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Author Talk: November 8, 2017

NANTUCKET RED TICKETS is the fourth installment in Steven Axelrod’s mystery series featuring Nantucket Police Chief Henry Kennis. In this interview, Axelrod explains his inspiration for his protagonist, who he describes as “mostly just me --- 20 years younger, much smarter and much better looking.” He also talks about the importance of setting in these books, the kind of research he does for a Henry Kennis novel and his aversion to “info dumps,” his favorite authors, and the best comment he ever received from a reader.

Question: Is the Henry Kennis mystery series the first to be set in Nantucket? What do you feel the Nantucket setting brings to these novels?

Steven Axelrod: My Henry Kennis books are not the first mysteries with a Nantucket background. Author Francine Matthews, who lives in Denver, set her Merry Folger mysteries here in the ’90s.

I've lived on the island since 1983, working in the trades and raising my family. I bring to my books an intimacy with island life, its natural beauty, generations-long feuds and relentless class warfare. The main opportunity the setting affords me is the chance to tell a bigger story than that of any individual mystery and its solution.

My mother (and she wasn't joking!) often suggested I write a play like “Our Town.”That's a tall order. My father was a prominent playwright in his day, and he never attempted to climb that mountain. But it occurred to me as I started the series that I had a chance to do something similar in my own small way: create the portrait of a town --- what it was and what it's becoming.

Q: Was Police Chief Henry Kennis modeled on any earlier protagonist in the crime fiction field?

SA: My hero, Henry Kennis, is mostly just me --- 20 years younger, much smarter and much better looking. There's no particular model for him in other mystery novels, though some of my favorite genre books gave me things I wanted to avoid in my own --- a hero who was physically overpowering, like Jack Reacher, or who had dangerous friends to help out in a crisis, like Spenser's Hawk and Elvis Cole's Joe Pike. I didn't want a tortured hero with a horrible past or a flawed hero with drug and alcohol problems, though I enjoy reading about that type of character. I wanted to write about a single dad and a poet --- and I think I have that field pretty much to myself!

Q: What kind of research do you do for a Henry Kennis novel, before you begin the actual writing?

SA: I have a theory about research that reflects the ideas of my con-man character Zeke Barlow from NANTUCKET FIVE-SPOT:

"Startling people into a vulnerable moment of contact, an intimacy he could exploit --- that was Zeke’s real talent, his most valuable one, and it didn’t show up on the IQ tests. Zeke absorbed facts and details and archived them and used them for leverage. He could teach a class in the technique, if he wanted to give away his trade secrets. He even had a name for it: the tip of the iceberg theory. If you could construct a plausible jagged three foot chunk of ice, and float it in the right spot, people would naturally assume there was a whole iceberg underneath. You couldn’t sink a ship with your little decoy, but you could get it to change course, and that was all Zeke ever wanted."

Like Zeke, I believe in the value of the perfect detail. I don't like "info dumps," and when you've researched a subject for weeks, the temptation to share all you've found out can be overwhelming. I google as I go, and use the little gems of information I discover. My internet search history would baffle the NSA.

Q: How and why did you hit on the idea of making your Nantucket police chief into a well-adjusted family man instead of an antisocial loner, as we so often see in today's mystery fiction?

SA: Henry is a family man because I was. He has two kids just like mine. I find that the closer I stick to the truth of my life, and what really happened to me, the easier it is to make the plot of my book feel believable. They're grounded in the reality of Henry's fractured family life. My kids don't seem to mind being exploited this way…at least, so far.

Q: Have you always been a reader of mysteries? Are there any writers among your contemporaries in the field whose work you particularly enjoy?

SA: I never really thought about it much, but I realize now that I always was a mystery fan --- starting with the Hardy Boys books, which I read hungrily when I was in seventh and eighth grades. Next came Sherlock Holmes, and Ian Fleming, and eventually other more literary writers. But I remain a huge fan of Thomas Perry, Dennis Lehane and the peerless Michael Connelly. I always read a few Connellys before I start a new book, to re-school myself in the fine points of my trade.

Q: Do you often get feedback from your readers? And if so, is there a favorite suggestion you received?

SA: The best comment I ever got from a reader was from a friend of mine who went through my "sketches" of life on Nantucket and told me they were "much better than the other junk" I was writing. She suggested I turn them into a novel. What kind of novel? "Well, how about that rich home owner who gets killed after he stiffs everyone and then every tradesman on the island is a suspect? Develop that story. Make it a mystery." So I did.