I would include a spoiler warning, only there isn’t much to spoil here. Instead, a summary: “Boys will be killers” is the first story in actor Bryan Brown’s short story collection, entitled Sweet Jimmy. In this story, we are introduced to two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny, and their older cousin Phil, all three well-versed in shoplifting, breaking and entering, and various crimes of that nature. Phil is sent to jail for aggravated assault, but in jail he miraculously turns a new leaf, resumes a relationship with once-girlfriend Maureen, and convinces the prison superintendent to let him grow orchids. Jimmy and Johnny take up trades and use them as covers for burglary, despite Phil’s advice to go straight. Jimmy sleeps around. Johnny falls in love with Daisy, but this romance is cut short when Daisy’s mother decides he’s not good enough for her. When Phil gets out of jail and starts selling orchids, they join him and help out with deliveries. Oh, also, a couple of women get murdered. Terry the detective arrests Phil on the basis that both victims visited his store and gave him their address (and both had orchids at their houses), but turns out it was Johnny, enacting a revenge fantasy on people who reminded him of Daisy’s mother. He then murders Daisy’s mother. The end.
There are many flaws in “Boys will be Killers”, but the deepest one is that it lacks focus. It is the poster child for why you should not have too many points of view in a short story. A short story needs to be about one thing, and this is about several. Annoyingly, there are potential good stories hidden within it, only they need to actually be written. I keep going back to this story and taking out single characters, single perspectives, and considering how they could be made better stories.
For example, this would be a great whodunnit if we saw all of it from Terry’s point of view. Our police detective puts his reputation on the line when he tries to connect two apparently unrelated murders. The clue of the orchid leads him to not one, but three suspects: Phil the Orchid Man, and the two cousins who help him with the deliveries. Their past crimes and dalliances are drawn out through interviews, or deduced from clues. Phil, already once arrested for aggravated assault, seems too obvious to be the real killer. Jimmy seems far more likely—everyone knows he moved because he had an affair with a cop’s wife. Probably he still carries on affairs with the women he delivers to, and when they don’t like it, he kills them. All the clues seem to point to him—only in a last minute twist, we find out it’s Johnny, still hung up on that ex’s mother who rejected him. Instead of the final scene being Johnny actually killing Daisy’s mother, we find it’s a trap—Terry pretended to arrest Phil to draw him out, having put together all the little clues along the way.
Or this could be a romance, given Phil’s point of view. Full of anger, sent to jail, nothing going for him, until his high school sweetheart visits him out of pity. She visits him again, telling him about her new hobby—she’s the one who tells him about orchids. She’s the one who encourages him to ask for the greenhouse, to set up the store when he’s finally released. She becomes his strength and his world. Only she’s taken too early, by cancer. He sinks deep into depression, back into his old angry ways. He watches his customers with bitter jealousy, wondering why they get to be happy. He even follows one woman home, thinking she doesn’t deserve to live. I could change that. He sits in his car parked outside her house in the night, nursing a bottle of beer. In the end, it’s the memory of Maureen that pulls him back from the brink. She wouldn’t want him to go back to this. He drives home, deed undone. (We’ll probably leave out the last minute twist of the customer being killed by his cousin. Doesn’t seem to fit, unless we want a really nihilist tale.)
Of course, if we want a nihilist tale, we don’t have to look past Johnny. Roped into crime by his brother and cousin. He’s an easy going lad, so he doesn’t question anything, until Daisy drops him like a hot potato. It’s her mother’s fault. Everything is her mother’s fault. He thinks that every day. Sees her every day, it feels like, in the faces of the women he delivers to. They look at him like he’s trash. They look at him the way Daisy’s mother looked at him. Even when Agnes smiles at him, asks him if he’d like a cup of tea before he leaves, it feels like she’s taunting him with what he can never have. So he kills her. And it feels good. So he keeps killing. He leaves orchids, because it seems to suit. These upper class women want their gifts, don’t they? They need to be pampered. So he’ll pamper them, lavish their garden with the most expensive flowers he knows, after they’re dead. He loves it. He doesn’t even feel guilty when his cousin is arrested for his crimes. In fact, that frees him for one last hurrah: Daisy’s mother herself. Of course, that is the one that breaks him, because after he kills her, he sees Daisy. He sees her tears and feels empty. Wonders what it was all for. Doesn’t fight when the cops come for him, because this is bullshit and life is bullshit and it’s all that woman’s fault. He’ll think that to the end.
I can’t do one for Jimmy, since he feels like a complete nonentity in this story. I’m not sure what to take from this either, other than the fact that even the worst stories have nuggets of something in them. They may not be gold, but could be: they just need a little polishing.