Larry Millett’s latest novel is something of a departure for the West End author. In Pineland Serenade, he ventures into new territory with both the setting and the characters. Millett takes readers outside of the Twin Cities, home to most of his classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and introduces a new protagonist.
Millett’s novel is set in Pineland, a fictitious town located halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, where the characters are brought together by the disappearance of the area’s wealthiest man. The plot thickens when threatening messages are left in the town square by a dark figure who calls himself the Serenader. Enter the newly elected county attorney and a Black woman attorney from Chicago with possible ties to the missing man.
“I’ve been up there quite a few times,” Millett said of the novel’s setting in and around Pine County.
In fact, the first book in his Sherlock Holmes series had British novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and his assistant Watson traveling to Minnesota in pursuit of an arsonist following the disastrous Hinckley fire of 1894. “I did a lot of research (in Pine County) when I wrote Sherlock Holmes at the Red Demon,” he said.
In the setting, Pineland Serenade represents a homecoming of sorts for Millett, but that is where the similarities end. “The new book is closer to a classic mystery than a thriller,” he said, “but it moves along at the kind of pace that a thriller might have.
“It’s funny,” he said, “with some books I have a pretty good idea where they came from, because I’d been thinking about them for a long time. This one I did for the fun of it—a contemporary mystery as opposed to another historic mystery.
“I found myself going back to starting points,” he said. “My first published novel was set in Pine County. It isn’t a place people write about a lot. It’s a corner of Minnesota that people pass through on their way from the Twin Cities to Duluth. But the new novel is set more than 100 years later, and it’s not all Pine County. I kind of mixed and matched various communities to create Pineland.”
Another departure is in the narration. “For Watson and Holmes, the narration is first person, but the story is about someone else, so it sounds more like a third-person narrator,” Millett said. “The new book is a straightforward first-person narration by the protagonist. It’s intended to be a fast read, the kind of story that’ll get you going and powers along very quickly.”
Millett came up with the title for Pineland Serenade before the story. “Titles are as mysterious as books,” he said. “Where they come from is always kind of a mystery.
“I’ve always found that if you get the right title for a book, it’s like getting the right headline on a story,” said Millett, who began his writing career at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. “The right title tells you that you’ve got something you can deal with. If you struggle for a title, as I have with a couple of books, it’s kind of a sign that there’s some uncertainty.”
A good example of finding the right title is a book Millett wrote about 15 years ago, Strange Days, Dangerous Nights, about the era of the Speed Graphic camera and the blunt and powerful black-and-white newspaper photographs of the 1930s-50s. “That was a case where I had all of this wonderful material and I couldn’t figure out how to organize it thematically,” Millett said. “Then one day the title fell into my head. I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the title. That’s the organizational scheme right there.’ A title can really help you when you’re putting together a book. When you have the title, you kind of know the situation and you can move forward.”
The main character in Pineland Serenade “is as much of a hero as an antihero,” Millett said, referring to the county attorney. “Then there’s the Black woman attorney from Chicago who comes to Pineland because she believes the missing white man may be her father. Years ago, I wrote a book that never got published. It had some elements of this story in it. There were a few characters from that book that I thought I could rescue and bring into another book, so I did.”
As a contemporary thriller, Pineland Serenade allowed Millett more freedom in writing. “I got to use a few swear words,” he said, “and it was fun to be free with the language and not have to maintain a historic tone. The main character, the county attorney, is a smart-aleck who resembles me, and there’s a lot of humor in the book.”
The county attorney is named Paul Zweifel. (Zweifel means doubt in German.) “He’s a guy who’s wondering what he’s done with his life,” Millett said. Zweifel is divorced and he has a dog named Camus, after the 20th-century French philosopher. “Camus is a border collie,” Millett said, “and he fits right in.”
Since finishing Pineland Serenade, which is self-published, Millett has been working on what he believes will be the final installment in his Sherlock Holmes-Shadwell Rafferty series. It is called Rafferty’s Last Case.
“The book begins with Rafferty’s death,” Millett said, “before it backtracks into a big investigation. It’s a summation of what has gone on before in Rafferty’s life and in Holmes’. In the Holmes-Rafferty series, I’ve moved through time. It’s 1928 in the coming book, and Rafferty and Holmes are old men. It might be out in the fall of 2021.”
— Anne Murphy
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