Knowles explores dark side of a small town in new mystery novel
Thursday, November 8th, 2012. 5:05 pm
By Doug Coxson, The New Hamburg Independent
Just weeks into his job as editor and reporter for the New Hamburg Independent, Paul Knowles responded to an emergency call he'll never forget.
An elderly man had wandered into the Nith River and emergency officials feared he had drowned.
As the rookie editor arrived at the scene, he stood on the riverbank and snapped photos as New Hamburg's volunteer firefighters waded into the waist-deep water to form a line.
They were waiting to catch the body.
"It was a very powerful image that stuck with me," says Knowles, who, 25 years later, recreated the scene in his first novel, Death on the Dun.
The murder-mystery was released in self-published paper and e-book formats last month. And while personal experience may have fueled much of the setting and some of the characters populating the town of Dunford, including protagonist Ed Brighton, a small town newspaper editor consumed by his job, that's where any resemblance to New Hamburg ends, Knowles insists.
Instead of covering a tragic, accidental death, Brighton's camera captures an event where the inescapable conclusion is homicide.
"When you read it, you realize it's not New Hamburg. It is a fictional town," Knowles says.
Local readers may pick up the book expecting to recognize pieces of themselves or someone they know in the characters. But Knowles says every main character is entirely a work of fiction, despite the occasional trait, situation or job title that leaves the impression the author is having a bit too much fun with readers than he should be.
After all, the first-time novelist admits to being surprised by the number of "unconscious observations" that made it onto the page.
His experience on the job at a newspaper influenced Death on the Dun in other ways as well.
Inspiration for part of the plot — and some of the comic relief — comes from the hundreds of letters to the editor that arrived on his desk during the decade he helmed this newspaper.
"The horrors and delights of my life were letters to the editor," he says.
"Some of them were so interesting and so weird" he'd often wonder what would compel someone to write them.
His life-long love of mystery fiction provided the guidance he needed to write a complex story. Knowles says he knew it was critical to have the murder solved before he sat down to write the mystery.
There also had to be a few clues along the way to give armchair sleuths a fighting chance. Otherwise writers run the risk of turning readers off, Knowles says.
"You can't be so obscure that your readers say that was unfair," he says.
"Those who've read it say [the keep-them-guessing plot] worked well."
After spending more than two decades writing all forms of non-fiction, Knowles says his motivation to take a stab at writing a mystery came from reading the work of some of his favourite authors, including British crime writers Peter Robinson and Dorothy Sayers. Readers might recognized a bit of fictional small town police detective Hamish McBeth, from M. C. Beaton's epic series of novels, in there as well.
Grand Dame of British crime fiction Agatha Christie earns titular homage in the not-too subtle reference to Christie's Death on the Nile.
Knowing that not everyone who will be drawn to read his novel is a regular reader of the genre, Knowles felt compelled to warn a few of his more sensitive relatives about the violence, sex and language in the book.
"That's reality and that's the way this guy talks," he says in reference to his occasionally foul-mouthed protagonist who shares the author's passion and obsession for writing.
Unfortunately it's a profession that doesn't always pay the bills.
Knowles recently stepped back from his volunteer roles to focus on building on the success of the annual music festival New Hamburg Live!, but continues as editor of Exchange Magazine and "But I Digress...", his bi-monthly column for the New Hamburg Independent.
He recently took on the role of sales manager for the Stonecroft adult community in New Hamburg. It's not only a new challenge, but for someone who spends a significant amount of time in solitude, in front of a keyboard and computer monitor, it's a new way for him to interact with neighbours who may end up inspiring a character or two in his next work of fiction.
Knowles has already considered a sequel to Death on the Dun, recognizing the deep well of stories from his role as newspaper editor. He's also considering a novel with a political bent, saying he has "way too many stories about running for mayor" not to share with readers.
For someone who writes as much for fun as for a pay cheque, Knowles has picked a good time to enter the fiction market.
Self published authors have more opportunities than ever to reach an audience. Canadian author Terry Fallis is a prime example of how far self-published authors can go.
After self publishing his debut novel The Best Laid Plans in 2007, it was picked up by McClelland & Stewart and went on to win the Stephen Leacock Medal in 2008.
In the years since Knowles released his first self-published book in the mid-'90s, a collection of humorous essays called Is This Doctor Smiling, he says it has become much easier and more cost effective for authors.
Back then, print runs had to be high to bring the price point down for consumers. Today, self-publishing authors can keep their print runs relatively low.
There's also the option of publishing in e-Book format, which reduces up front costs considerably and meets growing demand for digital content.
An e-Book version of Death on the Dun is available at paulknowles.ca for $5. Paperback copies are also available from his website, or Upper Case Books in New Hamburg.