Award-winning novelist Richard Wheeler has published more than 70 books, among them westerns, historicals, biographies and nonfiction. But few know that he's also Axel Brand, mystery writer. He kept his identity secret from critics since his debut mystery, Hotel Dick, hit the bookstores. That is until now. Next in his series is The Dead Genius.
Richard, why, after publishing 70 books of various genres, did you decide to write a mystery series?
I love mysteries. These would be a change of pace for me. I'm always looking for new worlds to conquer.
Your pseudonym, Axel Brand, sounds more like a Western author. How did you come up with it?
It's at the top of the alphabet. That means the books will probably be shelved at eye level in any alpha-organized collection, which means they are more likely to be seen and read.
Why did you set your series in the 1940s as opposed to the present time?
There are few mysteries set in that period. Also, it allowed me to employ gumshoe detection without dealing with modern forensic sciences. The series is set in 1940s Milwaukee, where I grew up, a big industrial city I remember well, and one little resembling cities now. In my stories the cops sometimes catch streetcars to get where they're going.
How difficult was it to make the switch to the mystery genre? And did you read a lot of mystery novels before you began writing them?
It wasn't difficult at all. I had to begin with an apparent crime, and let my hero work on it. I've read mysteries much of my life, and have no idea how many. The thing is, mysteries are stories like other fiction, so one starts by spinning a story.
Briefly tell us about your protagonist, Lieutenant Joe Sonntag, and your debut novel, The Hotel Dick.
Well, I loved Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday when I was growing up, so I wanted a low-key detective who used shoe-leather to get down to the facts. I proposed calling my guy Joe Sunday, and the publishers axed that idea, but they bought Joe Sonntag, which amused everyone, and fit Milwaukee perfectly.
What kind of predicament did you get Sonntag into in your forthcoming novel, due to be released in July?
The novel is called The Dead Genius, and the dilemma is whether there was a crime at all. The victim seems to have died a natural death, but Sonntag's superior, Captain Ackerman, has a hunch it was not natural, and sends Sonntag out on a fruitless, dumb investigation that consumes a lot of the resources of the police. Sonntag, meanwhile, is annoyed to be on a case based only on a lousy hunch.
You mention a number of former Hollywood stars in your debut mystery novel. Was that the result of your years in Hollywood as an aspiring actor and screenwriter?
Not really. One of the things that intrigued me about the forties was the look-alike contests that were popular then. People who looked like Shirley Temple or Alan Ladd or Dorothy Lamour could compete, and win prizes for looking the most like the star. Sometimes they would get a trip to Hollywood and a studio tour as the prize, and get a signed picture of the person they resembled. All that, transplanted to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was intriguing, and I built on it. The victim, the hotel detective J. Adam Bark, was involved in the look-alike contests.
Which of your varied genres do you enjoy researching and writing most?
I probably enjoy my biographical novels the most. These require that I remain true to history and true to the character I am depicting, so there is much more challenge to them, and it is also easier to slip up. And because lives are not continuously dramatic, it is harder to place real people in a story. But the mysteries are giving me new challenges. I have to decide on a crime, and work toward its solution, which is entertaining.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Give the stories meaning and make what happens consequential. I keep reading stories in which everything that happens is meaningless and has no impact, which makes a weak story. If it's a murder mystery, remember that death is consequential. People grieve. Families are upset. There are consequences in law, and upon society. I come across murder mysteries where no one cares, there are no funerals, it doesn't seem to matter, all of which undermine the story.
Which mystery writer's work most influenced your own?
Actually, none. There are many mystery writers I enjoy, including Tony Hillerman, Elmore Leonard, Craig Johnson, and Margaret Coel, but these didn't apply to 1940s. Milwaukee and the sort of cop story I had in mind, so I had to feel my way along on my own.
Thank you for including me in your thoughtful interviews.