Where History Meets Dinosaurs and Horses

In some of my recent posts, I’ve been touring you around Howard County, Maryland the setting for my mystery novels. In Ice on the Bay, which you’ll get to read at the end of February, some of the action centers on a townhome in the community of North Laurel.

Tucked in the southeast corner of the county, North Laurel is principally a residential community of some 20,000 souls. As you might expect, it lies roughly north of the city of Laurel, Maryland. Laurel, though, lies in Prince George’s County.

Europeans first came to the area in the 1608, when Captain John Smith explored the upper Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The Patuxent River, the boundary between Howard and Prince George’s Counties, was first named on the map resulting from those explorations. Later, settlers grew crops here, especially tobacco, and built mills which brought industry to the area.  Laruel was originally named Laurel Factory in 1837 when Edward Snowden became the first postmaster. It was a mill town with schools and shops where mill workers lived in company-owned housing until the 1860s. The surrounding agricultural areas included what is now North Laurel.

Laurel maintains a historic district and is home to the Laurel Park Racecourse, a thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1911. Perhaps more interesting and certainly unexpected, maybe even to those living in the general area, is Dinosaur Park, a rich fossil site where visitors can join paleontologists and volunteers in searching for early Cretaceous fossils.

Back on the Howard County side of the river, dinosaurs also once roamed, as did horses. The horses still do, but not so many dinosaurs anymore. Race horses have long been big business in Maryland and particularly in Howard County. On U.S. Route 1 near North Laurel, the Laurel Raceway opened in 1948 and operated under that name until it was rechristened the Freestate Raceway in 1979. It closed in 1988 and was sold for development as an industrial park. Today, a retail shopping center and car dealership live there, not four miles from that townhome that appears in Ice on the Bay.

But so far as I know, none of my detectives have ever shopped there.

William R. Dudley: Planetary Real Estate Noir

Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.

Through nuclear war and environmental degradation, Earth has been all but destroyed. Seeking new homes, humanity has taken to the stars using a marvel of engineering: the Janus Gate. Orbiting the sun where the asteroid belt used to be, the Janus Gate’s space-warping black hole and surrounding containment field catapults pilgrims to worlds far beyond our solar system. But Janus is also a colony in its own right, its concentric levels home to a full cross-section of humanity. Here, powerful ultra-conglomerates double as businesses and government, ruthless criminal syndicates run amok, and ordinary people eke out an existence.

In the lawless outer levels of Janus, former security agent turned freelance bounty hunter Calder is offered a fortune to find the missing son of one of the richest and most powerful women alive. Of course he takes the job. But soon he finds himself neck deep in deception, treachery, gangland war, and unspeakable crimes. Death threatens at every turn, but Calder must see the job through, cost notwithstanding.

The Janus Enigma packs suspense and intense action into a gripping tale of survival and intrigue. It’s well written, too. Author William R. Dudley is a former English teacher, journalist, and editor, so he knows his way around words. I did find some of the dialogue near the end a bit wordy, and on occasion I thought a sentence could have been phrased better, but these are minor quibbles. A bit more significantly, I didn’t entirely buy the young computer whiz Umbra’s emotional episode near the end, and I was a bit disturbed that Calder didn’t notice the parallels between certain of his own actions, which he justifies as necessary collateral damage, and the monstrous crimes he uncovers. Some elements of the ending might have been a bit too pat, as well, but to avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail here. Regardless, the story works, and works well.

Fair warning for those who might take issue: this is a violent story liberally sprinkled with hot vengeance and crude language. Personally I would prefer less of all that, but I won’t factor that preference into my rating, since I seem to be in the minority. In terms of both story and writing, The Janus Enigma falls on the high side of 4 stars. If I don’t give it 5, it’s only because of those few small issues I mentioned above. Well done, sir!

I recently asked William R. Dudley about the novel and his writing. Here’s what he said:

You’ve been involved with words for a long time as a teacher and editor, but this is your first novel. Did you do any writing before this, and if not why did you only get started now?

For thirty years, my writing was confined to the “everyday” business of scripts, copy etc. for radio and television. My job was all-consuming, leaving little, or no, time for “writing for myself.” On occasion, I did exercise my literary ambitions–chiefly in the form of the libretto for a folk-opera “Going For A Soldier”, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe way back in the seventies. As I recall, it got a rave review from The Irish Times. I also managed to find time to write a couple of Christmas pantomimes for an Am-Dram group in Jersey (Channel Islands) where I was working, but, I found work–on call 24/7/365–and trying to maintain some semblance of a family-life more than enough. I retired, gratefully, in 2010 and dedicated myself to doing nothing except cooking, playing golf and relaxing, something I hadn’t been able to do for over thirty years. Eventually, I got the idea to write a novel. I have to admit, I fought against it, big time. Writing is bloody hard work and I reckoned I’d done enough of that, thank you. But, like an itch you have to scratch, the idea grew and grew, until, in the end, I decided to give it a go.

What gave you the idea for The Janus Enigma?

Having decided to have a go at writing a novel, I was at a loss as to what the subject would be. From an early age I’ve loved Sci-Fi. I drank a lot of whisky and jotted down a number of ideas. One of them involved The Man Who Sold Planets. I was intrigued by the idea of real estate becoming more than selling houses and tracts of land. Eventually, this idea became a relatively minor character in The Janus Enigma–Mexican Charlie–but it was enough to set me on the path to creating an environment/world in which someone could actually sell you a planet. Added to this basic idea was my love of first-person noir thrillers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett etc. The rest, as they say, is history.

I got all the way through the book before realizing I didn’t know protagonist Calder’s first name. I’m terrible with names and thought I’d forgotten it, so I went back through the book but couldn’t find it. Am I missing something?

Sorry you felt it necessary to back-track. I deliberately didn’t give Calder a first name. I feel it adds to the enigmatic nature of the character. Besides, let’s face it, he’s not the most pleasant of characters, so referring to him only by his surname is, perhaps, best. I regard Calder as a flawed “force of nature,” a product of his time and environment and best kept at a distance.

You seemed to be trying to walk a tightrope between Calder’s violent streak, which no doubt arises from his background, and giving him a conscience that prevents him from going too far overboard. Yet sometimes he has to rationalize collateral damage. Without giving anything away, I found it a bit disturbing that those rationalizations were basically the same as those made by one of the key criminals in the story, but Calder didn’t seem to realize it. Could you comment on that?

Wow! When you read, you read. Thank you. I freely admit I struggled with the amoral side to Calder’s character. To be honest, basically, he’s a thug, but a thug with a fairly well-developed, if totally subjective, concept of right and wrong. He will pursue his concept of what is the right thing to do irrespective of the surrounding morality. He’s driven and won’t let anything stand in his way, which is why he has no scruples about killing Rylan Delmonico’s minder, or Azarillo’s guards. If it has to be done, it’s done. He may not feel all that good about it, but, in his mind, the end justifies the means. I actually found it intriguing that, in a way, Calder and the “key criminal” are somewhat similar. I like to think that the climactic confrontation between the two of them raises, in the reader’s mind, the question of whether what the “key criminal” did was justifiable. Calder sees it from his point of view, but is he right?

I see you have a sequel in the works. How far into it are you, and when do you expect to publish it?

The Janus Contract centres on Calder being hunted by the Nemesis Foundation, an organisation of implacable, professional assassins, but just who has hired them to eliminate Calder and how he can manage to stay alive is the big question. The sequel also revisits a key incident in The Janus Enigma and, I hope, provides a big surprise. I’m currently in the final outlining phase. I write my first drafts fairly quickly – 6 to 8 weeks, but then spend months revising, editing and rewriting. I’m hopeful that The Janus Contract will be published around September 2018.

Are you working on anything else?

Come on! I’m seventy years old. I read the obituaries in the newspaper every day and, if I’m not mentioned, I get out of bed and either cook, play golf, potter about my garden, or write. I’m far too old and tired to entertain any thoughts of a “writing career.” I just want to write stories which, I hope, people will enjoy reading. End of.

What advice do you have for writers or readers?

For writers: WRITE! Just get it down. It may be a load of bilge, but, once you have something on paper (or on file) you have a beginning. The actual writing of that first draft is relatively easy. The real work starts when you revisit it to edit, rewrite and revise. That’s when your skill as a writer emerges and you exercise your craft. I revised/edited The Janus Enigma 57 times (I have every iteration – the first 14 are crap!). The best problem to have as a writer is when you revise your work for the umpteenth time and, at the end of it, realise you’ve changed perhaps a dozen words and rephrased a couple of sentences. That’s when you bite the bullet and say “Enough!” Of course, it’s not “finished.” It never will be, but life’s too short…

For readers: if you aren’t hooked by the first ten pages (God, that’s generous) go away. Read something else, play a round of golf, cook a splendid meal, watch TV, go to the theatre, play Skyrim, whatever. Increasingly, the attention span of people is diminishing. God bless Twitter, Facebook, et al. Don’t waste time on struggling through something which doesn’t engage you. There’s more than enough out there which you will find engaging.

Where can readers find you?

I have a website: http://www.thejanusgate.com. I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, or any of the so-called “social media”. Essentially, I’m a rather old-fashioned private person. I’ll share my writing with the world, but very little else.

The Edge of the County

Howard County, Maryland is a diverse place. It hosts business and commerce and agriculture. Its population densities range from fairly rural to well-packed suburban. And although on average it is one of the better-off placed in Maryland, rich and middle class and poor alike call it home.

Its land, too, is diverse. Situated on the Piedmont, the hilly plateau between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont (literally “foothills”)  is the remains of several ancient mountain chains, which makes it geologically complex.  For those of us living on the rolling surface, the region can be most beautiful, at least when not overcome by human development.

But sometimes nature and humanity work together. The southern border of Howard County falls along the Patuxent River, which at the midpoint of its course alongside the county flares into Triadelphia Reservoir, created in 1943 by the construction of Brighton Dam. Dam and reservoir are managed by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), an inter-county agency that handles drinking water and wastewater treatment for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The reservoir provides drinking water to those jurisdictions, but oddly not to most of Howard County. A small portion of southeastern Howard County is served by WSSC, but most of the eastern half of the county gets its water from Baltimore, while the western half relies on private wells.

WSSC maintains recreational facilities around the reservoir, too. Hiking, picnicking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, and hunting are all available. Only self-powered or battery powered vessels are allowed on the lake, of course, to protect water quality, and permits are required.

Among the recreational facilities on the Triadelphia property is an azalea garden near the dam, featuring over 22,000 azalea bushes sited in a 5 acre hardwood forest. I’ve never been there, and might not be anytime soon. My wife is allergic to the darn things.  But for azalea lovers, it must be quite a place to visit. It’s a collection that probably rivals that of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the azalea garden is temporarily closed. Brighton Dam is currently undergoing maintenance to ensure its future life. Although structurally sound, it’s over 70 years old.  Most of us need a bit of work by that point in our lives! The collection will presumably open to the public again after the work is complete.

Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller and crew haven’t been sighted in the vicinity of Triadelphia Reservoir so far, but one never knows. In the future, clues to some dastardly crime might just turn up in the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, pay the area a visit yourself if you happen to get down that way.

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman