Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, March 28, 2022

Monday, March 28, 2022: Maximum Shelf: And There He Kept Her

Poisoned Pen Press: And There He Kept Her by Joshua Moehling

Poisoned Pen Press: And There He Kept Her by Joshua Moehling

Poisoned Pen Press: And There He Kept Her by Joshua Moehling

Poisoned Pen Press: And There He Kept Her by Joshua Moehling

And There He Kept Her

by Joshua Moehling

Joshua Moehling's debut novel, And There He Kept Her, is a thought-provoking thriller that doesn't shy away from either horror or complexity. Featuring sheriff's deputy Ben Packard, this is the start of a rich and suspenseful series, a small-town crime drama with pulse-pounding potential.

Jesse and Jenny, two teenagers stuck in their small hometown of Sandy Lake, Minn., have broken into elderly Emmett Burr's home to steal his prescription pills. But as they nervously sneak through the boarded-up basement, they uncover a dark secret, one that Burr will do anything to keep hidden.

When Jesse and Jenny's disappearance comes to the attention of Ben Packard, the new-to-town deputy suspects they might just be a pair of teenaged lovebird runaways. That is, until Jenny's mom (who happens to be Packard's cousin) reveals two things: Jenny is a Type 1 diabetic without her insulin, and she left her cell phone behind. From there it becomes a race against the clock for Packard to find the two teens. Meanwhile, for him, the story of a missing teenager near Sandy Lake touches a raw nerve: his own brother disappeared there years earlier, never to be found. Packard thought his return to Sandy Lake might offer a respite from his previous post as a police officer in Minneapolis, where a devastating loss left him in search of a new home. But with some Sandy Lake residents wary of their new sheriff's deputy being gay, and this fraught case proving trickier than he first thought, Packard will have to confront the secrets both he and Sandy Lake have kept buried.

Packard provides a strong foundation for Moehling's crime thriller, offering a new take on the familiar police hero genre. Rather than playing the part of noir detective or maverick cop, Packard is a level-headed, pragmatic officer whose care for his newfound community complements rather than challenges his desire to uphold the law. Similarly, Packard's multifaceted, tragic past doesn't serve as a stumbling block for his present investigation. Instead, it enriches his understanding of those centrally involved in the case. In this way, Moehling restages his hero's backstory as a strength--a source of empathy, and the seed of Packard's insight into the human condition, despite its haunting resonances with his personal life.

Sandy Lake itself is just as central to And There He Kept Her as Packard. It's an atmospherically complex small-town setting with a textured cast of characters. Moehling captures the class, race and gender relations in this community, avoiding idealizations in favor of no-nonsense realism. Jesse's family, for example, provides a look into the tense home life of teenagers here, further developing a character like Jesse beyond any stereotypical drug-dealing boy. Jenny, too, emerges fully formed through the depiction of her family life and surroundings. Even characters with little page time, like these two teens, take on fully formed lives.

But it is Emmett Burr, the novel's villain, who emerges from And There He Kept Her as the most completely developed and complicated character. Eschewing cheap twists for emotional intensity and complex moral quandaries, Moehling crafts a plot that is dependent on readers knowing, practically from the start, who is to blame for the central crime at hand. Doing so may result in a less stringent focus on the novel's "mystery," but it allows for a more insightful set of thematic interests, a more nuanced cast of nefarious characters and a more slow-burn engine for the novel's tension. By spending a great deal of time with the story's main antagonist--who is elderly, obese and in failing health--readers come to know Emmett as almost a dark double to Packard, making him just as foundational to the novel's core. Moehling never excuses or sentimentalizes Emmett's horrific actions, yet he nevertheless manages to illustrate the man's motivations and weaknesses in a way that makes him understandable. What's more, the novel's climax puts readers in the uncomfortable position of having to see Emmett in a semi-heroic light, recognizing that not all evil is equal, nor are all good deeds fully redemptive.

The novel's darkness at times threatens to overwhelm its characters and tone alike. However, Moehling offers brief but powerful comforts in the midst of his plot's horrors. Packard's burgeoning friendship with local dog rescuer Gary, his supportive partnership with his coworker Kelly, and his undeniable bond with a disfigured, adopted corgi all offer welcome lightness throughout the novel. Moehling doesn't flinch from the raw details of what happens in Emmett Burr's basement, but he acknowledges, too, the potential joys in the world outside it. Loneliness can corrupt a person, but connection nevertheless remains, miraculously, possible. --Alice Martin

Poisoned Pen Press, $26.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781728247892, June 14, 2022

Poisoned Pen Press: And There He Kept Her by Joshua Moehling

Joshua Moehling: A Setting Ripe with Secrets and Conflicts

Author Joshua Moehling lives in Minneapolis, Minn., where he works as a program manager in the medical device industry. His thrilling debut crime novel, And There He Kept Her (Poisoned Pen Press, June 14, 2022), introduces his memorable protagonist, deputy Ben Packard.

What sparked the idea for the opening scene in And There He Kept Her and why was this the way you wanted readers to enter this world?

I knew the first chapter had to be a grabber. It's the first one I wrote, and it didn't change much over time. The rain, the ticking furnace, the door with no handle on the inside were details that made my hair stand up, and I hoped it would be the same for readers.

What about Ben Packard made him the character you wanted to craft this story around?

I wrote a novel before this, also set in Sandy Lake, where Deputy Ben Packard only appeared in brief, and was the subject of a crude conversation between two characters wondering about his personal life. That book got a few requests for a full manuscript from agents but no offer of representation. After a while, I set that book aside and wrote this one to figure out who Ben Packard was, where he came from and what his secrets were. A drinking problem or a bad marriage are the typical things heroes get saddled with in this genre. Ben Packard had a different story--a gay man in law enforcement in a small town. When I went looking for examples of other books with a similar character or similar premise, I didn't find much.

Sandy Lake, Minn., is central to this book. What drew you to this setting and how did that choice affect the story you ultimately wrote?

You won't find Sandy Lake on any map, and I only have a vague sense of where it might be located. It's an amalgam of every small town I've ever known. Both my parents come from small towns, I went to college in a small town and we have a cabin near a small town. I live in a city, but rural living is in my blood. I've always been intrigued by what it takes to make a life for yourself in such a setting. We all know every small town has its own history that's collectively kept by the people who live there. It's a setting ripe with secrets and conflicts.

What made spending so much time with the novel's ostensible villain so essential to the story?

I knew going in that this story would be about a monster, who, through the passing of time and his failing health, has become vulnerable and is now the one being preyed upon. Writers in my writing group helped me realize that Emmett has considered himself a victim his whole life, even when he was victimizing others. I wanted readers to understand that about him, and I wanted Emmett to have to confront his past again. I wanted to see how he would behave in a similar situation and when confronted by an even bigger monster than himself.

What was your biggest challenge while writing And There He Kept Her?

My background in law enforcement comes from having read a lot of crime novels. That's it. As I was writing, I Googled a lot of things. I watched YouTube videos. I downloaded sheriff's office org charts and annual reports. The best thing I did was attend a local citizen's academy where I learned how a sheriff's department is run and the basic ins and outs of being a deputy. I asked a lot of questions. The rest I had to make up or leave out.

What books, authors or series did you read while conceiving of this story and its characters? How did you think of yourself in conversation with those other books?

You can't be a crime/thriller writer from Minnesota and not know the work of John Sandford and William Kent Krueger. I wanted my book to have the pacing of a Sandford Prey novel and the sense of place you get from Krueger. There were times, when I was struggling to figure out how to get into or out of a scene, where I could pick up one of their books, read a few pages and say, ah, that's how you do it.

How would you describe the process of writing this book? And will we see Ben Packard again?

I wish I could say this book was born fully formed right from my head but that would be a lie. It took several years and many, many revisions to get it to its current state. I was pantsing it in the beginning and often couldn't see more than a chapter or two ahead. Late ideas required threads to be pulled all the way back to the beginning. At one point I cut 30,000 words from the manuscript. There were times when I wanted to abandon it and write something else. Persistence finally paid off.

I have a draft of the next book completed already. I spent two months thinking about characters, making an outline and writing scenes that wouldn't make it into the book but that I needed to know for myself. Knowing who Packard was as a character also helped getting to a finished first draft in much less time. Whether it's any good remains to be seen.

There's definitely more Ben Packard to come. I hope people like And There He Kept Her enough to come back and see what he gets up to next. --Alice Martin

Powered by: Xtenit