The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Novel Idea

            My second South American mystery novel, “The Ambivalent Corpse”, is set mainly in Montevideo, Uruguay.  The premise is that our heroes find parts of a dismembered corpse on a rocky stretch of beach in Montevideo, apportioned equally between the Memorial to a German cruiser sunk in World War II and the Memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust.  Because of the murder victim’s strategic location shared between two antithetical monuments, the Uruguayan press names her “The Ambivalent Corpse”.

            I got the original idea for this book’s title and basic premise when my wife and I took a walk in Montevideo in 1999 and we saw that strange juxtaposition of the two monuments.  As you can tell from the dates, it took a while for me to find the time to sit down and start writing the book.  I remembered the Graf Spee Memorial, which was a favorite spot for snapshot taking among the university students I knew, from my first stretch of living in Montevideo in 1982, but I didn't remember the Holocaust Memorial from my earlier visit.  Perhaps this shouldn't be too surprising since the memorial was first dedicated in 1995.

            The novel's story sort of took over and wrote itself after the third chapter in the first draft (6 chapters long) became the first chapter in subsequent versions.  Because of this change, the action began immediately in the new Chapter 1 thanks to the suggestion of my youngest son, who I asked for comments.  After I recovered from his criticisms, it was clear that he was correct.  Much of the back-story and details came later, during editing of the book and after some friends read the later drafts and gave me helpful feedback.  Part of one of those first two chapters, with a bit of revision, is tentatively included in the fifth book in the series, currently in the plot development stage.  As we say in California, recycle, reuse, revise, and repeat.

            The setting for all four of my novels thus far has been South America, especially Uruguay and Northwest Argentina, both places my wife and I lived during a sabbatical I took several years ago.  I’ve been back to Montevideo and Salta, site of my first novel, “The Empanada Affair”, several times since then for collaborative research and teaching programs there, so I know the locales, the food, and the people I use for the books pretty well.  My fourth book in the series (due out later in 2012) is set in Montevideo and Santiago, Chile.  Novels to come will be set in Brazil and perhaps Bolivia and Ecuador, all places I have spent time in thanks to the various scientific collaborations that began during our sabbatical leave.

            I try to write books that are fast moving and entertain the reader while introducing them to an exotic region that is a long way from home for most English speakers.  Montevideo, Salta, Machu Picchu, and Iguazu Falls are characters in these books, and the novels will have succeeded for me if readers say that they’d like to visit these places because they seem so vivid and real.  I believe my strengths are in inventing interesting plots, paying attention to story details, and trying to entertain the reader.

            I’d love to see you pick up copies of "The Surreal Killer" and “The Ambivalent Corpse”, read and enjoy them, recommend the series to your friends, and write good honest reviews that you publish wherever you purchased the books.  Your feedback in a review not only helps to sell books to a broader audience, but also help make us all better writers.

[A slightly different version of this blog originally appeared earlier this year as a guest contribution on Nicole Storey's blog, Chaotic Thoughts at]

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