Jan 082016
 

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by Martha K Huggins, Ph.D…….

The Pitch: Everyone’s Good Ole Boy meets a softball champ at work. When the “Softball Queen” gets buried in debt from wagering in Good Ole Boy’s personally lucrative sports betting operation, she turns to pilfering money from her employer, just a little at a time over four years. Fortunately her colleague, “Turkey Hawk Stan”–as Good Ole Boy is called–is their employer’s computer programming expert. He can help hide “Softball Queen’s” monthly revenue shortfalls. But her alleged thefts are very belatedly discovered and this happens at the same time as “Turkey Hawk Sam” is arrested for running an illegal sports betting operation.

My mystery will show that “Softball Queen’s” and “Turkey Hawk Stan’s” actions were interrelated and that even ‘good’ people can commit ‘bad’ acts. A “thriller,” this mystery novel places the action inside a government agency where elected and appointed officers see their careers ending if their agency’s money problems cannot be contained and “Turkey Hawk’s” illegal gambling business is shown to exist outside his place of employment– government agency. Mid-way through my novel, we see the officials who fired “Softball Queen,” shaking in their boots because some were Good Ole “Turkey Hawk Stan’s” sports bidders. As such these officials were not in a position to investigate too deeply into the financial and gambling shenanigans within their agency.

On the edge of a precipice stand regular conventional politicos and managers who have everything to lose from the ‘truth’ being disclosed: How will the ending look?

Rooted in Real Events

All good mysteries are linked to real-life events. So let’s start with our own Monroe County School Board. It has just decided not to hire an expensive forensic accountant to examine the county school system’s financial accounts: That’s actually very scripted behavior for an entity that ‘loses’ other people’s money: hiding losses is ‘good business.’ Whether the entity is a government agency, bank, public corporation, medium or small business, not-for-profit organization, or political party, the most common action in the case of financial shortfalls is to hide missteps and swallow the loss. The organization’s reputation is saved. Unless, that is, the shortfall makes it into the media. Normally, however, a whole lot of white-collar criminals in positions of trust get away with stealing a whole lot of money, especially because pursuing a fraud will surely expose the complicity of higher-ups.

Setting the Stage

The Monroe County School Superintendant’s computer tech “Joe Weed” Clements—an employee of Monroe County—has been arrested for allegedly running a sports betting operation. Given the fast-paced nature of betting one can assume that posting bets would have taken up at least some of “Joe Weed’s” on-duty hours. A mystery writer might easily posit for the story’s purposes that her story’s “Turkey Hawk Stan” was using the County’s computer and software to run his personally lucrative betting operation.

And there’s a nice plot twist; how about “Turkey Hawk Stan” being involved in a school’s financial shortfall allegedly perpetrated by “Softball Queen”? Again, connecting mystery fiction to the real, ELC Manager, Tina Godfrey, a softball player on Key West’s “‘Better Than Sex’ coed softball team…was named [in 2012] Key West Softball Athlete of the Week.”(1) I’d say, ‘You cannot make this stuff up,’ if I were not proposing doing just that for a mystery novel.

Ramping Up the Mystery. It tweaks one’s imagination that two Monroe County employees—the ELC’s Tina Godfrey and “Joe Weed” Clements, a computer programmer– had their apparently separate ‘irregularities’ discovered within about twenty-four hours of one another. As police detectives so often say, ‘There are no coincidences where crime is concerned.’ So I ask, for the benefit of my mystery novel, could the “Softball Queen” be one of “Turkey Hawk Stan’s” sports betting clients? Could “Softball Queen” have gotten into deep debt via “Turkey Hawk’s” sports betting operation? Did she need quick money to pay her debts? Might I assume that “Softball Queen” took small sums of money each week, since most do, at relatively low-risk? The real world teaches that if employee theft goes unnoticed over a period of time, then administrative oversight has been absent.

Linking Social Facts to Mystery Fiction. These teaser questions and presumptions are mystery novel’s grist. Some social science facts will help to anchor the plot: Women commit “employee theft”; men “embezzle”– which points to the likely social class of one of my main characters, “Softball Queen”: women overall earn much less than men, even for the same work; a daycare manager certainly makes far less than an accountant or a computer specialist. “Softball Queen” will be a working class woman who helps support a family of, let’s say, four people.

As for what motivated “Softball Queen’s” theft, criminologist Donald Cressey’s 53 year-old research in embezzlement (2)—still the gold standard for those in white-collar-crime security work—shows that the turning point for a person who is taking in and recording other people’s money comes when this worker faces a financial crisis perceived by this person as ‘un-shareable’ with anyone: an un-payable gambling or credit card debt, for example. This worker slowly ‘pays-away’ her debt illegally by using the easily-accessible money that she controls.

Computer specialists have been added as threats to workplace finances:

“Today, the computer provides the most available means to commit embezzlement, and knowledge relating to the manipulation of large-scale computerized financial databases has become the primary tool of the embezzler…. Embezzlement can be classified as a ‘computer-assisted’ crime [:]… the computer is used in a supporting capacity. The specific crime, such as embezzlement, predates the introduction of computers.”(3)

It helps to hide employee theft if the thief is connected to a computer ‘jock” who understands financial management records and their management and manipulation much better than others in the organization.

Enriching the Plot

Who better to help “Softball Queen” pay back her debt to “Turkey Hawk Stan” than “Turkey Hawk Stan” himself, the organization’s computer jock. But as a writer I must keep the central characters squeaky clean: “Turkey Hawk Stan” will raise money for a sick friend; “Softball Queen,” a skilled athlete, will be a dedicated wife and mother. Here the place for a plot twist: today’s theft prevention experts remind clients of embezzlement’s, “10-10-80 rule: 10 percent of people will never steal no matter what, 10 percent of people will steal at any opportunity, and the other 80 percent of employees will go either way depending on how they rationalize a particular opportunity.”(4) So how do otherwise ‘good’ people come to carry out fraud against their employer, given the likelihood that most people will act criminally?

The Best Mysteries Include Powerful People

Security specialists recommend what any government agency or business that handles money should already know: There must be regular mechanisms for monitoring employees who interact with money and unannounced audits must be carried out regularly throughout the entity’s finance system. Administrators who do not promote these actions or equally effective ones, are part of the problem. The pattern seems to be for administrators to hide losses and hope that the theft goes away. Simply put, hiding losses is ‘good business’: Many business owners prefer to swallow financial losses and keep their management reputation intact. Consequently, a great many white-collar law violators in positions of trust get away with stealing a great deal of money. Many policemen assert that ‘the system is stacked in the embezzler’s favor.’

Write me if you can suggest an ending for, The Turkey Hawk Brief—a Key West Mystery

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1 http://keysnews.com/archives

2 https://books.google.com/books/about/Other_People_s_Money.html?id=FgAFAAAAMAAJ).Cressey’s mentor Edwin Sutherland, also of the Chicago School of Criminology, came first with, White Collar Crime (1949)

3 http://faculty.uml.edu/jbyrne/44.203/digital%20crime.pdf

4 http://www.businessknowhow.com/manage/employee-theft.htm

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Martha K. Huggins

Tulane Professor Emerita and scholar of Brazil, Huggins has researched police violations of human rights in Brazil for 40 years. Huggins is now transforming that work to the US, where she is studying municipal government and the insurance industries’ direct complicity in promoting, covering up, and hence rewarding police violence.


 January 8, 2016  Posted by at 1:18 am * Featured Story *, Issue #148, Martha Huggins  Add comments

  7 Responses to “Let’s Write a Mystery Novel: “The Turkey Hawk Brief—A Key West Mystery””

  1. Martha, Great stuff. Your 10-80-10 remarks remind me of something a teammate of mine on Temple University’s baseball team once told me. He later went on to become an assistant principal at one of Philadelphia’s inner city high schools. He told me that even in such a tough school, about 10% were simply bad kids that he tried to segregate from the rest, 80% could go either way, and 10% more were really good kids who’d progress in any environment. Amazing coincidence, no? How about this for an end to your novel (I wish you’d write it): Softball Queen hits a home run to win the game and triumphantly trots around the bases … and is met by law enforcement at home plate with a warrant for her arrest. Too corny? Thanks Martha, Jerome

    • No coincidence at all. It’s just the bell curve at work: 10% each below and above the norm, 80% the norm.

      As for ending, can’t suggest one until someone takes a look at Turkey Hawk’s computer, which surely has been confiscated? It doesn’t have to be someone who charges 30k either. Just someone who knows what to look for.

      Faithful Reader

      • For me the coincidence is if I have Turkey and Queen arrested within hours of one another. Will I have Queen turn in Turkey as part of a plea deal? But that is not the ending of the mystery, right? Martha

    • Jerome, not bad as an ending but I want power to enter into my mystery and suffer consequences for their direct or indirect complicity, which means at some point “Flank Steak John” and “Sir Frances Sidestep” be me central actors in the mystery. I really want “Flank Steak” and “Sir Frances Sidestep” to be, either or both, discovered as bidders in “Turkey Hawk’s” enterprise. Then I want a goofy dialogue between them and running-again-for-office “Sandy Birdley” regarding who is “really” indictable. Any additional help out there is appreciated. Martha

  2. The almost universal ending: both employees are promoted and the scandal dies away.

    The promotions usually involve a) they no longer have direct access to any money, b) an increase in pay so they don’t object to being moved, and c) they are incompetent in their new positions but, hey, problem solved!

    • Hwwsq So that would mean that my new character, the school system’s finance Guru, “Sir Frances Sidestep”, will be promoted to the state’s
      Inspector General of Finances? We shall see?! Martha

  3. Martha, I offer my ending as the absolute end, last page, after all you’ve spoken of above is played out and resolved. Her game winning exhilaration turns to handcuffed dismay as she crosses home plate. Hooray for Hollywood, ciao, Jerome