Writing is just a hobby, said Bob Garland, and a “most enjoyable” one. So enjoyable, that at 87 he has just published his 15th novel, Unicornery on Woodhouse Avenue, the sixth book in his Woodhouse Avenue series featuring an elderly fussbudget by the name of Humboldt Prior who lives in a city very much like Saint Paul in a neighborhood very much like Summit Hill where Garland spent his first 13 years.
 
“I’m a lifelong amateur writer of fact and fiction,” said Garland, who is retired following stints as senior vice president and CFO of HealthPartners and before that as president of the parent company of Regions Hospital and senior vice president and CFO of Burlington Northern Railroad.
 
Bob Garland
Author Bob Garland takes a break from writing in the study of his Mendota Heights home surrounded by the 15 books he has published over the years. Photo by Brad Stauffer

 

It takes no stretch of the imagination to connect Woodhouse Avenue to the Saint Paul Garland has known. Humboldt lives in an old rowhouse and faces absurd schemes by various questionable individuals and relatives with ill intent for the community and the family business for which he works. Humboldt serves as comptroller for the business, a leather manufacturer threatened by cousins who conspire to undermine the firm by selling stocks of startup businesses known as unicorns.

In Humboldt, “I created an elderly gentleman and made him comptroller, which is what I once was, of a leather goods business, which my family long ago had,” Garland said.

Garland’s third Humboldt Prior book was titled “R.I.P. 37E,” a play on the name of the organization that in the 1970s and early ’80s tried to stop the construction of I-35E through Saint Paul. The novel involves a long-hidden mystery unearthed during the construction of a freeway.

Garland has lived in Mendota Heights for the past 17 years, but he lived on Hillcrest Avenue in Highland Park from 1948-52 and then on Mount Curve Boulevard for seven years. He graduated from the former University High School in 1952 and received a degree in business from the University of Minnesota in 1956.

“I don’t claim to be good at thinking up names,” Garland said. “I got the name Humboldt Prior after several tries by opening a Saint Paul phone book—this was a long time ago—and randomly jabbing my finger at a page.”

Humboldt Prior was also the protagonist of the eight-book mystery series that Garland began writing in the mid-1960s. “I clearly recall reading a news article—likely in Time magazine—about the body of an Israeli intelligence agent found floating in the Parana River (in South America),” Garland said. “As I enjoyed espionage fiction, I thought it’d be fun to read a book based on that circumstance and thought I’d try to write one.

 

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“I began the way we’re taught to write—with outlines, lots of research and note cards,” Garland said. “I dictated the first book, Slaying the Red Slayer. That was a big mistake, requiring lots of corrections and costly secretarial help.”

Garland wrote his second Humboldt Prior mystery in the early 1970s. Derfflinger was named for a World War I German warship that was scuttled in Scapa Flow harbor in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. He wrote the book longhand “in spiral notebooks, often while traveling on business,” he said.

The author blossoms in retirement

Garland’s first two books were sold by an agent to a small publisher in New York for a small advance and royalties. His third Humboldt Prior book was titled R.I.P. 37E, a play on the name of the organization that in the 1970s and early ’80s tried to stop the construction of I-35E through Saint Paul. The novel involves a long-hidden mystery unearthed during the construction of a freeway. Though it was started prior to the completion of the 35E Parkway, Garland found himself too busy with his career and family to finish the book until his retirement in 1996.

After several more mysteries, Garland moved Humboldt back to the city that is much like Saint Paul about 11 years ago. “That made the writing much easier and more natural, as I could envision the settings, buildings, streets and so forth,” he said. “At about that time, I also began to get ideas for a humorous novel.”

The Woodhouse Avenue series

That was the genesis of his Woodhouse Avenue series. Garland has always been inspired by English humorists Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, “and I was struck by the idea of the extended Boot family all living together in Waugh’s Scoop,” he said. “At that time, I also changed to writing in the third-person with less outlining and a freer feeling.”

For the first book in the series, Woodhouse Avenue Follies, “I got the idea of an old rundown church with some peculiar pastors and something strange or mildly criminal going on within it,” he said. “Having lived in Crocus Hill, a few blocks from Summit Avenue, it seemed natural to have the Prior family members all living on a short dead-end street. I called it Woodhouse Avenue to commemorate its 19th-century founder’s liking for the Jane Austen novel.

“I’m glad to have my readers make these literary connections,” Garland said, “but I don’t pattern any characters or events on anything real. Indeed, my plot ideas and the activities of my goofy characters are so ridiculous as to be far beyond anything that anyone real would attempt to do.”

Garland has never considered himself a part of the Twin Cities literary community, but he will quote lines from The Great Gatsby by fellow Saint Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald. In addition to his Humboldt Prior novels, he has written articles for the Ramsey County Historical Society quarterly and Volume 2 of The History of the Rotary Club of Saint Paul. Garland also wrote The Gary Gargoyle Story for his grandchildren. “It’s about a gargoyle who’s afraid of heights,” he said. “Amazingly, it still sells a copy every now and then.”

Will readers see more of Humboldt Prior after Unicornery on Woodhouse Avenue? “I’m 87 years old,” Garland said. “I’ll have to wait and see what comes to mind. I have an enjoyable group of characters. We’ll see what occurs to me—and them—next.”

— Anne Murphy

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