Herbert L. Smith (Herb to his friends) is a native of Glenwood, Iowa, the town that is the prototype for Hillville, the setting for his Starfire Mystery Series.
The stories are set in the 1950’s, and Hillville appears to be enjoying a Golden Age of mid-century, Midwestern optimism and wholesomeness–that is, except for the murders.
in addition to being well-published (eight books and counting!) and well-traveled (Egypt and the Middle East, Argentina, Idaho, and even exotic central California), Herb is an accomplished musician, with a strong interest in sacred music. He has worked in different churches as organist, sometimes doubling as choir master as well.
Herb currently lives in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, Glenda, where, despite the demands of his literary and musical endeavors, he claims to be “retired.”
Q: Herb, thanks for stopping by! Can you tell us a little about your Starfire Mysteries, and about Hurricane Kingdom?
A: Hurricane Kingdom is number three (of four – so far) in the Starfire Mystery series. The books are all set in the semi-fictional Hillville, Iowa and feature a team of detectives who work together there. The running theme through all the books is life in Southwest Iowa in the 1950’s. For some of us it is a nostalgic look at our past, and for many others it’s the discovery of life as it was in that time, which they have heard about but can’t really understand – unless they read books like this. As an author who lived there at mid-century, I can tell it like it was.
Iowa, especially Hillville, may not seem very interesting initially, but just beneath the surface of little rural towns – whether in Iowa or any place else in the world – there’s another kind of society, one that isn’t out in the open and obvious to casual glances, but it’s there, and it influences everyone who lives in and around the community. It’s a world of criminality and vice, corruption in many different forms, and intrigues that can get folks into all kinds of trouble, even murder, either as a victim or a perpetrator. I can tell you about that world, too, because for some strange reason I developed a good ‘nose’ that searched out that kind of thing. I listened and learned from my earliest memories, and was able to put it together at a shockingly young age.
A: I don’t report most of the crimes I write about in savage or disturbing mental visuals, and there are lots of comedic twists and sub-plots that go on all the time. Sub-plots are really the glue that hold the books together and make them live. They are real, too, and are great fun to recall and report. Food, social interplay, music, history, the town layout, specific places, and even events are dredged out of memory and placed on the pages of the books. One interesting thing is that all the houses and buildings I describe are really there – places I lived or visited often, and I can see and smell them as I write. Hoffman’s Bakery, the Hog Ranch, the Starfire office, the house on Green Street (the place where my memories begin) are mostly still sitting in their places after more than sixty five years, and will go on for a great many more, I hope. The one great loss is the County Court House, a beautiful, graceful, Pre-Civil-War building, which was replaced in the late 1950’s. Its destruction still raises hackles among people who recall its grand and gracious presence.
Q: Guy and Caleb seem like unlikely friends; they have different personalities and a considerable age difference as well. Can you tell us a little bit about them, and what draws them together?
A: Caleb is mostly a fictional character. He is young and eager to get ahead, and has a good sense of self, but often gets into trouble due to a mouth that speaks before he thinks very much. In my young years I was a lot like Caleb, so I suppose I am Caleb, at least to some extent. I didn’t have the experiences he has, nor lead the same kind of life, but did live for a short time in the house on Vine Street that his parents bought when he was young, as well as the little ‘honeymoon house’on Green Street, where I came to fully conscious memory when I was three.
In many more ways, I am also Guy, the older and more thoughtful (sometimes) part of the equation. He is almost forty years older than Caleb, and the intergenerational relationship they have is key to the whole plot. Over time, they have become friends, and they treat each other as equal partners in their business. It was Guy who insisted on naming the Starfire Agency after Caleb. He didn’t expect to remain active in it very long, but Caleb felt the need for the stability that age and experience brought, so Guy was persuaded to stay.
Q: So what do these two very different men have in common?
A: Both men have a lot of faults and flaws, but both have lots of integrity when the chips are down, and they work together in a kind of bantering (sometimes intense) style that does them both credit. They argue and get angry at times, but all things considered, they are good people to write about.
Guy has a secret; a criminal past. He was convicted of rum-running in New Jersey during the prohibition days of the late 1920’s and served eight years in a prison there. After he got out he went to work – after quite a long time trying to figure things out again – in a ‘bank’ in New York City, but the so-called bank was nothing but a crooked ponzi scheme. He managed to embezzle a little more than two-hundred-thousand-dollars before he knew time was short and he’d better get away. He escaped just in time with pockets full of money. He left the rest of the loot in safety deposit boxes in Chicago, which he managed to recover after about a year in Hillville.
He planned a quiet retirement somewhere near Omaha – Hillville is about twenty miles south – and settled in for the duration of a long and peaceful life. That was only a dream, of course. When he helped Caleb (with a little of the stolen loot) get the detective agency going, he also set himself up for a life of renewed danger and the possibility of being discovered and hauled back to New York for another prison term. He faces that all the time, and that’s one of the reasons he acts and reacts as he does.
Q: What originally inspired you to start writing the Starfire Mysteries?
A: When we retired in 2004, my wife and I moved to Eugene, Oregon. One of my sisters lives in a nearby town, and we soon developed a close relationship. She read my earliest books (some memoirs and novels about Egypt which I had written a few years before) and asked me why I didn’t write about Iowa memories. She repeated the questions several times over about two years, so I set out a plan and started writing. A mystery series set in Iowa isn’t exactly what she had in mind, but it has served me well. I managed to get a lot of Iowa flavor into the stories as well as some of the characters and I have (mostly) fun creating them. It helps that I still have a good memory!
Q: In writing about midcentury Iowa, do you rely on your memory alone, or do you supplement it with research?
A: I study Hillville – its actual name is Glenwood – on the internet and look at current videos of people and places on You Tube. I take tours of the town with Google maps, and move up and down the familiar streets, looking at the houses and other buildings as I go. I walk along the routes I took to school, recalling lots of things by sight, and study the names of people – there are family names that are still prominent in town – and find any connections I can relate to.
Q: Have you found any differences between what you remember, and what you’re finding in your current research?
A: Of course, things have changed! The town hasn’t grown a lot in population, but there are new schools and churches and business buildings. Some of the old places have disappeared, although the seriously old buildings – which were built about the same time as the courthouse – around the ‘Square’ seem much the same. The house where I lived for most of my Hillville years has fallen into terrible decay, but was recently sold and I am hoping it will be restored. Everything changes, but a lot of it is, at present, much the same as it was in 1955.
Q: Tell us about the kinds of reader reactions you’ve had to the Starfire Mysteries. Any surprises?
A: I am surprised at the reactions I have gotten from writing about food! I didn’t know much about food in any other place when I was growing up in Iowa, but I don’t believe cooking and eating was a lot different there than in most places in the U.S. During the 1950’s we experienced some changes in the way we ate, but the entire nation, with the possible exception of the Southeast, experienced the same things. (The Southeast was more traditional and had lots more delicious regional foods than most other areas of the country at that time.)
Q: How would you describe the Iowan culinary culture that you grew up with?
A: Food was plentiful in those days, and we tended to eat well. Meat was a mainstay, as it was across the country, and the kinds of things we usually ate were from popular southern and mid-western style recipes. Cooking and eating was important, but probably no more so than anywhere else.
The idea that Iowa’s food is or was second rate is a strange one to me. As time moved forward, Iowans moved along with it, and although it wasn’t (and still isn’t) a foodie haven, it was good and solid and tasty. I recall all the good food with pleasure.
Q: Is there a character you identify with most? Guy? Caleb? Someone else?
A: As I said before, I am Guy, and Guy is me. Simply put. We are far from the same (criminal past and all that) but we look exactly alike now, and behave in much the same way toward most if not all situations we encounter. I am now just a bit older than he is, but the time warp works well, so I can still project myself into 1955 or 56 and be in my sixties there and then, as Guy is.
I wanted to develop an accidental ‘hero’ when I set Guy up. He isn’t slick, not good looking, and doesn’t have a lot of the skills he needs for smooth social interaction, but he has a good mind and is able to work through the tangles of criminal activity to find a culprit. (I have never solved crimes, but I do enjoy setting them up and letting Guy have at it.)
Guy and I are both overweight, older, silver haired, and bearded. We tend to wear slouchy clothes, and both of us are pianists. That’s for starters. There are lots of other, much more subtle, ways in which we are alike, and probably even more in which we are not. He isn’t my clone, but he is what I want him to be; a smart, capable, considerate man who can help other people solve their problems, murder notwithstanding. Guy is compassionate. He helps in (sometimes) subtle ways to get people to look at themselves more positively, and to advance and enhance their lives. And that enhances and advances his life as well.
But to some extent I am all the characters. As I write, I inject myself into all of them to some degree, and I decide what they will finally say and do, unless they wrest the story from me and go off on their own. Then I become merely a recorder of events. (At times I feel that I am.)
Q: Is the Hog Ranch a product of literary license, or is it based on a real place?
A: The Hog Ranch is a real place. It’s a two-and-a-half-story log structure which sits on the edge of the Missouri River far to the north and west of town, and was subjected to all the floods that inundated the ‘river bottom’ for many years. It’s still there, and is still vulnerable to the whims of the River.
The ranch, built sometime around the turn of the 20th century, was originally designed as a gambling, drinking, and bordello establishment. There was illegal horse racing there, too, and that attracted people from far away. I’m not sure if it was ever raided, but for some reason it closed and was sold in 1922 to a farmer who set it up as a pork emporium. He called it the Hog Ranch, and it operated as such for a short time. Since then, the place has been owned by a large number of different farmers, and currently (2015), it is once again on the market.
An interesting touch to add to its history: my father and mother lived and worked on the Hog Ranch for about a year, starting when they were married in 1929. They left because my mother was frightened by the ‘creepy’ place. I juggled the years of operation as a gambling den a bit, but the basics, as described in Hurricane Kingdom, are historic.
Q: Where can readers find out more about you and your writing?
A: Visit my website at http://www.herbertlsmith.com/
Also in the Starfire Mysteries series:
THE MUSUBI MURDER August 2015