For 29 years, Chuck Bright taught a detective literature class at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School that incorporated the work of writers like Edgar Allan Poe (“who invented the genre,” Bright notes), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes series, and Agatha Christie.
It was a fun class to teach and useful for the students, said Bright, because it strengthened important skills like critical thinking.
Now Bright, who retired from teaching four years ago, has turned the tables and written his own detective drama.
“Troubled Waters” is a murder mystery thriller set in the fictional Village of Oleander along the Missouri River.
“When village workers discover the headless skeleton of a toddler in a Raggedy Ann dress in an abandoned railroad shack scheduled for demolition . . . they call in Lt. Pete Meyer . . . ,” Bright writes on the book’s back cover.
“During his investigation, he uncovers yet another skeleton in a cistern near the shack . . . a female who was six months pregnant when she was brutally murdered.”
Four days later, “another mutilated female corpse is pulled from the muddy waters of the Missouri River. It wouldn’t be the last murder in the Village of Oleander.”
Bright, whose last book, “Jumping Through Hurdles,” was a work of nonfiction about the funny malapropisms often said by his friend and SFBRHS colleague, Mike Tyree, admits writing fiction is much more challenging.
“I’ve published a lot of nonfiction: illustrated articles, one-act plays . . . which are easier because they are more concise,” said Bright. “But with fiction, that’s when the ‘what ifs’ come in . . . what if this happens . . . then you could go another three or four chapters.”
Bright has had a lot of time to think of all those what ifs. “Troubled Waters” actually began as a short story he wrote in the ’70s.
“I remember typing the first notes on my old IBM Selectric II typewriter in my trailer across the river back when Jimmy Carter was president,” Bright recalled. “Over the years, I kept pulling the manuscript out of the filing cabinet and updating it. The second reworking of the story was done on our computer that used the newest technology — 8-inch floppy disks.
“I did the next revision on 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. The short story kept growing until it became a full-length mystery novel. I finished the first draft on 3 1/2-inch floppy disks. When the story ballooned into a 470-page, 155,000-word novel, I used a laptop and saved it on one little flash drive.”
He worked eight to 12 hours a day on it for a couple of years, then all of a sudden he got to a point where the story started writing itself.
“I just had to keep typing along to get it finished.”
The length may be intimidating for some readers, Bright understands. He knows it’s long.
“ ‘Troubled Waters’ is a little longer than Mark Twain’s ‘Life on the Mississippi,’ yet still shorter than ‘War and Peace,’ ” he commented.
“But it couldn’t be any shorter,” he insisted. “Every chapter contains vital information or character development.”
Just a few pages into “Troubled Waters,” Washington readers especially may feel like they recognize Oleander, even though it’s a fictional town: “ . . . where the main street running through downtown is actually called Main Street, and each summer a country fair heralded the first week of August with its black smoke-belching tractor pulls and American Legion fireworks at the village park.”
Even the book’s cover art, designed by Bright’s former student, Marie Enger, looks like the Washington riverfront with a church tower looming in front of the river.
Bright said in that respect he followed the old saying “write what you know.”
“It’s based on the Washington riverfront, but at an earlier time when the town was smaller,” said Bright, noting he made up a lot of the buildings and people in the book.
“The action in the novel takes place on the Missouri riverfront and much of the plot takes place in a bar . . . think Marquart’s Landing, which is still one of my favorite places to go,” said Bright.
“I started going to the Landing back in the late 1970s. I played guitar and sang down there for a number of years by the stove that used to be by the front door. I’ve spent countless hours with friends down there . . . in the past three decades . . . So it’s natural that I’d pick a place similar to the Landing for ‘Troubled Waters,’ where several important scenes take place.”
Despite Bright’s assurances that the characters are completely fictional as well, that hasn’t stopped friends and family from “seeing” themselves in the book.
“Some of the characters are based on people I’ve met over the years in different places, but most are completely made up,” he said. “A certain friend of mine, a priest in the area, read the book and insisted that he was the basis for the Father Raymond character . . . since Father Raymond is described as tall, younger than the protagonist (Charlie King), interested in theater, and is a very caring and reasonably hip individual.”
Some joke with Bright about the name of his protagonist, Charlie King, who teaches English at a small parochial school. The first name, they say, is clearly taken from his own, and the surname, King, is a tribute to Stephen King — whom Bright actually resembles and who also once worked as a teacher.
Bright smiles at the similarity and admits, “that’s probably true,” but insists it was unconsciously done.
The name he picked for the fictional town, Oleander, is deliberate and meaningful.
“The oleander is a pretty, ornamental shrub that possesses a deadly secret,” Bright explained. “Every part of the plant is poisonous and potentially toxic to humans. The leaves, the stem, the roots, the flowers, the fruits . . . everything. I thought that the name ‘Oleander’ summed up everything about the dirty, little fictional village in my book.”
Print on Demand or Paperback
Released on Dec. 7, “Troubled Waters” has been selling well, said Bright. By early January, he had already sold about 100 copies.
It is available on Kindle through Amazon.com for just $3.99 or free to Amazon Prime members who can borrow the book.
Paperback copies are available through the website lulu.com, a print on-demand publisher, for under $15.
Even before “Troubled Waters” was finished, Bright had plans to write more about his protagonist. He’s already started writing the second novel in the “Charlie King series.”
Events of the first novel naturally led into another set of events, said Bright, noting he already has about four chapters written.
This one will be shorter, he promised.
Not wanting to give away too much about the plot just yet, Bright would only say that the second novel deals with the theater and publicity.
Bright is planning to hold book signings for “Troubled Waters,” although dates have not yet been set. Watch The Missourian for details.