West End author Larry Millett is laying to rest his Shadwell Rafferty mystery series. Then again, he did not leave himself much choice. Shadwell dies in Rafferty’s Last Case: A Minnesota Mystery, the ninth and final novel featuring the Saint Paul detective and fellow fictional sleuths Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
“That Rafferty dies isn’t a giveaway,” Millett said, but only the first of many twists in a mystery thick with intrigue. Rafferty is murdered as he is about to reveal the details of another crime. So it becomes a double mystery with Holmes and Watson venturing to Saint Paul when they learn of their friend’s demise.
Millett eulogizes his longtime protagonist in the latest novel through a speech that Holmes delivers at Rafferty’s funeral at the Saint Paul Cathedral. Shadwell “was remarkable in every way,” Holmes says. “He did not merely occupy the world, as so many men do, but illuminated it, day after day…. He was a barkeep, a detective, a fisherman of great repute, a friend to anyone in need, an enemy to all who would do evil.”
Millett was not sure he would ever write a ninth Rafferty mystery, much less one that killed off his favorite detective. The decision, he said, did not come without a sense of loss. “As a writer, you develop a fondness for your characters,” he said. “But ending the series with Rafferty’s death just seemed natural. There’s a time and a place for everything. When you get to my age (74), you’re intensely aware of that. And the book just seemed a good way to bring it all to an end.”
Following the timeline established by the eight previous mysteries, Millett determined that Rafferty would meet his maker in 1928, when he was in his mid-80s. “Then I figured out how to get Holmes involved in a way that would make sense for the final book in the series,” he said. Millett also includes in the story Rafferty’s longtime friend and business partner, George Washington Thomas.
Millett is an architectural historian who has authored such books as Lost Twin Cities, about the remarkable edifices in downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis that have been razed. So perhaps it is not surprising that he includes as a cornerstone of his Rafferty’s series the former Ryan Hotel at Sixth and Robert streets.
Rafferty’s Last Case “really revolves around the late great Ryan Hotel, which was torn down in 1962,” Millett said. “That’s where Rafferty had his saloon. It’s where Rafferty lived and also where he dies. By 1928, the hotel was a faded dowager, a once grand hotel that was already run down. So that adds a little historic background to a story that’s a bit nostalgic.”In that same vein, Millett includes suspects and other characters who might have been in Saint Paul at the time. “There’s a policeman, a mayor and his aide and others who come into play as part of the investigation into the blackmail case that Rafferty was working on,” he said. “One of the characters is a poet of some renown who has turned into a mystery novelist.” There is also a priest with a secret.
“The characters are not based on any particular people that I know of,” Millett said. “But as with any writer, you develop characters out of your own reading and your own life. You put tidbits together to try to create an interesting character. There are wealthy people, a lot of them on Summit Avenue and involving that crowd. The idea was to offer a range of characters in what I hope is an absorbing and intricate mystery to bring Rafferty’s career to an end.
“I hope readers take away from the (Rafferty) series a sense of adventure and a little history of what Minnesota and the Twin Cities were like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Millett said. “I’ve never ventured far from Minnesota and Saint Paul. I’m a Minnesotan to the core. So I wanted to keep things here and explore a lot of great Minnesota tales. Ultimately, I’ve tried to write books with solid characters and some humor.”
Lest readers think they will never see Rafferty again, Millett is writing novellas that feature the detective but outside of the series. “I just finished a 30,000-word novella called The Gold King,” he said. “It’s set on Summit Avenue with a crotchety old character called The Man Who Hates Everything. Now I’m working on a second novella that also involves Rafferty. And I intend to do a third. I plan to put these in a book with a couple of short stories that are already done. So Rafferty isn’t gone forever.”
— Anne Murphy
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