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Author moulds mystery into real places — like Ashland

Darrell James had a fascination with reading detective novels, an interest that went on so long that, in 1995, he started wondering if he might be happier writing them himself.

As it turned out, he was a lot happier, kicking back in his easy chair with his laptop on his lap, cracking a beer and letting his main character, Del Shannon, unfold her own character as she tracked down a series of missing persons, all of whom, of course, had disappeared by nefarious means.

James, then an Arizona resident, got a trio of his Del Shannon novels in print and became a popular mainstay at annual conferences for detective-mystery novel fans. That's where, over drinks, he met his partner, Pam Dehnke, when he overheard her describing her love for this beautiful artsy town of Ashland, Oregon, where she’d visited for 30 years.

His wife had died suddenly of a heart ailment a few years before, says James, so he and Pam took up with each other. Soon, he fell in love with Ashland, too, and they moved here last summer and bought the 111-year old Nitingales Inn, on North Main at Helman.

The B&B, known as the Ann Russell House, was the home of Ann Hill Russell, a stone mason who took over her late husband James' business and carved many of the tombstones in Ashland, says historian George Kramer. The family had a quarry and created the Hilll-Dunn Cemetery by Emigrant Lake. She was one of three daughters of the pioneer Hill family, which emigrated here in 1853, when Ashland was barely two years old. 

This home and the adjoining "Three Sisters" historic homes sit behind a rough-hewn stone wall, erected about 1915 when the level of Main Street was dropped 15 feet to make the entrance into downtown more level, he says, and to make Main part of the new Highway 99.

It’s the perfect setting for James' next series of detective thrillers, which will also help with the couple’s “bed and brunch” trade, because, he notes, readers like to visit the spots they’ve read about and retrace the steps and sights of the protagonist they’ve come to identify with.

His first book, “Nazareth Child,” 2011, was the winner of the Left Coast Crime’s Eureka Award for best first novel. It has Shannon sleuthing vanished cult members in Appalachia. In “Sonora Crossing,” 2012, she tracks a psychic 6-year old into a dangerous Mexican drug cartel. In “Purgatory Key,” 2013, she seeks two missing teen girls who were seeking buried treasure in Louisiana bayou country. A fourth book is due out soon; all of them are published by Midnight Ink of Minnesota.

“It all began when I got thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be the guy who is writing these mysteries I love,’ so I just set out to be a mystery writer," he said. "I wrote short stories, 30 of them, for eight years, then in four more years I sold my first book to a publisher I was introduced to at a reader-writer conference.”

James eschews outlines and storyboards, describing his writing style as “seat of the pants.” He likes to put his feet up to write. He starts with a basic idea and then in comes the imagery, conflict and clues to why the person has gone missing.

“I believe in strong character development in a shifting and changing plot,” he says. “Del is a loner, tough, independent. She was abused. Her mother disappeared and hasn’t been found. She’s attractive, but I downplay that. I get criticism about that, her beauty, from women. She has love interests who come and go.”

James writes in the third person, with strong character point-of-view.

“I let the character decide where things go, based on their own skills and personality. Their personal nature does it, not me,” he notes. “I get on my soapbox with authors who don’t get in the point-of-view of their characters. In storytelling, you even get in the villain’s point-of-view so that you feel how he feels justified in what he’s doing.”

James says he writes with no sense of what the market wants, but “I set out to thrill myself as I massage and mould the story. It has to work well for me.”

His chief influence has been the late Elmore Leonard.

“I studied at his feet, though he never knew it,” says James. “Leonard’s stories sound simple but the voice on the page is so visual for me. It moves and operates as though real. He said he didn’t want to be seen or heard on any page.”

James writes about six hours a day and is edging into success — he says sales of books (including Amazon’s Kindle) are in the high ten-thousands. His short stories have appeared in many mystery magazines and anthologies. He was a finalist for the 2012 Anthony Awards for Best First Novel and for the 2012 Macavity Awards for Best First Mystery Novel.

John Darling is a freelance writer in Ashland. Jdarling@jeffnet.org.