by Barbara Ross
Whose study is next to the kitchen and judging by the wonderful smells, Thanksgiving is close
I first met Ben and Beth Oak, the writing team of B.B.Oak, when Level Best Books published their short story, “Death from a Bad Heart” in Best New England Crime Stories 2013: Blood Moon. I loved the idea of having Henry David Thoreau as their sleuth. Later, and by complete coincidence, we signed with the same agent, John Talbot, and have the same editor. We’ve kept in touch, and I was thrilled when their mystery novel, Thoreau at Devil’s Perch, debuted this fall.
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Barb: Congratulations on the publication of your book Thoreau at Devil’s Perch published by Kensington at the end of October. Can you tell us just a bit about the book?
Ben: It’s a rousing puzzler with a lot of action. Henry David Thoreau is pulled from the peaceful shores of Walden Pond to see justice done after finding the body of an unknown black youth at the base of a cliff. After Thoreau and a local doctor, Adam Walker, examine the broken corpse and the surrounding scene, they become convinced that the victim was murdered. When town officials decide to ignore their evidence and deem the death an accident, Thoreau sets out to solve the case with the aid of Adam and his cousin Julia Bell.
Beth: The unwanted aid of Julia, we should add. A young lady in 19th century New England had no business getting involved in anything as unsavory as murder.
Ben: Especially after a womanizing army captain is brutally slain and the bloody trail leads to a bawdy house in Boston and the den of a pornographic engraver.
Beth: Well, that’s the seamy side of the story. But there’s also a mystical element to it and a developing love story too. It’s hard to sum up the book without giving too much away. We tried to make it a complex mystery with interesting characters and pertinent historical details.
Barb: Why Thoreau as detective, and why during his time at Walden?
Beth: Thoreau is best known, of course, as a philosopher, but he had all the makings of a great detective. Like Sherlock Holmes, he was a master of observation and deduction.
Ben: Friends of his said that he saw as with a microscope and heard as with an ear trumpet. He showed his analytical skills as a professional surveyor, a mechanical engineer, and as a natural scientist who was meticulous in his collection of data. And he was also a great tracker, a handy talent to have as a sleuth. It was also said that no hound could scent better than Henry David Thoreau.
Beth: And he was a great observer of people as well as nature. His contemporaries claimed the Thoreau could measure a man at a glance.
Ben: And he was self-reliant, another good trait to have as a detective. Like all great detectives in literature, from Holmes to Marlow to Spenser to Reacher, Henry David Thoreau was a loner with his own code of honor. He was the one, after all, who coined the concept of marching to your own drummer.
Beth: We placed the story in 1846, when Henry was living at Walden, because we wanted to write about him as a young, vital man in his twenties. And we figured that readers would expect him to be living in that famous little cabin by the pond. But Thoreau lived there for only two years, two months and two days of his life. In our next book, which takes place in 1847, he has moved in with his beloved Lidian Emerson while her husband travels abroad.
Ben: A most interesting situation.
Barb: There’s a debate in the historical mystery community about using real people as sleuths. It seems to me you thread the needle a bit on this, because Thoreau is ably assisted in the investigation by two fictional characters, Adam Walker and Julia Bell. How constrained did you feel to stick to the places Thoreau was and the times he would have been there?
Beth: Our challenge in creating this mystery series is that it features an American icon. So we’re as accurate as we can be about time and place and do our best to stay true to Thoreau’s character. We felt it would have been presumptuous to write in Thoreau’s voice, however, and we tell the story through the first-person narratives of a young doctor and his artist cousin. That gives us a lot more artistic freedom.
Ben: But we hope Thoreau comes across as very real and vivid. We do our best to use his actual words and philosophy in his dialogue. Fortunately, there was a lot written about him by his contemporaries, both good and bad, and we feel as if we know him.
Beth: Frankly, I didn’t feel all that warmly toward dear Henry at first. He seemed rather judgmental and I imagined how he would disapprove of our consumer society if he ever came back.
Ben: Especially if he took a peek in Beth’s closet.
Beth: Which is beside the point. The more we researched Thoreau, the more fond of him I became. He had an ironic sense of humor, especially about himself, and he was quite open minded. And fun-loving. Apparently he could play the flute and do a jig at the same time.
Ben: As I can.
Barb: My mind boggles at the degree of difficulty here. You have to a) build a mystery, b) be historically accurate, true to your character and bring a past era alive and then c) you write together. I can barely do a) on a good day. Tell us how you collaborate. Does one do research and the other write, or do you both write, or does one plot or what?
Ben: Doing it all together makes it all far easier for us. Especially the plotting. We have a great time building the story together, trying to top each other and then trip each other up before the reader can do it.
Beth: During that part of the process we really let our imaginations flow.
Ben: Along with the wine at times.
Beth: But then we have to get serious and write a tight outline that we can both work from. And then stick to it!
Ben: I tend to stray as I write my scenes but Beth always pulls me back when she edits them. Also, I tend to over-research.
Beth: We both do. Let’s face it, reading and taking notes are a lot easier than writing. We each write separate scenes, but then revise each other’s work, so it’s usually impossible to recall who actually wrote what in the end.
Ben: Of course this process does not always go as smoothly as Beth is making it sound.
Beth: Admittedly, we have had disagreements at times. But we try not to let our egos get in the way. We’re getting better and better at that.
Ben: And here’s the best part about having a writing partner. The writing time is cut in half!
Beth: That means a lot when you’re on a tight schedule, as we are now to complete our third book on time.
Barb: What are you working on now? Where is Thoreau going next? As a Mainer, I have to ask, any chance we’ll visit the Maine Woods?
Beth: In our first book we have Thoreau heading off to Maine in his last scene with the exit line “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” But we don’t follow him there.
Ben: It would be great to have a Thoreau mystery take place in the wilds of Maine. Adam would love camping and trekking through the woods.
Beth: But Julia would not. Don’t forget, her trekking would be hindered by a tight corset and five layers of petticoats.
Ben: Well, she could always take them off.
Beth: Not likely. As intrepid as Julia has shown herself to be, she is still a Victorian woman after all. And I think the social constraints and morals of that time make for a lot of interesting conflict in the books.
Ben: Along with sexual tension.
Beth: Our second book, Thoreau on Wolf Hill, brings Julia back to Plumford in the middle of a consumption epidemic, which has given rise to long-buried vampire superstitions. It will be released in November, 2014. We based the story on incidents that actually took place in New England in the 1800’s. Thoreau even mentioned one in his journal. In our fictional town a vampire is blamed for two ghoulish deaths and Thoreau, Adam and Julia set out to quell the rising fear, which may lead to violence against innocent people.
Ben: Our third book, Thoreau in Phantom’s Bog, is still in the outline stage. It’s about the Underground Railroad, in which Thoreau and his family were participants. The research is fascinating!
Beth: Time to stop researching and start writing, Ben.
Ben: Right. Time to face that blank screen once again. The start of a new book is always a bit daunting
Beth: Yet at the same time exhilarating!
Ben: And that’s why we do it.
Barb: Thanks so much. That was fascinating. Blog readers, how do you feel about using real characters from history has sleuths? Pro? Con? Depends on how it’s handled? Let us know in the comments section and we’ll send one lucky winner a copy of Thoreau at Devil’s Perch.