'Uncertain Accomplice'

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Ferndale author Donald Levin releases latest mystery novel

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Author Donald Levin stated one of the factors that distinguishes his mystery novels from others is that each book isn’t simply about a mystery that needs to be solved.

“Rather, the books are explorations of characters and relationships under the stresses of crime,” explained Levin, of Ferndale, who earned his undergraduate degree and graduate degree – both in English – from Oakland University in Rochester and what is now the University of Detroit Mercy, respectively.

 He earned his doctorate in English education from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, and is professor emeritus of English at Marygrove College in Detroit.

“An Uncertain Accomplice” – Levin’s fifth novel featuring Martin Preuss – occurs in Michigan, particularly the greater Metropolitan Detroit area and lower Michigan. Preuss, who has retired from the Ferndale Police Department at the end of the last book “The Forgotten Child,” finds himself struggling in the aftermath of walking away from the job that gave his life so much purpose and structure. So he now becomes a private investigator.

Preuss is hired by the daughter of Raymond Douglas, a man who went to prison 20 years ago for kidnapping and murdering a local businessman’s wife, to track down a previously-unmentioned accomplice – a person who may or may not even exist.
No sooner does he get involved, Preuss finds himself entangled in two murders and a web of deceit stretching all the way across Michigan’s mega-rich suburbs to its hardscrabble trailer parks.

“Many years ago, I lived in a small town in upstate New York, and I heard the true story of a successful local businessman whose first wife had been kidnapped and killed,” said Levin. “I was fascinated by the disconnect between his then-current situation, where he seemed to be sitting on top of the world, and the past encroachment into his life of this terrible crime. I kept that idea in my pocket all this time and it became the kernel of the idea for (‘Accomplice’).”

He added: “Though my novels may be based on events I see, hear, or read about, all of the characters, events, locations, and organizations in the books are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. So Raymond Douglas is a conglomeration of characteristics from many sources, used imaginatively for my own ends in the book. He doesn’t appear in the book, though as part of his investigation Preuss has to find out quite a bit about his life.”

According to Levin, “Accomplice” started out as part of a much longer book. It had two completely different plots – not a main plot and a subplot, but two distinct storylines.

“After I finished the first draft, I realized there’s was too much going on in the book – even I was having trouble keeping the plots straight – so I split that book up into two books, (‘Accomplice’) and the next book, No. 6, which I am now going to turn my hand toward finishing. That’s due out in early 2019,” he said.

Levin is a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction – particularly Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck. In one of Mankell's novels, Wallender used the alias Martin Preuss. That alias became the name of Levin’s protagonist, who debuted in 2012’s “Crimes of Love.”

Levin spoke about the advantages of having a recurring cast of characters.

“For me as the writer, the big advantages are not having to invent a new cast of characters with each book, and being able to spend time with imaginary people who have become my friends. I think that’s also the advantage for readers, too: You become familiar with the characters, and look forward to meeting them again in each book and seeing what they’re up to,” said Levin.

— And the disadvantage of having a recurring cast of characters.

“As much as I like Preuss and the others in the series, I’m starting to feel a little restless, like I need to move in a different direction, maybe spend time with new people in a different kind of milieu,” he explained. “Once I finish the sixth book in the series, I’ll see if I still feel that way and start working on a different kind of book.”

Levin also spoke about what makes Preuss stand out from other famous PIs in detective fiction, such as Thomas Magnum and Sam Spade.

“One of the key things that differentiates Preuss from those famous fictional PIs is the same thing that distinguished him from the other famous police detectives in fiction, film, and TV. Preuss is not a movie star glamorous playboy with a mustache or a hard-drinking, hard-boiled, tough mug with a ready wisecrack. He’s a realistically drawn character with the same kind of strengths and failings everybody has, a lonely man who struggles with his demons and who happens to be very good at his job,” explained Levin.

Preuss has a son named Toby, who has profound multiple physical and cognitive disabilities. The heart of the series is the relationship between Preuss and Toby.

“Preuss loves his son fiercely, and Toby returns the love unconditionally,” explained Levin. “A teenager as the series opens, Toby lives in a group home because his widowed father can’t care for all of his many needs. Toby humanizes and grounds his father, and brings out Preuss’s caring, even tender qualities. Toby changes his father’s perspective on everything, and it’s that transformed way of looking at the world that Preuss brings to his cases. You don’t see an accurate, sympathetic portrayal of a character like Toby in either mystery fiction or fiction in general, and that’s partly what makes the series stand out.”

Toby is based on Levin’s late grandson Jamie.

“The character everyone loves is Toby.  He’s really the star of the show,” said Levin. “So writing about Toby helps me keep my grandson alive.”
 

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