Sex, lies, and insurance fraud.
The tagline for my first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, says it all. I wrote the novel after only two short stories about Cleveland-based PI Nick Kepler, “Race Card,” which would not see the light of day until Northcoast was published, and “A Walk in the Rain.” In those stories, I knew nothing about Nick’s office, his working situation. This novel resolved all that.
Nick Kepler, a Midwestern mongrel if there ever was one, came from German, Polish, Jewish, and Cherokee ancestry. He had been a cop in a Cleveland suburb fired for beating up his partner, who himself had been beating his wife. He went to work for an insurance company that, five years later, downsized him into his own agency.
Despite some of the stories I’d written about Nick, I knew next to nothing about him when I wrote him. I didn’t even have a novel-worthy story, though “A Walk in the Rain” might have expanded nicely into one. I sketched out three stories about Nick, “Race Card” being the first. It concerned Nick’s hot-tempered police friend and a mild-mannered deputy who almost come to blows. “Valentine’s Day” saw Nick get his first stalker who hires him to find a fictitious boyfriend (who bore a striking resemblance to a very young William Shatner). The third, “A Walk in the Rain,” saw Nick dispose of a musician friend’s abusive boyfriend after a “Goodbye, Earl” moment. “Walk” published first in the late, great Plots with Guns e-zine.
So, how did I come up with Northcoast? The story concerns three cases: An improbable case of life insurance fraud, a sex scandal involving an up-and-coming politician, and a worker comp case that unexpectedly intertwines with the other two late in the story. It all begins when a man who has only paid one month’s premium on his life insurance falls off a ladder to his death. Nick, who does freelance investigations for the company’s property/casualty division, is hired by the underwriter in a last-ditch effort to save his job.
It took a while for me to come up with something for Nick. And it all came together with, of all things, an Eddie Murphy bit on Saturday Night Live. I was watching one of the 1980s episodes of SNL as my neighbor, a contractor, worked on the balconies for my apartment complex’s landlord. Eddie came on playing an incarcerated convict reciting a poem, “Kill My Landlord. Kill My Landlord.” My landlord could be annoying, but not necessarily an inspiration for homicide. It was serendipity. What if the landlord instead of my neighbor worked on the balconies. And what if he fell off? How could someone get away with it? Pushing him off might leave witnesses, but digitalis poisoning, in 2000 not commonly screened for in autopsies, might be mistaken for a heart attack. I spun it up from there, adding a few stories told to me by coworkers at my insurance company employer. In fact, TTG Insurance’s structure and corporate shuffling came from several local companies in Cincinnati where I lived. Thought I scrupulously avoided basing characters on any of my coworkers.
It took me about six months to write, which I find laughable now. I knocked out the rough drafts of 10 TS Hottle scifi novels between January, 2020 and March of 2021. But I’d never written a novel before in 2002, when I finally started this. Since then, I wrote a messy 105,000-word first draft to Holland Bay, used both Dragon and Google Docs on a phone to dictate, and learned to outline scrupulously. What made me particularly happy about this was that I finished the first draft before my mother died at the end of 2002. My wife read all three Kepler novels, the shorts, and Gypsy’s Kiss, most of which I released independently.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this book. It mainly comes from my publishing choice. I sent it to agents where I’d had a referral. But I also went to burn off rejections from small presses. Only one took it, a small press at the extreme edge of the Baltimore-DC area. Three weeks later, I had an agent. Had I said no, I might have had a career as a full-time novelist. When the press imploded, so did my crime career.
But Northcoast garnered praise, put me in contact with other writers, and saw me traveling to places I never imagined I’d see. As a writer, I maintain the delusion that success is just around the corner. The truth is we perform in private and show our work after the fact. So, the thought of reaching a wider audience is what keeps us tapping the keys.
Northcoast is not the best thing I’ve ever written. That’s a tie between Holland Bay and the unpublished TS Hottle novel First Command. It shouldn’t be anyway. It’s my first novel, the first one people looked at, and the one that brought me into a wider community. I’d never write it today, but are you the person you were in 2002?