Reared first in England and then in New York City by parents from opposite sides of the Atlantic, Don Thompson remembers sailing aboard the Queen Mary and other great ocean liners as a child. In more recent years, he and wife Sally have taken more than a dozen cruises.
So no wonder “Charley’s Cruise,” the flagship, so to speak, of Thompson’s first trilogy of mystery novels, takes place aboard a cruise ship doodling around in the Caribbean. It’s his first book-length fiction to see print, but is neither his first book nor his first published mystery story.
His five earlier books were the sort of thing an academic writes to further his career, explains Thompson, Ph.D. Showing up at the public library in a sand dollar- and starfish-print shirt, the Statesboro resident is now emphasizing neither the doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley nor the 37 years he spent plotting the growth of various universities. He retired from Georgia Southern more than a decade ago as head of a department of seemingly everything — Marketing, Communications, Transportation and Logistics — after helping the institution grow from 4,800 students to 16,000. (It has since added 4,000 more.)
“This is a fun book, and I’m a fun guy,” Thompson says, shunting questions about his managerial past to instead call attention to that cruise-appropriate shirt.
Leading up to mystery
But he should excuse us for thinking that being a former everything, and thereby
candidate for “Most Interesting Man in the World,” suits a mystery writer. Before Berkeley, he served six years with the Army and the National Security Agency during the Korean War era. He learned Chinese at the Army Language School and then applied it to some NSA work that still sounds rather hush-hush.
Then there was that period in the 1990s when Thompson was part owner of Statesboro’s local television station, low-power Channel 48 WBH. He involved himself directly in TV production and interviewed many people much as he is being interviewed now. After breaking even but not much more, the station was leased to become a relay for a national religious broadcaster.
It was also in the ’90s that Thompson served as paid consultant to the founder of MysteryNet.com. Besides conducting many surveys of mystery buffs, he was part of a team of experimental writers who concocted 1,000-word mysteries, allegedly to further gauge readers’ tastes and turnoffs. But as a mystery fan since he first read Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in his partly British childhood, Thompson approached the mini mysteries as a fun series of challenges. He wrote about a dozen.
“It is very hard to write a real, challenging mystery for mystery lovers in a thousand words,” he observes.
Now otherwise thoroughly retired, Thompson has time to explore mysteries in much fuller format. Years of writing and rewriting come to fruition with Whiskey Creek Press’s commitment to publish all three volumes of the series, starring former NYPD cop and would-be English teacher Charley Adams and his bride, Mel, a sometime police dispatcher. Readers get to know them in the details. In the kitschy elegance of cruise ship dining, Mel orders the ostrich; Charley eats roast beef.
The character of Charley
Thompson first thought to place Charley in a mystery occurring around the time of the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. But the author was toiling elegantly aboard the world’s best-known cruise ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, when he decided to put aside that manuscript to instead write the book that became “Charley’s Cruise.”
Later, “Charley’s War” will be released as a prequel, and “Charley’s Tenure” will cap the series. All three are complete, and after Whiskey Creek publishes them in paperback, plus Kindle and other e-book formats, another imprint will bind them together as a hardback for libraries.
The shipboard setting of “Charley’s Cruise” allowed Thompson to write something approaching a realistic “locked room mystery” and also to indulge in social commentary.
“I like to make observations about behavior and society, and on a cruise ship, you see the good, the bad and the ugly,” Thompson said. “The QE2 is pretty stuffy by many standards, but still, on cruise ships you see bizarre behavior. You know, people say, ‘I’m on vacation; I’m going to cut loose,’ and it’s a great venue to observe behavior and come up with all kinds of things.”
So Mel and Charley, for now semi-retired to Florida as security director of a gated community, set out on the recently commissioned Nirvana, with 2,150 passengers and 1,002 crew aboard. All of the oddness that follows is true-to-life, assures the author, who besides cruising with Sally, has spent a lot of time reading passengers’ accounts on cruise blogs.
The prologue foreshadows both that someone is going to die and that the captain will want as little attention drawn to it as possible. Beyond that, we’ll leave the plot a mystery.
Humor and satire
Along the way, Thompson uses intricate description and Charley’s deadpan humor to satirical purpose. His targets range from parents who let children run amuck to tabloid journalism and the way its values have come to dominate the media.
But Thompson fires his most tightly grouped pattern at cruise lines and the way they have reacted to crimes and mishaps.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be, but if you read in these websites of people who were victims of crimes, you will find that cruise lines, to protect their image, do actively try to less than fully investigate crimes, to the point of covering them up and crossing the line,’’ he says.
Despite that kind of insight, Thompson loves taking cruises. He says it is the most cost-efficient form of vacationing, given that gourmet food, lodging, travel and entertainment are included in the price.
Promoting the book will carry him back to sea. In addition to appearances in coastal cities, he will promote “Charley’s Cruise” through book signings aboard mystery theme cruises offered by Whodunit Productions on Royal Caribbean ships out of Florida. His first is slated for October.
Sooner, Thompson will sign books for local readers during the Murder Mystery Night planned for 6 - 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 at the Statesboro Holiday Inn.