was first assigned to the homicide unit. The lead detective asked Fugitt to tell him how a small amount of blood landed on a nearby mirror. Fugitt looked at the blood, which appeared to be high velocity spatter, but could not see how the blood could possibly have landed where it did, given the position of the body in the case. He was puzzled, but the lead detective told him to stare at it for a moment and the answer would come to him. After a moment feeling stupid, Det. Fugitt observed a fly landing on the mirror and leaving blood behind. He realized that the apparent spatter was really blood droplets transferred from the fly when it landed on the mirror.
Detective Fugitt was a wonderful speaker and willingly answered the questions put to him by authors in the audience. Several members of this blog, Ink-Stained Wretches, attended the meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas holds monthly meetings on a variety of topics, including inviting guest speakers of interest to mystery authors and readers. Check them out at Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime
Full disclosure: N. M. Cedeño, the author of this blog, is also the current President of the Sisters in Crime-Heart of Texas Chapter. She writes traditional, sci-fi, and paranormal mysteries. Her new paranormal mystery, Degrees of Deceit will be published later this year. Her work can be found at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno
I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.
Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant. She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.
In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.