Gone Astray

Everyone thinks Roy Naysmith is past his prime as a detective. His bum heart doesn’t help matters. When he makes a switch from Omaha PD to tiny Winterset, Nebraska, his first major case involves the shooting death of Homer Coot, a Vietnam vet with a drinking problem. This investigation quickly takes a backseat, however, when a prominent citizen, Lydia Mullins, goes missing during a snow storm.

Through the course of the novel, Naysmith must work with eager rookie Clarence Thacker to unravel the corruption and petty crimes that plague Winterset and seem to add up to one giant conspiracy that could undo the entire town.

Terry Korth Fischer has a strong sense of police procedure, which she details with Hemingway-eque specificity. There is no gray area with how her detective solves the two cases he finds himself embroiled in, nor is there much suspension of disbelief required on the part of the reader. While the Homer Coot case falls by the wayside for a majority of the book, its relevance becomes apparent in the parallel investigation, whose actors are both more relevant to the community and more time-sensitive, so this also makes logical sense.

This mystery will appeal to mid-westerners and fans of realistic police procedural novels, but the characters of Roy Naysmith and Esther Mullins in particular give readers of any genre much to enjoy.

Get a copy at Amazon ($4.99) or Barnes and Noble ($4.99) today!

Wild Rose Review: Murder Undetected

After her husband runs off with the girl next door, psychologist Britt Thornton decides to blow off some steam by accompanying her friend Arielle to France where Arielle is planning on purchasing a cheese shop.

Once in France, Britt immediately realizes her accounts have been frozen. Not only has her husband been unfaithful, he’s been embezzling funds and is now being tracked down by the FBI. They also track Britt down overseas.

Viane Thibaudet is a young, ambitious chef whose great aims lay far beyond her town of Chevalier. She wants to buy a restaurant in Paris with her husband’s money, only Jean-Luc isn’t willing to do it.

When Jean-Luc collapses after eating something his wife made for him, Britt is there to give him CPR. It is after all Viane’s cheese shop her friend Arielle is trying to buy.

This was a solid mystery with a delightful setting. Like the author, I am also a bit of a Francophile and it made me long to visit this fictional village. The only thing that didn’t connect for me was a B-plot or C-plot about a troubled teen named “Thirteen.” Britt receives steadily more unsettling text messages from him back in the states, but the tension never really rose for me. It is a very minor thread, however, and didn’t take anything away from the read.

Fans of cozy mysteries, especially those set in international locations, and epicureans will find much to enjoy about these characters and their strife.

Amazon

Alumni Spotlight: Steven Miller

K-State English

Steven Miller (MA ’15)


“Late Have I Taught You”

Whenever I told people I wanted to study English, they would invariably reply, “So you want to be a teacher.” I would laugh—ha!—and tell them I’d never be a teacher. I wanted to be a great novelist.

Apparently, they knew more than I did.

After a decade of trying out various careers—reporting, ad sales, insurance, editing, and even a stint doing various part-time jobs—I found myself applying at a high school in tiny Holcomb, Kansas.

Other than its proximity to Garden City, where my wife and I settled after grad school, I think what drew me most to Holcomb is its literary history. The sight of the Clutter murders, Holcomb became famous after Truman Capote and Harper Lee visited and Capote forged a new genre, the nonfiction novel, with that tragedy at its heart. As an aspiring mystery writer, I felt…

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Review: Standard Deviation

Graham Cavanaugh is on the twelfth year of his second marriage, Audra is his beyond-outgoing wife who works as a graphic designer part-time and may or may not be having an affair, Matthew is their middle-school-aged son with Asperger’s and an obsession with origami, and Elspeth is Graham’s ex-wife, a successful attorney who Audra is convinced they should become friends with. The characters of this novel are richly imagined, unique yet believable. The story itself is just as new and real as the people. Just when you think you know what’s happening or what’s coming, the story takes a hard left.

I have read a lot of funny books, but Katherine Heiny hangs with the best of them. Like very few authors–Dave Barry, Steve Martin, Nora Ephron–she is able to deliver real laughs almost every page. I was impressed and also wildly discouraged as a writer. Like all great books, this made me want to work a whole lot harder at my craft.

I just finished reading Standard Deviations and wrote this review immediately, because you have to read it!

Recent Events

I decided to start promoting my debut mystery novel, How Everything Turns Away, at the local library and coffee shop. Here are some highlights!

A full house – for a fiction class in Southwest Kansas, that is
What’s the difference between a crime novel and a cozy? I’m glad you asked!
They even let me sell a book or two
A cozy reading at Patrick Dugan’s in downtown Garden City

Overall, it has been a successful launch for the book. In-person sales are steadily trickling in, a few each day, and my rankings at the online book sellers are moving up and down mysteriously, so that’s exciting. If you know of a coffee shop, book store, or library that would like to have me put on a reading or workshop, let me know!

The Wild Rose Press: Scarlet at Crystal River

After history teacher Darrell Henshaw has his bachelor party crashed by a cake-inhabiting medium, he knows he’s going to have one interesting honeymoon. In a strange Slavic accent, she whispers, “Ven you go to Crystal River, you vill have…two visitors from the other side, two visitors vaiting for you.” These visitors quickly turn out to be Daniel and Mia, the children of migrant workers. Through the course of the novel, Darrell and his new wife Erin must work with translator Luis to get to the bottom of what happened—all while simultaneously having a honeymoon.

This is my first paranormal mystery. It has a lot in common with traditional mysteries. For instance, the detective conducts interviews, gathers clues, and faces personal peril. However, much of what drives his investigation, as the genre suggests, comes from otherworldly agents. A medium tells him about the victims, visions of phantoms and a weeping painting help him ID children, and then eerie Christmas carols haunt a crucial scene.

The setting, Florida in the late 90s, appeals to me as I lived in Florida in the late 90s. I remember bringing in the new millennium in Tangerine, Florida at my aunt’s house as I was living in Orlando at the time. Overbeck portrays this strange time and place accurately, dropping in several fun Easter eggs, such as swimming with manatees and the approaching Bush-Gore election, which would become big drama in Florida politics.

If you’re a fan of paranormal mysteries or 90s paranormal film, you’re sure to enjoy Scarlet at Crystal River.

Postmodern American Fiction

I first began reading this anthology (or perhaps I should say “attempted to read”) a little over a year ago. I thought it would be a good book to breeze through while teaching from home because of COVID. I was wrong. About the breezing, at least. While I was immediately met with authors I have loved and, for the most part, understood: Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, I soon felt as if I were reading something in a foreign language. Robert Coover’s “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and Mark Leyner’s “The Making of ‘Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog’ ” were two places that had to take considerable breaks, reading other stories or novels, sometimes in actual foreign languages.

One trouble I think I have with postmodernism or rather have had with it stems from the fact that I have been raised in it. In school, “postmodern” has often carried the same weighty context as “calculus.” We will cross that bridge when we get to it. However, all of the art I have loved from that last thirty-plus years has been influenced by it. Some of my earliest memories of movie watching include Star Wars and Indian Jones (pastiche of 30s-50s American serials); Back to the Future (a sci-fi head-trip of multiple timelines); and Edward Scissorhands (and all of its cross-genre, ironic, temporal distorted, and magical realist glory).

The point at which I achievement my long-awaited aha moment came after reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” a short story about, among other things, a couple’s trip to the sight of a Civil War battle: Shiloh, Tennessee. After finishing the story, I asked myself, “Okay, so what was postmodern about that?” It took a little research to realize that the gender roles and national identity the story questions are things society has questioned and reformed my entire life. While some aspects of postmodernism feel “other,” most aspects have been adopted whole-hock and incorporated seamlessly. I noticed this most recently while watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is at once a straightforward story about Fern (Frances McDormand) who is driven to live in her van and travel the country as an itinerant worker. It’s also a scathing attack of consumer society, which at one point destroys Fern’s entire town and at other times abandons countless characters who only want to work. It also functions as a circular anti-narrative, beginning with the Christmas-rush at an Amazon distribution center during the Great Recession and ending a year later with Fern’s situation unchanged, still showing up to Amazon to work for a month, still traveling in her van, still precariously outside of house-dwelling society. Fern even serves a stint at Wall Drug, the amusement-park-like store outside the Badlands in central South Dakota. I could not help being reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland in his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation. Yet if I did not have this anthology at my finger tips, so recently submitted to my short-term memory, I don’t know that I would’ve noticed any of these elements. Rather I might’ve thought, “Well, that story never really got going.”

And that is the very point. If nothing else, Postmodern American Fiction has let me into some of the secrets that have been all around me as I’ve read, watched, and listened. I won’t go so far as to say I have a complete understanding of this ever-evolving art movement, but this anthology has certainly given me a more solid foundation than I had before I set out.

The Wild Rose Press: Good Lookin’

Today, I have the honor of reviewing a book by a fellow mystery writer at my publisher. T. L. Bequette, when he isn’t writing mystery novels, is a criminal defense attorney in California who serves on an annual faculty clinic at Stanford Law School.

Joe Turner, Bequette’s protagonist and narrator, is an Oakland defense attorney as well. When we first meet Turner, he is meeting with a current client, Leonard Dunigan, who is accused of killing a man by “squeezing his skull until it caved in.” From this very first scene we are thrust into Turner’s world in all its dangerous ambiguity.

Ricocheting from this hopeless case, Turner meets with Darnell Moore, a nineteen-year-old black youth who has become entangled with an Oakland gang, the IceBoyz. Moore stands accused of killing a rival Cashtown Killer gangster, the high-school aged Cleveland Barlow. The case seems open and shut. Turner could reduce the charges with a guilty plea. The only problem is, when Moore says he didn’t do it, Turner believes him.

With his southern-accented private eye, Chuck Argenal, Turner races to assembly the clues and the testimony needed to ensure Moore’s freedom. Unfortunately, thanks to a web of nefarious influences posed by the IceBoys and Cashtown gangs, witnesses are reticent to speak. Including Darnell Moore himself. What does he know, and why won’t he tell Turner?

One surprising element of this novel that I really enjoyed was a parallel story told in short inter chapters. Set in 2006, these chapters tell the story of twin boys shuffled around the foster system. When their too-good-to-be-true foster father turns out to be Iago-level evil, they only have one shot to escape. At first I wondered how this would all come to bear on the Moore case, but it kept my attention regardless. All I’ll say is that it does come to bear—in a big way.

All legal dramas will forever remind me of John Grisham, and this one is no exception. For anyone in search of some legalistic suspense or wanting to get an inside view of how criminal defense lawyers approach a case, look no further. The protagonist also reminds me of Robert B. Parker’s detective Spenser. Something about Turner’s wit and the playful relationship he has with the love interest, Edna “Eddy” Busier, a distinguished archeologist, smacks of Spenser. For this reason, fans of Spenser novels and other rye private eyes will find much to enjoy in Joe Turner.

Buy now!

Motherless Brooklyn: A Readable Po-Mo Detective Novel

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I’d have to be Mumbles.)

Thus begins the comic, frenetic, life-affirming, heart-breaking account of an unlikely private eye from Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog. Our detective is driven by his obsessive mind and his equally obsessive need to discover who murdered his boss/mentor/protector Frank Minna.

The Minna men are officially a car service, but they don’t drive anyone anywhere. Instead, they keep tabs of the goings on around Brooklyn for their only clients—two wealthy and well-connected Italians. When Minna is stabbed to death, Lionel must take over operations to get to the bottom of what happened. Unfortunately, others in the organization have their own designs, either to take Frank’s place or to keep Lionel from making matters worse. Lionel must find out what happened to Frank—even if it kills him.

Following the number two in line, Tony, Lionel discovers the plot runs deep, deeper than Frank Minna’s unfaithful wife, deeper than the wealthy clients, even deeper than Brooklyn itself—and it somehow involves uni, a Japanese delicacy, and Frank’s mysterious brother, Gerard, who is now posing as a Zen master.

While the novel has been described as a post-modern hard-boiled detective novel, it doesn’t devolve into self-indulgent deconstruction. (I’m looking at you, Pynchon.) Rather, Lethem plays it straight. Lionel Essrog’s motivations remain genuine: he wants to know what happened to Frank and in the end he finds out. Post-modern elements pervade the narrative—from Lionel’s inability to communicate at times and the esoteric, multi-cultural conspiracy at the heart of Frank’s murder—but at no point do they bogart the literal unraveling of the mystery. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To this reader, at least, the ending feels satisfying and earned.

This a perfect novel for fans of the off-kilter mystery, for students of post-modernism, or for readers looking for a hard-boiled detective novel with a contemporary twist.

The Baron in the Trees

When Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò is forced to eat snail soup by his eccentric sister, he retreats to the trees around their estate. Rather than return home and face punishment, Cosimo decides to remain in the trees. He travels from limb to limb around the village, eventually meeting the beautiful Viola d’Ondariva as she swings from a branch. Cosimo explains to Viola the rules of his new game—to never touch the ground. From that point forward, he never does.

Italo Calvino takes the imaginary village of Ombrosa, Italy, for this mock conte philosophique. Through the course of the novel, Cosimo witnesses the real historical events of the Expulsion of Jesuits from Spain, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. He also interacts with famous figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon himself. From the trees, Cosimo has a number of adventures, takes lovers, and reads and writes philosophy—including a utopian treatise for how to govern a society of men, women, and animals living in the trees.

While the novel imitates and mocks numerous genres, it ends with a love story that is only half-parody. When an adult Viola d’Ondariva returns to Ombrosa, Cosimo realizes that all this time he has been living in the trees for her alone. Their love is pseudo-modern, Romantic, Petrarchan, and above all painful.

“Why do you make me suffer?”

“Because I love you.”

Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”

“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”

“So you make me suffer on purpose.”

“Yes, to see if you love me.”

-Chapter 22

In the end, The Baron in the Trees is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young man resists his father’s influence and the ills of his society, not by adopting the latest counter cultural philosophy (for instance, Romanticism in a time of Enlightenment) but by literally rejecting the earth itself and taking to the trees.

This is a must-read for fans of Italo Calvino, but it should appeal to anyone interested in the Age of the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, European history, the philosophical novel, or literary satire. For me, the novel started slowly. As Calvino is writing a “high concept” story, he takes some pains establishing his world and explaining the logical ramifications of a young man living in the trees. For example, how did Cosimo eat, go to the bathroom, wash his clothing? After these entailments are lengthily resolved, Cosimo is able to get to the business of spying on his fellow villagers, having adventures, and falling in love. Here the story finally gets off the ground.