Book excerpt:The Narcissism of Small Differences by Dennis Dorgan

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From the Blurb:

The Narcissism of Small Differences is a noir detective novel about the guiding influences of memory and the subconscious mind. It’s also a story about how insignificant the differences are between the defenders of law and order and those who live in the world outside of it. And, while it is also a fast-paced police procedural, in the end this is the story of Conor Delaney, a man who can see into the dark.

The story starts with a traumatized, ten-year-old Conor Delaney sitting at the kitchen table of Grandmother Raven, a powerful Ojibwe Midewikwe. Before he leaves her doublewide on the frozen shores of Lake Superior, she holds a ceremony for him, heals his trauma and dubs him Owl Eyes for his ability to see into the dark.

As an adult, he is the head of Delphi Investigations and Research. In this role he ferrets out corporate misdeeds like bank fraud, money laundering and market manipulation. He will ultimately find that these corporate crimes are at the heart of his first murder case; one that the perpetrator of three gruesome murders forces him into. The police team he joins is headed by his good friend, Mel Thorogood, Assistant Police Chief.

Another of his friends is Dr. Phil, a former Jesuit, psychologist and carney barker, who murdered six abusive priests. He is now a permanent resident at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Delaney thinks him to be among the most moral men he knows. Dr. Phil is still a formidable forensic psychologist and profiles the killer as a malignant narcissist who may be a woman. He also lays to rest the notion of a serial killer.

Mackey Stately is the City’s crime boss and a close friend of Delaney’s since childhood. He is pledged to help Delaney with this case. Other unconventional friends, including Henri Bouchard, his Ojibwe brother, help him bring this case to a conclusion. The journey to that goal is grounded in St. Paul, Minnesota, but also involves excursions through Belfast, Kansas City, Tulsa, St. Peter, Minnesota, and St Petersburg, Russia.

But it is the journey into Delaney’s subconscious mind and dreams that bring the investigation to its astonishing conclusion.



Swimming With Sharks

Fat Harry DeGidio stood about five-seven and weighed something south of 130 pounds. His hair was as thin as the lining of his lungs. Harry loved his weeds and insisted that anyone who worked for him also had to smoke. Manny Sanchez was his burley opposite and Jimmy Flynn had the sort of “average” appearance that was easily lost in a crowd of three or more.

They were seated around a circular oak table in one of those upstairs rooms that Delaney had never seen. The fifth member of their entourage was a surprise. Evelyn sat back, out of the light, and looked as distracted and ethereal as always. Even in this setting she managed an air of indifferent authority. Delaney tried thinking of why she would be there and remembered Mackey’s comment that she handled finances and investments. Delaney wondered how much Mackey had sunk into Fortuno. Mackey smiled his big smile as Delaney walked in and introduced him to Flynn and Sanchez, like they were at a cocktail party.

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Delaney began. “Here’s my reading, and please disabuse me of any misunderstandings I might have. OK?”

Mackey nodded and DeGideo smiled. “I think you, Sanchez, went over your limit on Fortuno so Flynn and Harry had to buy a chunk of Fortuno’s debt. You made a rookie mistake. Right?”

Sanchez took a deep breath and looked at Mackey, who said, “Didn’t I tell you he was a smart guy? And no, I didn’t tell him nothing. Didn’t have to, he smells this stuff.”

Delaney continued, “So you went deep and had to sell. Knowing Harry to be the smart businessman he is, he got a deep discount. I’m guessing Mr. Flynn did also. So, you’re pissed and want a pound of flesh from this overbearing cop.”

Sanchez glared and slowly said, “Yeah, I wanted to hurt him. But I didn’t. That would be bad for business. He used to be a cop and he still owed me money. A lot of money.”

“Yeah, I know. It would make no sense. But you, and you two,” Delaney said, looking at DeGidio and Flynn, “know some things about Fortuno that will help solve his murder and I want you to share.”

Flynn shook his head and smiled. “Share?”

“Yes, share, because if you do not, Mel Thorogood is going to unleash some of his mean guys to lead each of you away, in cuffs, one by one in front of lots of other upstanding citizens. I wonder what that will do to your business? Oh, and if you think you’ll get to call your lawyer and get out within a few hours, forget it. These murders are different and McArdle will not deal in any of that bullshit. You will just be spending three or four days with St. Paul’s finest and people will naturally wonder why you’re hanging out with them and what you’re talking about. You understand these murders have created a different climate and a new set of rules?”

“Fuck, Mackey, you bring us here to get threatened by this cocksucker?” It was Sanchez. Flynn and DeGidio were too smart to talk to Mackey like that.

“Manny!” Mackey snapped the name, much as a dog trainer might have barked, ‘sit!’ Then he smiled. “Look, Manny, he’s only telling you what Thorogood and McArdle will do. He’s giving you an opportunity to avoid it. You want to stay in business, I want to stay in business. We all want to stay in business, don’t we? So, let’s do what it takes to stay in business.”

Fat Harry broke his silence. “Whaddya wanna know?”

“What did he want the money for? Why was he so desperate?”

Sanchez nodded, too quickly, and glanced at Mackey before interjecting, “Fortuno liked drink, gambling, nose candy and whores. Very bad habits and he indulged them all in a very bad way.” He nodded sagely, throwing another quick glance at Mackey.

Delaney didn’t need to look at his friend to know he was embarrassed by Sanchez repeating his own phraseology. Flynn hurriedly jumped in, “That’s right, Fortuno was a wild man, outta control and spiraling into the gutter. He was doping and drinking and doing way too much of both. He was on a loser’s trail.”

“Is that what you think, Harry?”

Fat Harry’s eyebrows went up and then he shrugged. His lips curled into something resembling a smile. He was smart enough not to dig the hole any deeper.

“Tell me,” Delaney said, looking at Flynn. “If Fortuno was such an apparent loser, ‘spiraling into the gutter,’ how is it that three smart guys like you are fronting him those kinds of bucks? You just don’t put out that kind of long green for that kind of loser. Cop or no cop, you just don’t do it. It is bad business and you guys are not that stupid, are you.”  It was a statement, not a question.

Sanchez and Flynn glanced anxiously around the room, as if searching for a story that would break them free of their own words. Mackey was not smiling. “Maybe we better take a short break. Evelyn, why don’t you take him to the club room, pour some of that Jameson’s and let the four of us have a little chat?”

As she stood she gave Sanchez and Flynn an intense, hot stare that visibly jolted them, and then nodded at Delaney to follow her. “You presume a great deal,” she said after handing him the drink.

 “Is that so?” Delaney was in no mood for bullshit. “I think they presume too much. That I’m stupid, that the cops are stupid, that people with twenty-twenty vision are too blind to see them brewing crap right in front of them. Which, by the way, may be what the four of them are up to right now. What do you think?”

“So, you think Mackey is involved?”

“Are you going to insult my intelligence, too? ‘Very bad habits and he indulged them all in a very bad way.’  Give me a break.”

            “Oh, he heard Mackey say it, but not as lines to rehearse for a role in a cover-up conspiracy. He just remembered Mackey talking about Fortuno and repeated what he heard. Sanchez is not a guy with a lot of insight into his customers’ character.”

            She paused while pouring herself a Jameson’s. Delaney had never seen her drinking anything stronger than wine before and wondered if it meant anything. “You don’t trust Mackey, do you?”

            “Quite the contrary, Evelyn. I trust him with my life. I also trust that he doesn’t always ‘share’ with me. He may have reasons for concealing some things, and in his eyes the reasons will be good. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, and I have the same feelings toward him. But we have frequent differences about such things as left and right and right and wrong. Given that we’re often heading in completely different directions, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”

            “You sound so smugly sure that he wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. Are you really that certain or do I detect some self-delusional bravado? You know Mackey tells lots of lies, don’t you?”

            Delaney did know. Mackey was hard to read precisely because he rarely spoke without omitting something or including something that was, at best, a partial truth. Delaney thought Mackey was a bullshit artist of the highest order. To Evelyn he said,  “So do I, as you well know. I even lie to Mack on occasion.”

            “Has he ever caught you at it?”

            “I dunno, he plays his cards pretty close to the vest. I doubt even you know all his secrets.”

            She sighed and nodded; there may have even been a slight shiver. “You’re right there. I know a lot, but he can be a secretive man sometimes. Why do you think he’s mixed up in the Fortuno murder?”

            “I don’t.”

            “Really? You practically accused him a few minutes ago.”

            “No, I said he may know something, that’s all.” Delaney didn’t like the drift of her conversation; she seemed to be pushing him toward the notion that Mackey had some role in the Fortuno murder. Delaney knew better and changed the subject. “Mackey says you’re now handling the firm’s finances and investments. Are you playing the stock market?”

            She perked up at the question. “Unlike you, I’m not a gambler. Our investments are very conservative. I only invest in health care and pharmaceutical stocks and triple-A rated tax-exempt bonds, the safest thing you can possibly own. I do make the occasional real estate investment in St. Paul, but only very safe ones. I’m doing just fine and haven’t lost a dime. The returns on pharmaceuticals are marvelous. The bonds may not be spectacular, but they’re safe and I’m making a decent return. Maybe I should have asked you about how to invest? You’re some kind of economist, aren’t you?”

            Delaney snorted. “Some kind, yeah. But you’re doing a smart thing. The more money you have, the smarter you are to invest it just as you are. Are you buying any corporate bonds, to go with your municipals and revenue bonds?”

            She didn’t take the bait. Too obviously didn’t take the bait. While throwing a look at the room they had come from, she abruptly said, “I wonder what’s taking him so long? You’d think he’d have them straightened out by now, wouldn’t you? Maybe I should go back in there and move them along.”

            Just then Mackey came out and motioned them to come back in. “I think I’ll skip the rest of this soiree,” Evelyn said. “Looks like he did it without me this time,” she whispered to Delaney in passing. Absent from the room, he thought, but listening in.

            “Suit yourself,” Mackey said over his shoulder. In the room, the three loan sharks were leaning over the table as if ready to pounce.

            Jimmy Flynn started, “OK, Fortuno was a wild man, but he didn’t borrow to cover gambling debts. He said he needed the money for an ‘investment.’ He said it was a ‘for sure’ thing and a guaranteed quick return. He said he’d pay it all back in 60 days, with interest. It was some kind of commercial real estate deal and he put up his house as collateral.”

            “If it was such a hot deal why didn’t you get in on it?”

            “I asked, but he said he had a silent partner fronting the deal and couldn’t talk about it. We had his house as collateral, so it was a good loan.”

            “Who was the partner?”

            Sanchez shifted uncomfortably and Flynn shrugged. Fat Harry remained a study in silence. Flynn finally said, “All we know is the guy was supposedly a lawyer. Sanchez here wasn’t smart enough to get a name as part of the deal and when we got into it,” he nodded toward DeGidio, “we were really just buying Sanchez’s paper. The wise guy behind the deal remains a mystery. Did he kill Fortuno? We don’t know, but now we have told you what we do know.”

            Delaney looked at DeGidio. “Harry?”

            He nodded.

            When Mackey nodded Delaney knew they were done for the evening. But the juxtaposition of this and his conversation with Evelyn about investments began to trouble him. He thought their stories must have a nexus, but he couldn’t locate it. Yet.


The City

Dreams From My Brother, Monday, May 5 

Henri grinned as he reminded me of Grandmother Raven’s caution that messages from Cody’s universe could be difficult to decipher. Cody’s Universe: Grandmother Raven had spoken to a ten-year-old in terms he could understand.  As I grew older I came to understand that it was my subconscious mind that was at work. All the dreams and messages I was receiving were being generated by my subconscious, not a deceased brother in another universe.

Of course, that leads inevitably to questions about what the subconscious mind really is. Those are fascinating questions and I hope to explore them more fully at some time in the future. In the meantime, I’ve dodged those questions by giving my subconscious self a name:  Cody.

I am reporting the dream below as if it were a first-person narrative. Dreams don’t actually work that way, of course. They are far, far heavier on emotional content than verbal substance. Nonetheless, in recording it, I am forced to reduce it to language, to words.  I am quite satisfied that what follows is an accurate account of the feeling and focus of the City in the dream:

I am this idea that lingers in the psychic expanse between your collective unconscious and subconscious minds. I’m here and you almost know that I’m here. . But you just can’t quite get a grip on the notion of my existence as a sentient and conscious being, can you?

The conscious Self – you know, the I, the Me, the Id, the I AM – is a story we sentient beings of all kinds tell ourselves. It’s a story made up entirely of memories, memories recollected, altered and invented. Thus, we are, on the one hand, a collection of memories, the majority of which may be the output of our imagination. On the other hand, we also have the power of thought; the ability to think about ourselves, about our consciousness, our memories and our Selfhood.

My consciousness is different from yours. It operates on a wavelength something akin to your mind on magic mushrooms. Different, but real. You should keep that in mind.

My Self – that unique sense of identity, dissimilitude and place in the world – was born nearly two hundred years ago on the day Pig’s Eye emerged from Fountain Cave, close on the shore of the great river.

On that day Pig’s Eye, the one-eyed river pirate, bootlegger, gambler, pimp, thief and murderer, began building his city. Three years later the priest – cartographer Fr. Lucien Galtier, who despised Pig’s Eye, christened me The City of St. Paul. It may be a misleading title, but it suits my purposes.

My consciousness emerged like a butterfly from its chrysalis when Pig’s Eye stepped into the stark morning light and started construction on his saloon and warehouse.  Now I could think, feel, perceive, predict, plan and act on this gift of self-awareness.

Just like you, come to think of it.

My memories of the times before Pig’s Eye are all formless: ghostly men chasing great spectral beasts across the ice and snow of the Pleistocene; burial mounds rising on the high bluffs above the eternal river; tribal campfires on the crests of my seven hills. All dim, all without substance, shadows wandering in a void. The light came with Pig’s Eye, and he is where my story, my Self, really begins.

It was the river that drew Pig’s Eye to this place, just as it had Fort Snelling, the voyageurs and the tribes centuries ago. Gichi-Ziibi, Father of Waters, captured them all with promises of wealth and power.

On the surface the great river looks so placid, flowing serenely out of the north woods of Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico. But this quietude hides an inescapable truth – the dark river has a vicious and murderous undertow. He is a remorseless and unrepentant killer. The Mississippi River is my father, whom I deeply love.

Pig’s Eye and the priest Galtier hated each other; because of, in spite of, their need, each for the other. The two of them are conjoined like eternally battling Siamese twins in my story, in the DNA of my Self.

The officers at the fort forged an Agreement with Pig’s Eye. In the decade that followed their role was taken over by the City’s Police Chiefs. The Agreement was a model of simplicity. Pig’s Eye and his successors were protected as the sole organizers and controllers of gambling, prostitution, drugs, loan sharking and other illicit services and goods. In return for this monopoly, each succeeding “Mr. Big” was to limit the size and scope of his activities. He was also to quietly eliminate any rivals, with the assistance of the city’s police, if necessary.

This system was designed to hem in and prevent the growth of so-called illegitimate ventures that otherwise might spread, discouraging the development of legally sanctioned enterprises. Each successive Chief of Police, through The Agreement, acknowledged the reality and duality of human desire. The Agreement is also locked in my memory; it is integral to my Self. In other universes The Agreement is often different in small ways. In one it is unwritten, in another, it is in force only for a limited time. But always there is an Agreement.

Control, not elimination, was always the guiding credo of this practical City from its founding to this day. Fr. Galtier, of course, was never told about the Agreement, but understood there was something unnatural about his St. Paul, something he couldn’t quite see; but his small chapel grew and decades later became the grand Cathedral that now dominates my skyline from the highest of my seven hills.

My story today: Urban experts all agree, I am one of America’s Most Livable Cities. I am, by many accounts, the very best place in the nation to live, work, raise a family and die. My school system is excellent and I have several top tier colleges and universities within, or adjacent to, my boundaries. I have world-renowned theaters, museums and other cultural venues.  I am possessed of some of the finest health care facilities in the world.

My metro area has the highest number of Fortune 500 corporations per capita in the nation and the level of employment among my residents always, and I do mean always, exceeds the national average. The housing stock, both old and new, is sturdy, has character and can be bought much more cheaply than in other, more heralded cities. The politics here appear to be extraordinarily inclusive and free of the sharp, partisan divisions that wrack the electorate elsewhere. In a word, the political arena is, to all appearances, free of corruption.

My neighborhoods are models of the urban good life. Quiet, with beautiful parks and playgrounds, accessible transportation of all kinds and, most of all, with very few (really, hardly noticeable) exceptions, crime and drug free. Among all the cities of this Great Nation, I am the crown jewel.

In truth, I am so comfortable, so placid, that even Nabokov, who certainly should have known better, was fooled. He said I was a stupefyingly boring city. He just didn’t know the real story.

Generations of men come and go, but I remain as a monument to their struggles. During their lifetimes the men fight for the  power to control my future. Every generation promises more and better roads, schools and buildings; especially tall, glassy commercial buildings.  They outdo each other in their proclamations of devotion to me and to making me even better than I already am.  They think they can make me into the manifestation of their sick political ambitions.

They say very little about my father, the one who brought them here in the first place. Is it because they sense his presence and are afraid? Perhaps they can feel the power of the current beneath his placid surface. They know he cannot be controlled. He can be hemmed in by their dams and river walls, but never controlled. He is too wild, too much his own master. His dark power is just so much greater than theirs.

 In any event, the whole truth about me, at least in this universe, is that I am my father’s child in every respect. 

Oh, yes. Yes, I am.


Dennis Dorgan recently retired from a lifetime of working with private and government agencies that took on the heart-breaking issues confronting low-income persons in our country: domestic violence, homelessness, hunger, unemployment and systemic racism. So, instead of writing the Great American Novel, he wrote a carload of funding proposals and similar documents. They steered millions of dollars to legal aid and other organizations that serve low-income families and communities. It was important work.

The Narcissism of Small Differences is Dorgan’s first novel. He claims that his interest in politics, history, law enforcement, criminal gangs, dark matter, Ojibwe culture, the subconscious mind, dreams, psychopaths, the many forms of narcissism, and the City of St. Paul’s criminal-friendly past, all came together in a dream that led him to write this book. 

He lives happily on the shores of one of Minnesota’s ten-thousand lakes with his wife, Debra, dog, Finnegan, and an invisible water sprite that keeps plugging new stories into his psyche.

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