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Author Q&A: Henry Kisor on his fourth Steve Martinez mystery

Henry Kisor’s “Hang Fire” is fourth installment his Upper Peninsulmystery series. He says Michiganders write him suggest characters he could

Henry Kisor’s “Hang Fire” is the fourth installment in his Upper Peninsula mystery series. He says Michiganders write him to suggest characters he could re-create for his novels. | Photo by Deborah Abbott

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Local appearances

Henry Kisor will discuss and sign copies of “Hang Fire” at:

◆ 2 p.m. May 4 at Evanston Public Library, North Branch, 2026 Central St., Evanston.

◆ 2 p.m. May 5, at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison, Forest Park.

◆ 7 p.m. May 8 at Evanston Public Library, Chicago & Main Branch, 900 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

Updated: May 29, 2013 6:12AM

Former Sun-Times literary editor Henry Kisor spent his career reading books of all genres, but detective fiction always held a special place on his bookshelf. So special that in retirement, Kisor created his own mystery series set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he and his family have spent many summers.

Kisor’s smart and witty protagonist, Porcupine County Sheriff Steve Martinez, is a Native American of Lakota Sioux descent who grew up the adopted son of white missionaries. He’s never at home in either world. It’s an interesting duality — he doesn’t know much about being Native American — that continues to play out in “Hang Fire” (Five Star, $25.95), the fourth novel in the series. This installment has Martinez on the trail of a serial killer who uses muzzle-loading rifles as his weapon of choice.

Kisor, who will soon head to the U.P. for another summer of inspiration, recently took some time to answer questions about the challenges of mystery writing, the people of the U.P. and Steve Martinez’s love life.

Q. You are deaf — did you ever consider making Steve Martinez a deaf detective?

A. At first I thought about having a deaf detective, but that’s been done before, notably by Penny Warner, whose Connor Westphal is a deaf journalist and amateur detective. Besides, I am most interested in police procedurals, which require law enforcement officers as heroes. I needed a sheriff for a hero, and a deaf person would be hard to believe in such a role.

I thought, however, I might use some of my experiences and viewpoints as a deaf person to flesh out a character who also is a bit of a social outsider.

Q. All four of your mysteries have clever plots. Is it a challenge to build a plot and have it work out cleanly?

A. Working out a plot can be difficult. Basically my plots are born in some odd, almost unique characteristic of the Upper Peninsula. I sometimes lie awake at night trying to work out the direction of my plots and often run into dead ends. Fortunately there are readers of my early manuscripts who make suggestions and keep me from making huge mistakes. For instance, my son, Colin, is a prosecutor and is a big help with the fine points of criminal law.

Q. Where did the idea for “Hang Fire” come from?

A. About five years ago, there was an encampment near Ontonagon of folks who re-enact the frontier days of Lewis and Clark. One of their favorite pastimes is shooting muzzle-loading weapons at a makeshift rifle range.

I visited that encampment and watched the shooters load and fire antique flintlock rifles, a remarkably slow and painstaking process. While there I had a eureka moment: What if an unbalanced person decided to use such muzzle-loaders for serial murder? Very unlikely, I thought, but certainly possible.

Q. Do you enjoy the research that goes into each book? “Hang Fire” offers much detail about antique muzzle-loading rifles.

A. Researching is a lot more entertaining than writing. I even bought myself a replica flintlock pistol and found a local hunter to teach me how to load and shoot it. That requires a lot of skill if the gun is to go “bang” at all, let alone hit the target. I shot it once and sometimes take it out and admire it, but then put it away.

Q. What do you love about the U.P. and the people who live there?

A. Upper Michiganders are tough, resourceful and remarkably generous, although unemployment is high and money is scarce. They are clever at making do with what they have. They also look out for each other far more than we do in the cities. In a place where the population drops by 10 percent every census, they hang on to each other in order to survive.

Q. Has there been any reaction from residents of the U.P. to the Steve Martinez mysteries?

A. They seem to like them. A few enjoy poking holes in the stories, but many more write to suggest characters I might re-create as well as plot points to follow. I try to be respectful of the people who live in the U.P.

Q. Your publisher, Five Star, requires you to be more active in publicizing the book. What are your thoughts on this?

A. Smaller publishers will edit manuscripts, design covers and ship finished copies but leave all the grimy labor of selling to the authors. That’s a lot of hard work, almost as tough as writing the books. I’ve spent lots of time writing bookstores and libraries offering to do presentations. But I’m competing with thousands of other writers who are expected to do the same thing. It’s a scrum of scribblers.

Q. Are there more Steve Martinez adventures coming in the future?

A. Yes. For the fifth I think I’ve figured out a way to build a mystery around the abandoned railroads in Upper Michigan. I’m a rail buff. Can you imagine how much fun the research will be for me?

Q. So are Steve and his longtime lady love Ginny perhaps tying the knot in a future story?

A. Raymond Chandler once said that marriage was the kiss of death for a mystery hero, and I’ll leave it at that.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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