(c) Moscow-Pullman Daily News

 

Lenna Harding

Author and Columnist

Cricket

About My Most Recent Writing

I am currently trying to find an agent to help me market the mystery series I’m writing. Book one, Blizzard Conditions, is complete and ready to submit.  I recently broke up my first book into two, and even more recently, I discarded the new book one and revised the book two into the start of the series because I felt it was the stronger plot to use as a beginning.  While the later books are essentially complete, I really hope to have the first one well into the final editing process with either a publisher or agent before declaring the others finished; in case I need to make changes of fact, characterization, or setting, I will need to carry those changes through the later volumes.

My working title for the series is 2011: Sheriff Al Jordan’s Year from Hell. I classify them as small town sheriff’s procedurals. The fictional setting is Jackson, Tecumseh County, Illinois, on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo. I chose 2011 for the time frame because it was a miserable year weather-wise in that area and the economy was still in the doldrums. Both severe weather events and the nearly bankrupt state of the county economy hamper him throughout the series. All the cases start out as relatively routine, but soon burgeon into much larger cases that exceed the bounds of his county and his resources to deal with them, so he needs to call for help from state or federal agencies. In the early books, he doesn’t even have his own jail or detention facilities.

The narrator is Al Jordan. He is starting his sixth term as sheriff and has worked in that office before as deputy since graduating from high school. He is a sixty-six-year-old bachelor, mild-mannered and highly respected by his deputies and colleagues in the courthouse. He is not hard-boiled or macho. Because of meager staffing, Al spends more time in the field than most sheriffs in counties of a similar size.

Several themes run throughout the series in addition to money woes and recurrent severe weather. One of the new county commissioners is venal and determined to make Al’s life as hellish as possible. Also, Al is realizing that he has been so wedded to his work that he has little life outside it. If he is to have a meaningful retirement in four years, he’d better start making preparations soon.

I’ve been working with a local deputy sheriff who has read my work for accuracy regarding law enforcement procedures, facts, and terminology.  When I was little, Pullman had a population of only 3000 so I've experienced a dose of small town living.  My mother and I've visited and regularly corresponded with her extended family who lived in even smaller towns in rural Illinois.  My family saved all those letters we received and, when cleaning out my basement, I found a wealth of insight into small town life as they described the minutia of their daily lives. I've lived in five different states including three in the Midwest , and I've traveled in all but those U. S. states from New Mexico east into the deep south.  During those travels, I've encountered a delightful assortment of colorful characters and, I've drawn on those experiences in creating my characters and setting.

Because Al is not well traveled, and the area where he grew up has very little diversity, Al finds himself walking on eggs in his dealings with minorities. He is eager to do the right thing, but is sometimes unsure that that right thing is. During the past year, Al hired the first black deputy, Marcus Lee, in the department's history. They form a close bond and Marcus becomes his bridge to that unfamiliar world.

The story starts with Al taking the oath of office for the sixth term. Immediately after the ceremony he is sent out to accompany an ambulance and snow plow to a medical emergency while two of his deputies are also out in the blizzard responding to the reported thefts of parts of farm equipment, one of a number of similar recent thefts in the area. A few days later, Al delivers a speech at the Martin Luther King birthday celebratiion along with his deputy, Marcus Lee who reads King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  Later one night, while guarding a scrap dealership believed to be the fence for the thieves, Marcus and his partner are killed when the place is straffed by gunfire.  The threads of those murders, the thefts, and the activities of the local KKK come together and the FBi hate crimes unit is called in to help.  The local KKK activities have been conducted in such secrecy that even the FBI hate crimes unit had been caught unaware of the situation. Later, the FBI hyjacking unit is also called when the existance of a major region-wide, locally-run theft ring is uncovered that is financing the KKK in the region.  His office is also has to plan the state-wide law enforcement ceremony honoring the fallen officers.  Security for this event becomes a disastrous problem despite their efforts to anticipate possible trouble.

Many agents ask for a comparison of my work with others. Until earlier this year, I had been unable to find anything that I felt met that description until I discovered Craig Johnson's Longmire series. In reading them, I'm truly surprised at many similarities, though there are differences, too. For instance, his take place in Wyoming and have a western flavor; mine take place in Southern Illinois, which has lingering remnants of the old South. The atmospheres are very different.

Our heroes are both sheriffs nearing the end of their career, grooming potential replacements. They are single; his sheriff is a widower, mine still a bachelor. Both are serving small fictional counties on miniscule budgets with inadequate staff and equipment. His is larger in area and smaller in population. We feature small town life with a county full of interesting characters.

More recently, I read J. A. Jance's latest in her Joanna Brady series and I found some similarities there, too. Like Al and Longmire, she had problems in her own life as well as courthouse politics to deal with, and all three take place in small rural counties with budget limitations.

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