How local writers have fun: they collaborate on a serial mystery
by Rob Neufeld
Brian Lee Knopp, author of “Mayhem in Mayberry,” is the harlequin-in-charge of a pure-fun project of Malaprop’s Bookstore. He has engaged twelve noted local writers to take turns writing “Naked Came the Leaf Peeper,” a madcap murder mystery set initially in Avery County. (The title is a tip of the hat to “Naked Came the Stranger”).
The book launch, in UNCA’s Humanities Hall, 7 p.m., Fri., celebrates Malaprop’s thirtieth anniversary.
Not with a bang but a phoot
The bang with which Knopp starts the leadoff chapter is the sound of an assassin’s gun shooting a potato at a Blue Ridge Parkway visitor, causing him to fall to his death off a guard rail on which he was balancing on a break from real estate romps.
Actually, it hadn’t been a bang.
“Just a thud," Knopp writes. “Death by spud…a phantom phoot.”
Knopp introduces “tiny freckle-faced perky-nosed pigeon-toed” Garnell Lee Ray, the killer, who exhibits not only a penchant for staging fatal accidents, but also for singing ironic pop songs while committing crimes.
John McAfee, a Hendersonville novelist, goes next. He decides to develop the characters of J.D. Klontz, a New York State detective fleeing his second marriage; and his deputy, Marshall Harris, “living proof,” as Klontz thinks, “that the Neanderthal had not died out but existed in isolated places.”
McAfee paints Harris’s side very broad to allow comic hits. When Klontz asks Harris to describe the scene of the dead man, Harris lives up to his rep by noting there was “nothing but some busted potato pieces.”
“How do you know they’re potato pieces?”
“Tasted like it.”
McAfee also inserts an appearance by the legendary regional phenomenon, the Brown Mountain Lights, from which Harris runs off wide-eyed like the Hardy Boys on the cover of “The Mystery at Devil’s Paw.”
Next up, Susan Reinhardt
You’re going to love the way Susan Reinhardt, humor and feature writer, stretches out in her chapter, titled, “Some People Just Need to Die.” She picks up on the assassin, young Garnell, and gives her a troubled family past, a reason to kill, and a rebellious foul mouth.
In a hospital, Garnell meets a granny-aged nurse, who’d known her mother, and who advises Garnell to live for Jesus. Garnell thinks about the murder of her parents by men who had coveted, she knows, her family’s mountain property, and consults her checklist. “Her mama said it best years ago,” she thinks. “Garnell, some men just need killing.’”
Reinhardt inserts a tale about Detective Klontz encountering a very weird traffic felony—before turning the volume over to Vicki Lane.
Lane, author of six Elizabeth Goodweather mysteries, plays the serial novel game. She extends Garnell’s vulgarity, with relish; ties one plotline to another; and gives Harris a good spin, before turning the package over to novelist Tommy Hays.
Hays does the smart thing when presented with such an evolved complexity. He backs away and develops a new character, Andy Michaux, a state senator involved with land-grabbing realtors.
It’s fun seeing authors play this parlor game. Some of their inventions fall by the wayside; others grab the stage. Hays’ Michaux grabs the stage.
If you’re going to create an improbable novel, you’ve got to go all the way, with farce.
Hays accomplishes this, pitting surreally loony land-grabbers versus tree-huggers. “Pollution made this country great,” orates Senator Michaux.
Wayne Caldwell, author of “Cataloochee” and “Requiem of Fire,” embraces the new character, Michaux, and, in a chapter titled, “Tongues of Fire,” gives him a Christian Right background.
Michaux “had become disappointed with science,” Caldwell notes. “Relativity? Gluons? Black holes? String theory? What happened to the fundamentals?” Michaux wonders. “Damn liberals had taken over everything—even the weather.”
Team-written novels, and not only single-author inventions, require spoiler alerts. Caldwell sends Michaux on an unlucky-man adventure, the details of which have to be withheld in this review.
Then it’s Fred Chappell’s turn. Chappell, author of dozens of acclaimed works, has become a don of North Carolina and Appalachian literature. He turns his magic faucets on in his chapter, “Yukon Gold Means Death!”
First, he casts both Harris and Klontz as Sherlock Holmeses. (Now, here’s a team, future mystery writers!) Klontz’ territory is urban. One of Harris’ specialties is guns, and he learns a lot about the Blue Ridge suspect from the potato he had tasted.
It was a Yukon Gold, ammo for the “Spudstriker Model 31AB,” preferred by women. It was not a Russian Banana Fingerling, fired from a Colt 0070 “Frybaby”; or an Idaho Baking Potato, launched by a Mauser Kartoffelmutter.
Chappell presents a West Jefferson floral shop owner, whose son writes special occasion cards (“Now he’s left you. And it’s so sad. But you’ll get another. Three times as bad.”) Chappell also engages a 20-something you-go-girl to spook the Senator’s comic tragedy.
Who better to begin tying together all of the flowing ends of a mystery plot than teen mystery writer Alan Gratz?
In Gratz’s hands, Detective Klontz assembles facts and begins his Colombo-like pursuit of consequences. He runs into a Llama Lover’s convention parading their pride past Malaprop’s. Llama puns and jokes proliferate in a chapter titled, “The Silence of the Llamas.”
Cherokee children’s book writer Annette Saunoke Clapsaddle continues the wrap-up job and, for good measure, up-ends one of the plot lines to give it Cherokee relevance.
City of misrule
Look who’s coming to the tall tale dinner—Gene Cheek, author of the Jim Crow South memoir, “The Color of Love”; and of “Butter My Butt and Call me a Biscuit.”
Cheek exposes Garnell’s brother and sister, Lawson and Ruby, to add some country-bred rottenness to the developer and new age mix.
The novel’s conventions of song references and famous regional settings continue, along with a new one, Shakespeare quotations, favored by Harris, who, as a child, had read the classics by penlight in his foundling’s bed.
Linda Marie Barrett, fantasy writer, and Malaprop’s General Manager, chooses the setting of the climax. Asheville’s reputation as the “Freak Capital of the U.S.” (thanks, “Rolling Stone”) gets full play, and not just in the drum circle, but also in upstanding couples’ kinky back room soirees.
I don’t know how the deputy sheriff who dressed in diapers didn’t make it into “Naked Came the Leaf Peeper” fruit cake.
Tony Earley, award-winning author of “Jim the Boy,” finishes the relay. Unlike Harris’ Shakespeare tragedy quotes, Earley invokes the mayhem of a Shakespeare comedy. He titles his chapter, “Exeunt.”
In an all-character-plus-crowd melee, Kolntz witnesses “an older gay couple in matching Rockports and travel vests” trample “a gaunt vegan who didn’t have the strength to run away.”
Harris, in distress, quotes a line about mermaids “singing each to each.”
“He’s switched to Eliot,” Klontz says. “That can’t be good.”
“Modernism is often a sign of shock,” another character says.
Shock is one of the feelings you get reading “Naked,” along with hilarity and an appreciation of good storytelling. Have city and country, and local and transplanted, imaginations come together to make Asheville as marketable a carnival as Savannah, New Orleans, and Venice Beach? JK.
Naked Came the Leaf Peeper (Burning Bush Press trade paper, 2011, 210 pages, $14.95).
The “Naked Came the Leaf Peeper” Author Jam takes place in the Humanities Lecture Hall, UNCA, Mar. 30, 7 p.m., sponsored by UNC Asheville's Great Smokies Writing Program and Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe. Call 250-2353 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting.