No place like home
AUTHOR KEVIN WOLF
Author Kevin Wolf, winner of the 2016 Tony Hillerman Prize
IN 1992, Chase Ford was a handsome and popular high school basketball star in the tiny town of Brandon, Colorado, dating Mercy Saylor, the prettiest girl in Comanche County. They both left town for more than 20 years — Mercy to a marriage that deteriorated over time, and Chase to a professional basketball career that ultimately left him injured and heartbroken — but now they’ve returned, however reluctantly, to face their pasts in The Homeplace: A Mystery (Minotaur/ St. Martin’s Press), by Kevin Wolf. As Chase and Mercy reconnect with each other and their old friends Marty and Birdie, there is a sudden rash of murders in town, and Chase’s former basketball-court nemesis, Lincoln Kendall — now Sheriff Kendall — is in charge of the investigation. Wolf, winner of the 2016 Tony Hillerman Prize, reads from his novel on Thursday, Sept. 22, at Collected Works Bookstore.
“I wanted a stranger to come back to town,” Wolf said of building his male protagonist. “He had to have money that he’s been wise with, so he’s not tied down, and then I heaped on the family background and his doubts about returning. He doesn’t know if people think of him as a high school hero or as a failure.”
The Homeplace is a mystery novel that contains elements of a Western. The land, the weather, hunting, and the town of Brandon operate almost like characters in the story, and unlike many genre mysteries, the novel has no would-be amateur detective trying to solve the murders. Chase turns out to have connections to the victims, so Kendall thinks he’s involved. Wolf toys with several small-town stereotypes in The
Homeplace, such as the idea that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and he infuses Brandon with a dark side.
“I think everybody has an image of what a small town is, but maybe small towns aren’t as innocent as we want to believe they are. Eastern Colorado is the part of the state people drive through or fly over so they can get to Denver and go skiing or go on vacation in the mountains. It’s kind of an overlooked place,” Wolf said. “My great-grandparents were homesteaders in Kit Carson, Colorado, and I still have family and connections in that area. I go there every fall during hunting season, and I’ve seen how the town has changed over time. There were three gas stations, and now there’s just one with a credit-card machine and no attendant. There were four restaurants, and now there’s just one. You have an assisted living facility for the aging population that has stayed close to their farms, and there’s a transient population that comes and goes for jobs with the oil and gas company. I tried to get some of that in the story — to show the boarded-up buildings.”
Mercy has come home to run the family diner — her mother has gone into elder care. Serving ham and eggs to farmers and ranchers is not the life she
The Homeplace is a mystery novel that contains elements of a Western. The land, the weather, hunting, and the town of Brandon operate almost like characters in the story.
envisioned for herself, and she sees Chase’s homecoming as an opportunity to rekindle an old flame. She pines for him, making sure she always looks her best when she thinks she’ll see him — or when she thinks Kendall will be around. The married Kendall, who considers himself something of a Casanova, is open to the amorous advances of pretty women. Chase, still reeling from his own divorce, intends to reckon with his family’s land and his childhood home, which has been sitting undisturbed since his father’s death. (Big Paul was a brute Chase hated so much that he didn’t come back to Brandon for his funeral.)
High school friend Marty is a deputy working under Sheriff Kendall. Chase’s arrival, in combination with
the murders, inspires the teenage daredevil in him. Marty and Chase have a shared catchphrase for when they know they are doing something stupid but brave — “going Eastwood” — that gets deployed at a few key moments in the story. Birdie Hawkins, Chase’s dowdy female best friend, is a game warden who knows the prairie like the back of her hand. Though she has hated Kendall for most of her life, she winds up having to take orders from him when he sends her to hunt down Ray-Ray Jackson, an antiestablishment survivalist armed with a big gun. Wolf modeled Ray-Ray after a man he met when he was on a hunting trip.
“Ray-Ray was born about 150 years too late. He would have been a mountain man or a buffalo hunter or a cattle-driving cowboy, happy to take care of whatever task he had in front of him. He’s out of place in this land with rules and laws. The man I met had a beard and ragged clothes, and he was driving this old pickup truck. One of the first things he said to me was ‘I live in a teepee.’ He had a piece of land that he farmed, and he did odd jobs. I added the survivalist stuff to the book.”
The Homeplace is Wolf’s first published novel. He has made his livelihood in the sale of manufactured steel products, including school lockers; he visits distributors throughout the Rocky Mountain region, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and parts of Texas. He started writing seriously in 2003, though once he started working on a manuscript, he realized he didn’t have a firm foundation in the elements of story. He threw himself into his new endeavor — taking classes, joining the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, attending conferences, getting involved with critique groups, and entering regional writing contests. He signed with an agent in 2010. He is considering writing a second novel about Chase and Birdie, and he has completed another mystery set in the Colorado mountains. He recently signed a twobook deal with a small press for a pair of stories set in a Colorado mining town in the 1880s. “They are traditional-voiced Westerns, with the stranger who arrives in town — a disgraced newspaper reporter, down on his luck. The local paper gives him a tryout, and the first thing they have him write about is a murder that’s happened in this little town. There’s some paranormal stuff, some bump-in-the-night stuff,” Wolf continued, extending the description far afield of a traditional Western. “Instead of ending with gunfight at high noon, it takes place at midnight, and the six-shooter is loaded with silver bullets.”