The man behind the ‘Pennyworth’ mysteries
We sat down with the author ahead of a book reading from his latest mystery novel (tonight, 7 p.m.) at Boswell Book Co. on Downer Avenue. This reading and book signing promise to be different and somewhat theatrical. Author Michael Bowen will narrate passages as actors John Kishline and Deborah Clifton play out the dialogue of the plucky couple at the center of his latest series.
Service Dress Blues is the 16th book by Milwaukee author Michael Bowen, and the fifth in the Rep and Melissa Pennyworth mysteries. Many of his stories are set in Milwaukee, so it’s appropriate that we met on the 40th floor of the US Bank building — overlooking an epic view of the city. Bowen is also a trial lawyer and partner at Foley & Lardner, whose offices occupy the top floors of the Milwaukee skyscraper.
Bowen’s office is filled with piles of paper, multiple computers, pictures of his children, law books and some of his books situated on a shelf above the door. I wondered how he balanced work and writing.
“I write when my partners are playing golf,” Bowen says with a smile. “In fact, there are partners who think I could have turned out the Encyclopedia Britannica in that time. It really is a question of how you choose to spend your time. Nobody who is sane works all the time.”
“I’ve never seen a full episode of Seinfeld or Friends in my life. A lot of pop culture in my life is off to one side because I do this. When I get an idea it can be hard to start. But once I get into a story it is very hard to break away. In fact, one of the tricks I came up with fairly early on to discipline myself was to stop before I wanted to stop. I find that if I make myself stop before I want to stop I’ll be chomping at the bit to get back to it.”
In his latest novel, lawyer Rep and English professor Melissa get embroiled in the intrigue after a midshipman is found naked and unconscious in a cheap hotel room near the Naval Academy. The closest relatives of the ‘plebe’ are two political activists in Wisconsin who have already contracted Rep Pennyworth for a copyright case. Political stratagems ensue surrounding a possible attorney general candidate.
Landmarks featured in this story include Juneau Park, the Safe House, the Germania Building and even Miller Park. Two of Bowen’s real-life children attended the Naval Academy. Bowen says that he enjoys writing about things he knows, but that Rep is as far removed from his life as possible.
“He’s a copyright and trade lawyer. He’s 5’9″. He makes fun of litigators — which is what I am — and he treats them like a species of pit bull that you keep tranquilized until you need them. Rep doesn’t like excitement or confrontation or conflict, I’m the opposite in all those ways,” Bowen states.
Bowen’s first novel, Can’t Miss, was published in 1987 and featured the idea of the first woman to play Major League Baseball. It started off as a mystery story but eventually evolved into something else. Now he recognizes that choosing a mystery plot is easy (“There’s seven deadly sins, you just pick one”), but the dialogue and character and settings are the selling points.
“The traditional plucky couple mystery — the original was Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. That was the gold standard. Nick and Nora Charles come along, and they moved it into somewhat of a different league. Next, the most famous couple is the Lockridges, producing the Pam and Jerry North mysteries. Now, both of those characters are supernumeraries and Susan, especially. Susan’s job in those mysteries is to stumble over a corpse and scream. Then somewhere before the end she will say something dizzy that will tell the detective what is the critical element of the crime.”
Bowen pauses to think, and continues.
“I wasn’t interested in writing that. What is critical in my mysteries is the relationship between a man and a woman — who are equals — and nevertheless have complimentary rather than congruent ways of thinking and reasoning. At one point, in Shoot the Lawyer Twice, Melissa says to Rep: ‘I know this sounds like I’m thinking with my heart.’ And Rep says, ‘No, you’re thinking with your gut.’ There’s a difference. Instinctive is not the same thing as emotional.”
Since give and take are so important to this fictional couple, Bowen got John Kishline (last seen in Public Enemies) and Deborah Clifton (a busy Milwaukee stage actor) to play the Rep and Melissa roles at the Boswell reading. A test run of sorts happened at WUWM for a taping of “Lake Effect with Bonnie North,” where the pair asked Bowen for notes.
“You know, the relationship between writers and actors is interesting. Afterward they said, ‘Okay, are we doing it right?’ Well, [to be fair] I’m the writer – you’ve got to interpret the characters. I gave them some thoughts of mine,” Bowen says.