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Archive for Thursday, February 18, 1999

February 18, 1999

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Stepping out of the shadow of the mystery masters, a Wichita novelist learns to play his own tune.

Wichita crime novelist Gaylord Dold spent nearly a decade teaching and practicing law before realizing he'd made the wrong career choice.

"I was just a round peg in a square hole," says Dold, who will read from his 13th novel, "The Devil To Pay," at 7:30 p.m. today at The Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh. "I didn't feel I was doing myself or anybody else any good teaching these little squirts to become lawyers. And I didn't feel I was doing any good in the long run as a full-time lawyer."

Dold, who was born in 1947 in Lawrence while his father was studying pharmacy at Kansas University, returned in the 1960s to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy at KU.

The choice to go from there to law school was probably the wrong one for him, he says now.

"But I never was the kind of person who thought those choices were undoable. I just think you can make up your mind and change your life."

He decided to try writing, choosing the private detective genre for his apprenticeship. His first book, "Uptown Wreck," was published in the mid-'80s under the title "Hot Summer, Cold Murder." Set in 1950s Wichita, it features a private eye named Mitch Roberts whose exploits were based on the experiences of Dold's father in World War II.

Two more Mitch Roberts mysteries followed (the three are collected now in one volume as "The Wichita Mysteries") and Dold was on his way.

He has since abandoned the P.I. genre to write books he calls "a bit more complex." But Dold says detective mysteries, with their simple narratives focused on a central hero, were exactly what he needed to make the jump from criminal defense attorney to crime novelist.

"I was not the kind of person who was going to take a creative writing class and try to brown-nose some professor and write stories for the North American Review," he says. "I needed to become a professional writer."

The way to do that, he decided, was to start with a genre that had clearly defined expectations. Detective novels fit the bill.

"If you want to become a musician really fast, you learn how to play the piano and the first job you get is maybe playing in a pizza parlor, but at least you're a pro and you're out there playing, not putting on the suit and being a bloody lawyer," Dold says. "I wanted to start writing and see if I could do it and earn any money, because I was 38 years old and that's a late start."

Dold's early hard-boiled mysteries were written in the shadow of detective masters like Raymond Chandler and Travis McGee, he says.

"The hardest thing to do was to shake off the old ghosts and do something original.

"Everyone who's learning to play the piano is going to start doing Chopin," Dold explains. "It's how you learn to play. But eventually, if you want to be original, you have to learn to play your own music."

Each of Dold's last three novels, "World Beat," "Bay of Sorrows" and "Schedule Two," received good reviews. But the latter -- tapped as the best mystery of the year in 1996 by the Portland Oregonian -- marked his turning point as a writer.

"`Schedule Two' was the real breakthrough," Dold says. "It's longer and a bit more complex in terms of structure. There are a lot of different characters in motion at the same time."

"The Devil to Pay" attempts the same "kaleidoscopic" narrative on a larger scale, he says. Set in San Francisco, it draws on Dold's experience as a criminal defense attorney in Wichita. But it was conceived during a two-month trip across Africa.

Faced with long days hurtling through the bush in a bouncy, open-air truck with only a dusty bin of third-rate best sellers for entertainment, Dold and his fellow trekkers started kicking around novel ideas to pass time.

"We hatched a plot in which an attorney would be accused of a crime he didn't commit," Dold says. "We played with the idea for two months, and when I came back to the U.S. that was the book I wrote."

-- The Mag's phone message number is 832-7146. Send e-mail to jbiles@ljworld.com.

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