"Roll up, roll up! Get your Monster Tonic here! Sharpens fangs, slimes tentacles, grows extra eyes on extra heads. Not got a monster yet? Buy a starter kit today! Guaranteed safe — just wear Monsterbane. Worried about the smell? Odour-Exploder keeps habitats fresh. And it's never been cheaper to feed your monsters with live mice —"
I broke off, because no-one could hear me in the din. Hoots and screeches echoed down the hall from the Best Chimera final in the mezzanine, and disquieting chomping noises came from the Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worm heats. Behind me I heard screams as ghouls battled zombies for Scariest Undead. But I didn't mind the noise, or even the stench. The nose-curdling marsh gas drifting from the Swamp Beast final was the scent of success. Already I'd given out three stacks of catalogues with '10% First-Time Discount' stickers. I'd invested a lot of money in sponsoring the Show, but if all went well, my costs would hatch into sweet profit.
"Best In Show" is a sequel to "Demonstration Day", but it can also be read as a stand-alone story.
The idea came to me while watching TV. The programme Gardeners' World was showing a segment on allotments, which included clips of gardeners competing to grow the best carrots, biggest marrows, and so forth. These were judged at an annual show, and competition was fierce — not because of the prizes, which were small, but simply for the sake of rivalry and glory.
The strong passions aroused by this event set my "Story alert!" antennae quivering. Ultimately, most stories are about conflict of some kind, and here was raw conflict distilled into a decisive day of judgement. But carrots and courgettes are fairly mundane. It would be more exciting if the competition wasn't about exhibiting vegetables, but instead — monsters!
Why monsters? The thought just popped into my head and felt right. It may have been a lingering influence from my original inspiration for the previous story, which came from my experience of writing and recording a song called "Monster Movies".
As soon as I framed the concept as a competition to breed monsters, I remembered the film Best In Show, which I'd seen a few months previously. It's a comedy about dog shows, and well worth seeing. The depiction of a dog show's various elements gave me a useful overview of the competition process. For instance, I realised that my monsters would initially be judged in various categories for Best Of Breed, from which the winners would go on to compete for the ultimate accolade of Best In Show.
I had a lot of fun coming up with all the monster types, from Stickiest Slime Beast to Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain to Best Monster Grown From A $99 Kit. But, of course, a story needs a plot. Since I was writing a sequel to "Demonstration Day", which had appeared in the annual Science Fiction Mysteries theme issue of Oceans of the Mind, I decided that this story would be another mystery. Last time, a scientist had disappeared; this time I'd raise the stakes, and a scientist would be murdered. The story's setting suggested that the appropriate murder method would be for the victim to be killed by a monster.
How could that happen? No-one would exhibit monsters without safety precautions. I decided that my protagonist, Drake, would be the organiser of the show and the supplier of the Monsterbane that everyone wore to protect themselves from the exhibits. The brutal slaughter of a Monsterbane-wearing scientist implied that Drake's product was defective, putting everyone at the show in danger. This gave Drake a strong motivation to investigate the death and solve the mystery.
If you scan down my bibliography, you'll see that titles aren't my strongest point as a writer. When I'd finished this story, I struggled to come up with a title for it. I didn't particularly want to call it "Best In Show", because that was already the name of a film — and I assumed that people would think I'd got the idea for my story directly from the film, which I hadn't. Yet I couldn't think of a better alternative, so I ended up keeping that title.
I submitted "Best In Show" to Oceans of the Mind because they had published the previous story, "Demonstration Day". The editor accepted it, and it appeared in the Fall 2004 mysteries theme issue. This was the first time I'd written a sequel to any of my stories, and the fact that it sold on first submission, to its target market at professional rates, made me feel that I was beginning to get the hang of the writing business.
Although I enjoyed writing in this universe and wanted to continue, the format established in the first two stories — comedy/mystery, with Drake as protagonist and first-person narrator — soon proved restrictive. I therefore took a somewhat different approach when writing the next story, "The Franklin J. Berneville Memorial Trophy for Saving The World From Extreme Peril". I also tried a lot harder to come up with a distinctive title!