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The Arts

Hauntings and new detectives

Local author Michael Nethercott releases his first novel

“Mr. O’Nelligan once told me in his rolling brogue, ’Heed well the dead Lee, for they hover at our ears.’” 

— Prologue to “The Séance Society.”

BRATTLEBORO—Ghosts, memory, and conscience haunt the characters of “The Séance Society: A Mystery,” the first novel and a whodunnit by Michael Nethercott, which came out this week.

The Guilford-based author will read from his novel, and perhaps tell a few ghost stories, at Mystery On Main Street bookstore, 119 Main St., Brattleboro, as part of the 2013 Brattleboro Literary Festival on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 1:15 pm.

The event starts at noon. Nethercott will share the stage with authors Harold Schechter, Hilary Davidson, and Archer Mayor.

Writers need connections to bookstores, said Nethercott.

Mystery on Main Street owner David Wilson was Nethercott’s first reader and provided him with a wealth of advice on the publishing industry.

“The Séance Society” features the dynamic odd couple detective team of Lee Plunkett and Mr. O’Nelligan. In the tale, Plunkett reopens his father, Buster’s, private detective business in Connecticut in 1956. An evening out to see medium and ghost hunter Trexler Lloyd with Plunkett’s perpetual fiancee, Audrey, and O’Nelligan leads a reluctant Plunkett to his next case.

Lee Plunkett and Mr. O’Nelligan first featured in Nethercott’s award-winning novella, “O’Nelligan’s Glory,” published in 2009. The novella won the Black Orchid novella award sponsored by The Wolfe Pack — The Official Nero Wolfe Society — and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Nethercott has signed a three-book deal featuring Plunkett and O’Nelligan with St. Martin’s Press and Minotaur Books. Book two of the private detective series is expected in 2014.

Although Nethercott is a seasoned writer, he had never written a traditional whodunnit before “O’Nelligan’s Glory.” His short stories found publication for over 20 years in magazines and anthologies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year, Gods and Monsters, and Crimestalkers Casebook.

Nethercott said he experienced one of those rare moments for a writer with “O’Nelligan’s Glory.” The novella fitted together perfectly.

“I got this,” Nethercott said on writing the novella.

Suspecting he had a series on his laptop, Nethercott made sure he created characters he would enjoy spending time with.

In many whodunnit-style mysteries, the mechanics of the crime outshine uninteresting characters, said Nethercott.

But if the reader doesn’t care about the characters or victim, “Why care who did it?” he asks.

Underneath the structure of a whodunnit exists the creation story for Lee Plunkett, private investigator.

Plunkett takes over his crusty but loving father, Buster’s, successful detective agency after Buster’s death. He’s reluctant, and a smart aleck, and he has to deal with his father’s legacy and taking on new cases.

As he solves the case of Trexler Lloyd’s mysterious murder in a room filled with admirers, Plunkett also must make peace with Buster’s ghost.

By contrast, Nethercott sees the elder of the two, O’Nelligan, as a pragmatic man of letters with the nature of a knight. The Irishman carries with him ghosts from his home country’s civil war in 1922-23.

“Whether I blame myself or not, there’s the irrefutable fact that I still walk the earth, while the man I shot has not done so for more than three decades, O’Nelligan tells Plunkett.

“I removed someone from the great pool of life. That’s a thing to be profoundly acknowledged, a thing not to be forgotten. Now, in my silver years, I’ve been given a chance to return something to that great pool. All thanks to you, Lee Plunkett.”

“Me? What have I got to do with anything?”

“Don’t you know? By taking me on as your comrade, you’ve offered me the opportunity to seek justice for Trexler Lloyd, a man wrongfully slain. You’ve drawn me again into the arena of life and death, on the side of precious life,” says O’Nelligan.

Nethercott explains that he came to the mystery genre for his first novel out of happenstance, spurred by the Black Orchid novella contest. Still, he said, he had read many mysteries and respects the genre.

A mystery’s structure “is like a mathematical formula at the heart of your tale,” he said.

Nethercott said he chose to parody the structure in some instances, as when, à la Agatha Christie, O’Nelligan and Plunkett gather their suspects in a room to expose the murderer.

Despite that playful part of the story, and others, and in contrast to many other writers in the genre, Nethercott says he does not treat death as a joke. In his story, death is weighty.

Of his novel’s cast of colorful characters, Nethercott says he was fascinated by their flaws, secrets, and motivations.

“It was a murder cooking lasagna,” he said.

Nethercott, said he set “Séance” in 1956 because he wanted to avoid constantly calling his children for advice with technology and pop culture.

The theme of ghosts came from Nethercott’s childhood and his Irish family, for whom this life and the next were understood to walk hand in hand.

Nethercott sees himself as a storyteller. Ultimately, he hopes for “a good tale told.”

“Wasn’t I, in truth, just a ghost waiting to be born? Weren’t we all?” That’s Lee Plunkett. And speaking through him, of course, is Nethercott.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #223 (Wednesday, October 2, 2013).

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