Donald Harstad worked for 26 years as deputy sheriff and chief investigator for the police department of Clayton County, Iowa. Harstad transforms those experiences into thrilling mysteries with his popular Carl Houseman series. The sixth in the series, November Rain, finds Houseman far from his usual heartland setting, as he travels to the UK to consult on a kidnapping case—and to protect his own daughter.
In a guest post, Harstad shares a bit of the real-life inspiration behind November Rain.
I’ve written six novels about a fictional deputy sheriff named Carl Houseman, set in a fictional county in northeast Iowa. Since I was a deputy sheriff for 23 years—in a not-so-fictional county in northeast Iowa—much of the research for my novels involves nothing more complex than sitting at the Sheriff’s Department and talking about the good old days with some of the officers and dispatchers I used to work with.
I certainly never thought I would write a book until I actually wrote my first. One day, as I was working on that book, Eleven Days, I spread some evidence photos out to bring back the ambience of a killing, and it suddenly came to me. Looking at the forlorn little farm house where the body was discovered, I began remembering the enormously long hours, all of them at night, when I was the only officer working in a county of 760 square miles, 1,300 miles of roads, over 2,000 farms and 19 little towns.
Scenarios. That was the key. We were required to patrol and respond to calls. Simple enough, except one did not want to be in Postville when a call came in of a serious crime in North Buena Vista: The distance between them via the best route was more than 60 miles, and a half hour response time was out of the question. Because of such circumstances, I would drive around doing my patrol thing and continuously imagine scenarios and plan response routes and times to other areas in the county, the proximity of ambulance, fire and other police services, and under what circumstances I’d request another officer be called out to assist. The night shift hated to call somebody out on their night off, and then discover it hadn’t been necessary. Shots fired? Who called this one in? Him? He’s always doing something like that, don’t really need another officer. Yet.
On the other hand, shots fired, one man down, another being threatened with a gun, concerned farm wife is watching events unfold through her kitchen window—that one actually happened about 1 A.M., and when I arrived, there was one dead man on the ground, another potential victim had fled into a tall corn field, and the suspect had headed for the barn. I’d called for an ambulance, and two other officers as I responded to the scene.
The first officer arrived 19 minutes after I called. The ambulance came in at 23, and the second officer at 34 minutes after. They hurried. Distance is a real killer, so to speak. I secured the woman witness in my car. The only other car on the place was parked very near the corpse, and she said that was the car that both the suspect and the dead man had come in. So I lit up the barn with my spotlights, and I sat on the hood of my patrol car with my AR-15 until the next cop arrived. It was a long 19 minutes. (We did go in and get him, and the man hiding in the corn emerged just as we were handcuffing the suspect.)
That’s where Eleven Days, my first novel, had originated. Although the plot was much different, the spooky feeling stayed the same, and the old scenarios bore fruit as plots and situations. In my subsequent books, although I used fictitious characters and locations, recalling and re-imagining real-life scenarios always came in very handy. We did have a gaming boat in our county, so when I wrote The Big Thaw, I drew heavily on scenarios regarding possible armed robberies on a river boat casino.
For my latest, November Rain (Crooked Lane Books), I send Carl to London for an assist in a homicide investigation. The whole London scenario is based on one of my trips there, when I discovered that then-President George W. Bush was also in London. Coincidental though it was, the disruption of the London Police Force caused by his visit, and some of the events occurring in London at the time, allowed me to justify Carl going to London in the first place.
Our daughter’s impressions, and some wistful speculation on her part about how she’d like to stay there for a few months, provided more inspiration—not so coincidentally, Carl also has a daughter. That, combined with the fact that you just cannot look anywhere in the greater London area and not find a perfect location for a fine homicide or really cool crime, gave me all I needed to start writing. Mixing that beginning with my personal experiences in law enforcement and several discussions with members of the Metropolitan Police Force became the foundation for fictional officers and conversations. Then, again by coincidence, returning to Elkader, Iowa, and bumping into a person who had personal experience with the U.K.’s MI5 and MI6 intelligence services just put the icing on the cake.
Even today, as I write, it’s memories of the multitude of unique circumstances that I draw upon for many fictional incidents, and the real world responses that would have been generated. Characters’ reactions to events are also authentic, based on people I know and the responses I saw in hugely stressful situations. And, to be fair, actual responses I observed over coffee and donuts.
When I do public appearances I always try to include stories about what really happened, to impart a little additional flavor to whichever novel we’re discussing. Then, sometimes, as I drive back home at night, I find myself running scenarios all over again . . .
Since his retirement, Donald has written six best-selling, critically acclaimed novels featuring Carl Houseman. For more, visit: http://donaldharstadauthor.com
It's a brutally beautiful Man Booker shortlist for 2015! The shortlist—composed of novels deemed by a panel of judges to be among the best written in English this year—is filled with novels that touch on some pretty grim topics. Michael Wood, Chair of judges for the prestigious prize, admits that there is a “tremendous amount of violence in them. What’s quite interesting is trying to work out how one can have such pleasure in books with such terrible stuff.” Indeed.
Man Booker 2015 shortlist:
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (UK)
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (UK)
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (US)
Are you rooting for any of these authors to win the £50,000 prize?
After Go Set a Watchman, perhaps the most hyped book of 2015 was the new Lisbeth Salander novel, The Girl in the Spider's Web. Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz continues the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy with this authorized sequel, and according to the publisher, 100,000 copies sold on day one, and it has already gone back for a second and third printing. As with Go Set a Watchman, Spider's Web comes with a bit of controversy, as many readers insist Larsson's trilogy shouldn't be continued in his absence. Lagercrantz has compared his depiction of Salander to Christopher Nolan's Batman, and thus readers should consider Lagercrantz's Salander a reimagining of Larsson's character. Her motivations should remain true to the original, but the vision belongs to someone new.
Having accepted this, I still found that Lagercrantz's Salander paled in comparison to the original. Perhaps she's too iconic. That being said, the novel itself is thrilling, textured and brilliantly constructed. It's tight and smart as it explores questions of artificial intelligence, with the slow build to Salander and Blomkvist's reunion easily one of the book's greatest highlights.
From the prologue, set one year before the novel's events:
This story begins with a dream, and not a particularly spectacular one at that. Just a hand beating rhythmically and relentlessly on a mattress in a room on Lundagatan.
Yet it still gets Lisbeth Salander out of her bed in the early light of dawn. Then she sits at her computer and starts the hunt.
Readers, what do you think? Will you read Lagercrantz's continuation of the Millennium series?
These four notable books published in hardcover in 2014 are available today in new paperback editions:
On Immunity: An Inoculation
By Eula Biss
Graywolf • $16 • ISBN 9781555977207
In a slender, beautifully written volume that was named one of the best books of 2014 by publications ranging from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly, Bliss explores our long-standing fear of vaccines and our cultural myths about the nature of immunity.
Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves
By Carolyn Chute
Grove • $17 • ISBN 9780802124180
The second book in Chute's series about a Maine off-the-grid community and its charismatic leader won the PEN New England Award in Fiction. With an 11-page character list and icons scattered throughout the text to help readers keep track of who's who, Chute's novel offers a bold and inventive look at a sect marginalized by the mainstream.
The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us
By Diane Ackerman
Norton • $15.95 • ISBN 9780393351644
The naturalist and best-selling author (The Zookeeper's Wife) offers an illuminating exploration of the ways in which human beings have changed our planet—for better, and for worse.
A Sudden Light
By Garth Stein
Simon & Schuster • $15.99 • ISBN 9781439187043
The author of the 2008 mega-hit The Art of Racing in the Rain spins an atmospheric story about a spooky mansion on Puget Sound and the troubled family whose fortune is tied to the property.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout returns in January with a new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Strout explored the complicated relationships of three brothers in her last book, The Burgess Boys, but in her new novel, she once again explores the mother-daughter bond—the relationship that powered her knockout 1999 debut, Amy & Isabelle.
Lucy Barton and her mother are long-estranged, but when Lucy needs help after surgery, her mother comes for a visit. Their reunion brings years of tension and longing to the surface, as Lucy reflects on her difficult childhood and her relationship with her own two daughters.
Will you read it?
Few books can transport you to an entirely different world like a finely-tuned sci-fi or fantasy can. From adventures in distant futures on distant planets to tongue-in-cheek satires and magical fairy tales to all-too-possible dystopian thrillers, we've rounded up some of the best offerings from 2015.
It’s hard to follow a debut novel like Ready Player One: It immediately became an international phenomenon, was published in 40 countries and is in the works to become a movie, but Ernest Cline's winning formula that blends Gen-X nostalgia, pop-culture references and high-stakes adventure is once again executed to a T in his second novel, Armada. High school student Zack Lightman finds himself in the middle of a government conspiracy and on the frontlines of an alien invasion that only the best gamers are unwittingly prepared for. And yes, it's supposed to remind you of Ender's Game and The Last Starfighter.
Dennis Mahoney reimagines the colonial era of the 1700s, when European empires were sending explorers to the New World, in his latest novel. But the familiarity ends there, as the Old World is called Heraldia and the New World is known as Floria. The natural world is home to fantastical wonders and meteorological phenomena, seasons can change in a matter of hours and unpredictable "colorwashes" often transform the landscape. If you're looking to get lost in a magical wilderness, then Bell Weather is the historical fantasy for you.
Grossman's wickedly witty alternative history stars one of our most (in)famous and parodied presidents, Richard Nixon. In Crooked, everything you know about Nixon's politics, the Watergate scandal and the Cold War is wrong. Narrated by Grossman's own version of Nixon, we discover a world in which he wasn't a paranoid and conniving president, but a selfless hero battling a supernatural enemy much scarier than the Soviet Union.
Looking to escape Earth? In the compelling Mother of Eden, author Chris Beckett returns readers to the alien world of his award-winning novel Dark Eden. The characters are familiar, as they are descendants of the first novel's original castaways, yet instead of a struggle for survival, this story deals with humans navigating now thriving communities on the planet Eden. The reader quickly learns that Eden's alien flora and fauna aren't nearly as threatening as other humans on their worst behaviors.
Neal Stephenson, one of the most popular science-fiction writers in America, imagines Earth’s impending doom and its aftermath in his latest gripping novel. After the moon explodes, it becomes apparent that Earth isn’t long for this universe. National divisions dissolve as the human race bands together to give humanity a chance at survival in outer space. And—despite quite a few setbacks—it works! Humanity survives and thrives—for 5,000 years, at that—on another planet. But after five millennia, people become curious about returning to the legendary planet known as Earth. Filled with detail and technical minutiae, this novel is a sci-fi space odyssey with a giant, mesmerizing scope.
Are you ready to dive into a vast world of magic and adventure a lá George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, but a bit hesitant to pick up an 800-page doorstopper with a hefty roster of characters to keep track of? Then Naomi Novik has the perfect entry-level fantasy for you with her spellbinding novel Uprooted. This fairy-tale influenced story follows 17-year-old Agnieszka as she leaves her sleepy, vaguely Eastern European village for an apprenticeship with a gruff master wizard known as the Dragon. A classic and inspiring good-versus-evil story with plenty of magic, monsters and romance, this fantasy is easily one of the year's most accessible.
After a year of ravaging, headline-grabbing drought in California and incredibly deadly wildfires eating up swaths of the American West, The Water Knife is about as timely as a sci-fi novel can be. Bacigalupi envisions an eerie, not-so-distant future where climate change has caused another dust bowl and California, Nevada and Arizona are willing to wage war over water rights. Bacigalupi's dystopian novel is a thriller that will keep you turning the pages, but it doesn't shy away from exploring the politics of greed, bureaucracy and environmental regulation. Similar to Margaret Atwood's stories, The Water Knife is a frightening vision of an all-too-plausible future.
English professor and YA author Joseph Monninger (Finding Somewhere) dedicated his new book, Whippoorwill, to his late dog, Laika: "Last of the sled dogs. No truer heart ever lived." Whippoorwill drives straight to the heart of dog- and animal-lovers everwhere, with the story of a 16-year-old girl who takes it upon herself to save a dog named Wally.
In a guest post, Monninger shares another story—a myth that captures the "essence of dog."
Here is a myth about a dog. Whippoorwill is about a dog, and this myth gets to the essence of dog. I could tell you about writing Whippoorwill, where I got the idea and so on, but wouldn’t we all prefer a story? I think so.
The Ponte della Maddalena, a bridge in Italy’s Tuscany province, is also known as the Devil’s Bridge. It is a beautiful bridge, and legend holds that the builder, seeing its potential beauty but unable to complete it, invoked the devil to help him. The devil consulted with the builder and promised to help finish the work, but the price would be the first soul to pass over the bridge. The builder consented and the work went along rapidly. The builder, tremendously pleased with himself and with his expanding reputation as a designer and architect, had forgotten about the devil’s bargain until the day before the bridge opened.
“I have come for my soul,” the devil told the builder. “Tomorrow, when the bridge opens, I will take the first soul that crosses.”
The builder, so filled with dread he could not sleep, came to his morning coffee not knowing what to do. He asked God for a sign, though he did not believe God would interfere with the devil’s work. He spoke softly to his wife. He had not told her what Satan required, but he could not be certain he would see her again. He kissed his boy on the forehead, ruffled the youngster’s hair and walked slowly toward the bridge.
He made one stop to buy bread. As he tucked the bread inside his shirt, a dog began to follow him. Many dogs roamed the street in Lucca, and at first the builder took little notice. But then, as he neared the bridge, an idea came to him.
“I am ready to pay my debt,” he announced to the devil.
“Very well,” said the devil, “give me my soul.”
With that, the builder drew the bread and waved it in front of the dog. When the dog could hardly contain itself, the builder threw the loaf across the bridge. The dog sprinted after the bread and the devil, bested by a mere builder who had remembered at the last moment that a human soul had never been stipulated, accepted the dog’s soul and disappeared. The dog, too, vanished, but the bridge remained and may be crossed today without fear and with much admiration for its lovely shape. The dog’s name was not known and therefore could not be forgotten.
If you know a dog, if you’ve ever been in the presence of a fine, true dog, then you know how gladly a dog would give itself to protect its human guardian. I wrote this novel with all the dogs I have ever loved in mind. If someday I should die and go to heaven, and if my dogs are not there to greet me, I’ll ask to go where they are, because dogs—for me, anyway—are the measure of my happiness.
Our September Nonfiction Top Pick, Once in a Great City by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss, is a fascinating look at Detroit in its golden days. Our reviewer writes, "David Maraniss didn’t set out to write a ghost story, but Once in a Great City, his glimmering portrait of Detroit, has a lingering, melancholy quality that will leave the reader thoroughly haunted." (Read the review.)
We asked Maraniss to tell us about three books he's enjoyed reading lately.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This was a book that reached me on many levels. First, the young blind girl was one of the most touching and unforgettable characters I've encountered in fiction in many years. Second, the way the stories were fitted together stunned me. And third, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful and precise use of language.
I Will Have Vengeance and other Commissario Ricciardi detective novels by Maurizio de Giovanni
No book seemed more relevant to the issues of this year than this illuminating biography of one of America's forgotten heroes, the Jackie Robinson of the Southeastern Conference, a brilliant student and quietly powerful force who endured the worst of human indignities and paved the way for thousands of African American athletes to follow.
Thank you, David!
(Author photo by Lucian Perkins)
Every month, we review the hottest new romance releases in our Romance column. But why let the print books have all the fun? In Digital Dalliances, we highlight digital-only releases guaranteed to heat up your eReader.
A supermodel throwing a tantrum in her dressing room is nothing new to Simone, the owner of Irresistible, a very high-end lingerie shop that caters to the elite. And that an obviously wealthy man is accompanying the petulant supermodel is nothing new, either. However, the pull she feels toward Mr. Money Bags is new to Simone—she never crushes on clientele. But she senses something unusual about Ryan, and when he begins showing up at her shop after hours, she can’t help try to unravel his mysteries.
Even without makeup, Jade was stunningly beautiful in a way that women had been conditioned to not only accept, but to try to emulate. She was tall, rail thin, and putting on a very good show of being comfortable in her body, even though Simone had spent enough time around runway models to know better.
But Ryan, while not classically handsome, was more compelling. He was shorter than Jade, even when she wasn’t wearing the four-inch heels, but when they were standing side-by-side Simone wouldn’t have guessed that. He radiated a Wall Street wolf’s power, a confidence that came from success . . . But as she watched Ryan with Jade, she got the sense that he was on edge, a certain tightness around his eyes and jaw.
Do you think you'll be picking up this romance novel for your eReader?