Publishing Box Nine, by Jack O'Connell

Now, I don't recall if there were any signs or omens. I can't remember any rings around the moon the previous night. But December 19, 1990, had all the makings of a classic bad luck day. Every piece of mail was a problem, every phone call turned into an argument. Office machinery broke down. Car keys were lost. Checks bounced. By lunchtime, my mood was pushing from glum to ugly, and I remarked to my wife, Nancy, "If our luck doesn't change soon..."

I'm fairly sure I left the threat incomplete.

We headed back to work and finished out the day, arriving home tired and hungry and two hours late. We stood in the doorway and debated whether we should pause to eat dinner or head right back out to the mall for a little combat Christmas shopping. I decided it was too late to salvage any enjoyment from the remains of the day and voted for the mall. I ran upstairs to check the answering machine before we left and in the darkness of the bedroom, the red message signal was flashing. I stood inside a heavy wool overcoat, hit the playback and heard a young woman's voice ask me to call a Manhattan telephone number.

My wife began to climb the stairs and I looked around the corner at her. Before I could open my mouth she said, "If you don't call, I will" and I picked up the receiver and dialed New York.

I think I glanced at my wristwatch as a man's voice came on the line. I said, "This is Jack O'Connell, I hope I'm not calling at a bad time."

And my agent, Nat Sobel—to whom I'd only spoken once before—said the words I'd waited a lifetime to hear:

"You didn't call at a bad time, Jack," and then, after a pause, "Congratulations, you're a published novelist."

I may have heard half of the details Nat went on to delineate. I know for certain he told me, in parting, to go have a glass of “the old Irish.” I stepped out of the still-dark bedroom, my legs, honestly, a bit rubbery, and found my wife sitting at the bottom of the stairs, shaking her head and wiping away a tear with the palm of her hand. (I think this reaction may have been one of relief—an end to a decade of hearing the daily chant I'm never going to break through.)

We moved to the kitchen and filled two juice glasses with brandy. One of us dropped our glass and it shattered on the floor. The dog started barking and racing laps around the dining room table. And we never made it to the mall that night for the elusive Christmas gift. Instead, we wound up at a favorite Italian restaurant around the corner, lingering over some pesto and a good bottle of wine and casting the lead roles in a dream-movie of the book. (I tapped Ellen Barkin for the lead. Nance went with Jodie Foster.)

It has been over twenty years since that phone call. And today, that novel, Box Nine, is available as an ebook.

Box Nine was conceived on Route 146, somewhere between Whitinsville and Worcester, sometime before midnight on July 6, 1989, when a U.S. postal truck pulled in front of us. We stared at the rear of the truck for a minute, then Nance turned to me and asked if she'd ever told me about the package she'd once found. Throughout college, my wife had worked summers at the post office, often sorting mail on the night shift. One evening a box had come across her cage that had something wrong with it--there was an awful smell and a wet stain seeping through the bottom. The supervisor decided they'd best have a look inside. They razored open the carton and found a dead bat inside.

The image hit me with such force, I almost pulled my car to the side of the road. And on the heels of the image were the questions--Why would someone send anyone a dead bat? What had the intended recipient done? Where does one find a dead bat?

The next morning I was at my desk writing about a postal clerk named Ike Thomas who finds a grisly package in his sorting bin. I had no definite idea where I was going, but the words were coming and for a while that would do. I've always been a big believer in a dictum I read in an E.L. Doctorow interview: Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights shine, but you can make the whole trip that way.

About twenty pages into the story, Ike’s twin sister Lenore stepped onto the page and took over. Lenore works as an acerbic narcotics detective with an assortment of her own addictions. She's enters the story living on amphetamines, speed metal music, weaponry, and her cutting wit. Once Lenore came on the scene, the story took off. The more I fell for and gave over to her character, the easier the writing went. I came to care a great deal about Lenore. I was conscious of her faults and I knew she was wildly high strung, but I was also aware of her intelligence and humor and her unique style and sensibility.

Through Lenore's eyes, the plot of Box Nine began to gel, and I followed along as she started to track down the origin and destination of a new designer drug called "lingo" that supercharges the language centers of the brain, but induces a side effect of homicidal rage. In the course of her investigation within the heart of Bangkok Park, her city's surreal zone of vice and decay, Lenore comes to tango with Cortez, the moody, biblioholic druglord, as well as Dr. Frederick Woo, a neuropsychologist and consultant the department has saddled her with.

In March of 1990, I learned the novel had won The Mysterious Press' first "Mysterious Discovery" contest.

A month later, I was in Manhattan meeting Nat, and Otto Penzler, and Sara Ann Freed. They took me to the Edgar Awards Banquet and introduced me to people like Stephen King and James Ellroy. That night, back in my hotel room, I lay in the dark and waited for the knock on the door that would announce that this elaborate practical joke was over.

But the knock never came. And about seven months later, Federal Express placed Box Nine in my hands.

Nance and I brought the book with us to the same Italian restaurant that day. We ordered some wine and toasted Lenore's health.


Jack O'Connell

Jack O'Connell is the author of five critically acclaimed novels, four of which--Box Nine, The Skin Palace, Wireless and Word Made Flesh--are available digitally through MysteriousPress.com. This article was originally printed in Mystery Scene in 1992. 

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