Operation Delta Beluga

by jkatejohnston

16 December 2014

Dear Max,

I finished my book and sent sample pages to an agent along with a query letter. I’m tempted to include the letter here as an example of how to grovel and boast at the same time. I spent a lot of time talking about my limitations as a person and a writer: how I hate plot and the one in this book isn’t very interesting and may not even make sense. Then I compared myself to Simenon.

Also, “finished” is a pretty generous way of putting it. Probably, I should read the book. And then write it again. Instead, to keep myself from getting too depressed, I started the next one.

The nice thing about law is the plots come ready made. This time it’s very loosely based on a case I worked on over ten years ago. My client and several other Hmong were accused of catching sturgeon and selling the roe to this Russian guy whose mom made caviar and sold it to other Russians. The Russians also bought some whole sturgeon (not from my client!) and some over-size sturgeon (not from my client!) and sold it to a Russian market in town. It seemed a little hard on my guy that he did almost every single thing within the law—he had a license, he caught a legal-size fish, under the bag limit, and he kept it to eat—except, instead of throwing away the roe, he (allegedly!) got some money for it.

Anyway, it was a huge investigation: Operation Delta Beluga. The feds were involved because the Russians took the caviar across state lines. The cops (or game wardens) had round the clock surveillance, a wired-up undercover agent, two surveillance aircraft, at least one confidential informant and vehicle tracking devices left and right.

The fishermen and the Russians were charged with conspiracy and sale of sport-caught fish. The scary thing about conspiracy is that your client can be charged with every crime committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, even crimes he didn’t know about, committed by people he never met. The DA didn’t do that in our case, but it was hanging over our heads.

In the book there’s the narrator/lawyer/me who just wants to bring the case to some kind of respectable conclusion, get paid and go home—who thinks, Conspiracy? It’s a fish for fuck’s sake! And there’s the author/me who has some sense of why it’s a big deal. I don’t know how to write about this part without sounding awfully grand, but anyway, something about the fact that these fish are ancient and precious and strange; that they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs and they look it, with their strange scale-less bodies and pearly-metallic scutes; that they give us a sense of geologic time (or evolutionary time); that we upstart primates are late-comers and soon-goers, and after we’re gone, they might still be here the same as they ever were, swimming along the bottom of this big brown river that won’t even have a name anymore. It would be really great not to blow it for them.

Mind you, I haven’t written any of this. These are plans, and the best part of the plan is that in the book I’m going to represent the owner of the Russian market, which means that this weekend I’m going to go there and eat my head off and take a bunch of notes.

I should probably be writing a non-fiction book about all this. But that sounds like a lot of work: interviews, research, things I don’t know how to do. Just getting myself out to the Russian market will take up half my Saturday because it’s way out in Citrus Heights. If I write a made-up story, I can pull most of it out of my ass, which is at least conveniently located.

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