Finding his inner Sherlock Holmes
By Jon Tatting
The discovery occurred when Larry Millett looked out his attic window near the writing space he kept at home in St. Paul.
Peering below, in eyeshot of the Mississippi River, his eyes fell on “Baker’s Street.” And the stars aligned.
Several fans of mystery fiction writer and former journalist Larry Millett learned how the author was able to bring Sherlock Holmes to Minnesota from London during a special visit April 10 at the North Branch Area Library.
Millett talked about his Holmes series and days as a journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1972 through 2002. Some of his titles include Sherlock Holmes and the Ice Palace Murders, Sherlock Holmes and the Rune Stone Mystery and Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon.
He also has written several nonfiction titles about Minnesota people and places. Those include Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities; Murder Has a Public Face; and Strange Days, Dangerous Nights, a photojournalism book focusing on the 1950s era.
A book inside
“There’s a saying, ‘Every reporter has a book inside, and it should stay there,’” began Millett with a chuckle from the audience.
When he first considered a thriller-type book, he recalled the story he was assigned to for the Pioneer Press. It was a piece on the 100th anniversary of the Hinckley fire of 1894.
There were many theories of how it started, said Millett, who loves to dig deep in the researching process. According to one theory, it was deliberately started, but there was no proof, he noted.
Could this be the basis of a mystery book, with Sherlock Holmes as the detective? He wondered.
When Millett settled on summoning Holmes, he went on a literary journey to figure out how and when he could realistically bring him back. From 1891-94, he noted, Holmes was presumed dead, but his body was never found.
So, with the celebrated sleuth not due back until The Adventure of the Empty House in 1894, “Holmes was available and not due back for a while. I was in luck,” said Millett.
His fiction books began with Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon in 1996. He admits he was “very fortunate,” as a first time mystery fiction writer, to have his book picked up by Viking Penguin, a major publishing company.
He was also fortunate to have the University of Minnesota nearby since it has one of the largest collections of Sherlock Holmes books. There are collections many people have never heard of, he noted.
Millett talked about his locked room mystery, “The Magic Bullet,” featuring Holmes and Shadwell Rafferty, an Irishman and St. Paul barkeep who regularly appears as Holmes’ assistant in the author’s books.
Set in St. Paul during World War 1, the duo attempts to solve the death of a prominent financier who is found facedown, with a single bullet hole in his head, on the floor of his armored penthouse. And not a shred of evidence points to how someone could have gained entry to the man’s quarters, located 30 stories up in the city’s tallest building.
“I’m a big fan of John Dickson Carr,” said Millett of the famed locked room puzzle mystery author. The trick is the mystery “needs to be possible and conceivable.”
Millett has enjoyed writing about Minnesota buildings and their history, as evident through his nonfiction books including “Lost Twin Cities” and “Twin Cities Then and Now.”
Even in fiction, he likes to put a human face to buildings, that is, to weave the history of buildings into stories and people.
Reporting for the Pioneer Press from ‘72 until ‘84, he took advantage of an opportunity to study architecture at the University of Michigan. Upon returning to St. Paul in 1985, he became the paper’s first architectural critic until he retired in 2002.
“Buildings are collections of stories; they are containers for memories,” he explained.
Whether nonfiction or fiction, Millett likes to write about things that interest him. “It’s that simple,” he noted.
Other than having been an English major in college, Millett considers himself “self taught” in areas such as history, journalism, mystery writing, architecture. He loves to research what interests and inspires him, though inspiration isn’t always knocking at his door.
“People think I wake up inspired,” he said of his writing. “No,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, “I’m tired and I drink coffee.”
On his craft, he insisted it’s important to read and write regularly to become a good writer. That’s why the daily newspaper industry was a good experience, he said.
Millett’s visit was part of East Central Regional Library’s Meet the Author series and is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. For more information, call the library at 651-674-8443.