Frontlist | Ephrata-based mystery writer returns with new book

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Why would a writer with a successful detective series take 25 years between books? The question itself sounds like it could be the opening premise for a mystery novel, but for Neil Albert, of Ephrata, the answers are simpler.

In 1996, after finishing “Tangled June,” the sixth novel in his Dave Garrett mystery series, Albert thought he’d reached a logical conclusion to the story. He’d been working at a rapid pace — writing a book nearly every year since 1989, while working full time as a lawyer.

“I thought it had come to an end,” Albert says. “Any ideas for going further seemed like soap opera-type complications, and I respected the series too much to do that.”

He’d also recently fallen in love with horseback riding and fox hunting, hobbies that demanded a lot of his time. A change in publishers prompted frustrations with paperback sales also contributed to his lapsed series.

But then, more than two decades later, Albert figured out a way back into his Dave Garrett mystery series, based on an incident that occurred in a previous book called “Cruel April.” (Each book’s tile includes the name of month. Albert’s plan was to write an installment for every month in the year in the life of his hero. “If I do a book a year, I’m like 75 by the time we wrap things up with the series as it is,” Albert says.)

In November 2020, Albert, 70, released the latest installment of his Dave Garrett mysteries series called “Cold July.” He also spent some time rewriting parts of the previous six books in the series and rereleased them.

“It felt good to come back to them,” Albert says. “They’re better books than they were 25 years ago.”

Albert decided to keep Garrett frozen in 1990 rather than aging him 25 years and writing in the present day. He’s now working on the next book, which is currently untitled (except for the “August” part).

The next book includes a nod to a more personal mystery that Albert has been investigating in the last couple of years.

‘Books were my friends’

Albert says he always wanted to be a writer.

“When I was 12 years old, I spent a summer handwriting an adventure novel. I had a very isolated childhood,” says Albert, who grew up in Oregon. “Books were my friends.”

Albert went to high school in Portland and graduated from the University of Oregon before moving east to study law at Villanova University in Montgomery County. He eventually landed a clerkship in Lancaster and worked for four decades with a local law firm before staring a solo practice just before the pandemic hit.

He’s maintained an interest in writing his whole life. He says he “fooled around with short stories” in his 30s. He showed his work to a friend, who suggested he try writing a mystery story.

“She meant try a short story, but I thought she meant a novel,” Albert says.

At the time, he’d recently learned his dog had cancer and wanted to spend as much time with his pet as he could. So Albert decided to take two weeks off of work to spend more time with his dog and try to write his first novel. By the end of his vacation, he finished “The January Corpse.” It would be his first published novel. And, in a happy twist, it turned out his dog didn’t have cancer and would go on to live another 10 years.

Albert says he came up with an idea for “The January Corpse” while walking down the corridor of the Lancaster County Courthouse one day. He stopped into a courtroom and listened to a case involving a missing husband. The case gave him an idea for a book.

Setting the scene

Albert says his model for mystery writing is Ross Macdonald, who wrote nearly two dozen detective Lew Archer novels in the mid-1900s. Albert is in the middle of rereading Macdonald’s work and blogs about the books on his website neilalbertauthor.com

“The books are really timeless,” Albert says. “It’s about understanding people and understanding human nature.”

For his own hero, Albert drew from his real life and made Dave Garrett a lawyer.

“The obvious choice for a private investigator is an ex-cop,” Albert says. “I did criminal law a lot in my early days and knew a lot of police, but never felt I understood them. I didn’t feel confident that I could write a believable cop. But I knew plenty of lawyers, and I felt I could do that.”

He then needed to devise a way to get Garrett disbarred so he could turn him loose as a private eye. He once again drew from the well of real life and, leafing through some law books, found an incident where a lawyer was disbarred for taking the bar exam for his wife. Now Garrett was an ex-lawyer-turned-private-investigator. Albert also made Garrett a Vietnam War veteran to make his action scenes more plausible. Next, he settled Garrett in Philadelphia — though, he regularly gets into adventures outside of the city and frequently finds himself in Central Pennsylvania.

“I love the regionalism of Pennsylvania,” Albert says.

Solving a real-life mystery

Albert has long tapped the well of real-life events for his fiction, but the events that inspired his “August” novel comes from a mystery from his own past. And his own origin story seems pulled directly from a Ross Macdonald novel.

“This is one of those weird stories that can only exist in a certain point in time,” Albert says.

Recently, Albert found out that people who raised him aren’t his biological parents. Albert says that during a family party an aunt let the family secret slip to his wife, Evelyn, who was peeling carrots at the time.

“She didn’t cut her finger off with the carrots either, which I would have,” Albert says.

Albert wanted more information, but the couple that raised him are deceased. So, Albert ordered a DNA kit from Ancestry — the genealogy company — and discovered the story was true. He found out he has a half-brother and half-sister. Now, every Sunday morning, Albert has an hourlong conversation with his half-brother and does Zoom calls with his half-sister.

“They are wonderful people,” Albert says.

It turns out that Albert’s father was a traveling salesman from the Ozarks who had children with several women — some of whom he married, and some he didn’t.

“My mother was a 21-year-old waitress and bartender, and they probably met up in Chicago,” Albert says. “I have no idea if my father ever knew I existed.”

Albert was born (he thinks) in a shady doctor’s office in California. The woman who raised Albert left her home in New England one day and returned eight months later with a baby.

“The doctor was kind of a fixer, I guess you could say, and he had contacts and he made the connection for the woman who raised me to come out to California,” Albert says. “There was no paperwork. There was no birth certificate for me. I’m off the books.”

He even was able to connect with the doctor who delivered him.

“He was still alive when I was able to first start piecing the story together,” Albert says. “He was very cagey about what he said because the whole thing was desperately illegal, but he did say: You weren’t ever supposed to know about this.”

It’s a story that could only exist that this point in time.

“Nowadays, the records are so much better kept that you couldn’t get away with this,” Albert says. “And if it had happened at an earlier time, we wouldn’t have Ancestry.”

For his “August” novel, Albert was going to write about the Philadelphia gang wars of the early ’90s, but the true-life tale of his childhood found its way into his fiction.

“I decided that’s what I wanted to write about,” Albert says. “It’s a subject a little closer to my heart right now.”

 

Source: Lancaster Online

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