A novelist from Vallonia didn’t have to look very far for inspiration when he decided to write a followup to his award-winning first mystery, “Safely Buried.”
“The main thing I looked at was a lynching behind the courthouse,” John Pesta said.
Although some lynchings did occur in Jackson County in the late 1800s, Pesta said the one in his second novel, “The More You Stir It,” was something he just made up.
Pesta said he thought about that fictionalized event for a long time and about the ways to handle that situation today.
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The book features small-town newspaper editor Phil Larrison.
Larrison, who has a knack for getting himself in trouble, also was the main character in “Safely Buried.”
This time, Larrison’s problems begin when 17-year-old Kelly Marcott moves to Indiana from Los Angeles to live on a farm owned by his paternal grandfather, Chester Marcott.
Kelly’s mother has exiled him from Los Angeles after he was arrested for selling a little bit of marijuana to a friend. Kelly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and was put on probation after this first offense. His mother managed to get permission for him to leave California by arguing that he needed to get away from the bad influence of his friends.
His mother’s plan hasn’t worked out too well. Soon after enrolling at Campbellsville High School, Kelly started up an alternative newspaper called “Mothermucker, the Mother of All Muckrakers.” He has been criticizing the school’s administration, faculty and athletics program, upsetting many people.
Recently, Kelly found a box of old photographs in Chester’s attic. The photos show more than two dozen men who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s. In one picture, six Klansmen are standing next to a black man who is hanging by his neck from a tree behind the county courthouse.
The Klansmen cannot be identified from the pictures because they are wearing robes and hoods; however, 75 years ago, someone wrote the Klan members’ names on the photos, and Kelly has published all of the names in “Mothermucker.” What’s more, he editorialized that any of the lynchers who are still alive should be prosecuted for the lynching, no matter how old they are.
This sets the stage for a series of deadly events and surprising developments.
“I like surprises in a mystery story,” Pesta said, “but I don’t like mysteries in which the author withholds a key piece of information for the sake of springing a surprise when the killer’s name is revealed. We see the character who turns out to be the killer doing all sorts of things, but not the murder.
“Of course, if the killer is identified early, there can be no surprise revelation at the end. Even so, the arbitrariness of withholding the name bothers me.”
Pesta said the reason he wrote his first mystery was to see if he could write a good murder story that does not hold anything back from the reader, yet is still surprising. He said he wanted to play fair with readers, not try to mislead and confuse them. His new book takes the same approach, he said.
The setting for Pesta’s mysteries is south-central Indiana, where he has lived for the past 45 years.
He and his wife, Maureen, bought The Brownstown Banner newspaper in 1972 and published it until 1989. Along the way, they also built the first cable television system in Brownstown. An unusual, if not unique, feature of their business was that the two pressmen who ran the newspaper press doubled as cable TV technicians and installers.
“We sold our business when I got burned out,” Pesta said. “When I reached the point where every little problem seemed like a catastrophe, I knew it was time to do something else.”
For five years, he commuted to Bloomington, where he worked as a writer and editor for the Agency for Instructional Technology, which produced multimedia instructional materials. Later, he taught English at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus.
He also taught at Ivy Tech in Seymour and Columbus. Then he began writing books.
Pesta advises anyone hoping to publish a novel to be a good reader.
“Read good books,” he said. “Don’t just read to see what happens. Look at how the writer gets certain effects, the language, sentence makeup, images. Analyze how they write. You need to be a good reader to be a good writer.”
“Safely Buried” has won several honors, including the Best Book of Fiction award in the 2012 Best Books of Indiana Contest, sponsored by Indiana State Library.
Pesta said he was surprised about the success of “Safely Buried,” and winning the state contest helped him sell a lot of books.
The book also won a silver medal in the Independent Publishers Book Awards contest. That IPPY award came in the mystery/cozy/noir division in 2012.
Pesta was born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia. He also spent a year on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of London.
He and his wife live next to the Jackson-Washington State Forest, five miles from Brownstown. Maureen is an award-winning artist who draws much of her inspiration from the picturesque knobs and hollows around their home, where has a studio and gallery.
The couple have two children, Jesse and Abigail, who live in New York.
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Noveliest John Pesta plans to participate in an arts and crafts show Dec. 10 at Brownstown United Methodist Church.
His mysteries are also available on amazon.com.