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Featured Writer Stephen Dobyns

This week let’s feature an author, no doubt toward the end of his career (he’s 79), who has a Michigan connection and has been productive enough to give us much to choose from. That describes Stephen Dobyns whom Stephen King has called, “The best of the best.” Personally, I’m enjoying discovering a writer who has long been discovered by others.

Dobyns’ Michigan connection includes his undergraduate degree from Wayne State University, his listing Michigan as one of four states he was raised in, and the fact that he worked as a journalist for the Detroit News many years ago. The first book I’ve read of his has references to a main character having taught in northern Michigan, been laid off, and then worked in a Detroit casino, even though the events of the novel are set in New Jersey.

I find that, when journalists turn to other genres, they can be excellent. For reference, think of Mitch Albom, Carl Hiaasen, and don’t forget Joan Ramm.

For those who love to find a series new to them, Dobyns has the Charlie Bradshaw murder series also known as his Saratoga series. Charlie Bradshaw is a self-effacing, shy police detective from Sarasota Springs, New York. Playing against type, Bradshaw is effective at solving whatever mystery is set before him with a sidekick who is of dubious help. All eleven books in the series, written from 1976 – 2015, have the name Saratoga in the title. The first is Saratoga Longshot and the last is Saratoga Payback.

All of Dobyns’ work is available from the library through MeL. In addition, the library owns a hard copy of my introduction to Dobyns, called Is Fat Bob Dead Yet. For dedicated Kindle users, the first 10 of the Charlie Bradshaw series are available for $1.99 each. (Odd little thing I noticed regarding Kindle editions now that readers see the cover of the book on their sleep screens – those are different than the original book covers. It could be as simple as new editions or for all I know, maybe there are usually new covers created for Kindle editions. In my experience that’s up to the author or publisher.)

Let’s look closer at Fat Bob to appreciate why people read Dobyns. The Washington Post notes that, “Dobyns pulls off a neat misdirection in this brazenly titled comic crime novel,” and adds that the humor in the book isn’t at the expense of the story having real weight.

Connor Raposo is the teacher from Michigan I referred to earlier who winds up working with a barely-getting-by small gang of grifters who convince people to donate to causes such as “Free Beagles from Nicotine Addiction.” Everyone in this book has at least two names and Dobyns uses this technique to make his characters empathetic. Everyone is trying to become someone, for better or worse. But Dobyns’ fun with language is a real treat. One of his characters who is a tech genius but beyond awkward with people comes up with such phrases as “righteous inflammation” and “nervous shakedown.” These phrases are interesting for being wrong, but they are even more interesting for being right. I’m simply awestruck how far Dobyns can take these expressions. Another character has intentionally coined a word, “tradiculous,” a merging of tragedy and the absurd – a great new word I’ve already added to my vocabulary.

He also begins the book with a fast and flashy killing. Everything in that opening scene remains relevant all the way through. This is an author in command of a complex plot.

While I’ve only read a few professional reviews, there is one element that Dobyns employs in Fat Bob that I haven’t seen mentioned. The narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the readers – and not once or twice. He uses it to move narrative along dismissing five characters at once by telling readers they won’t be seeing those characters again, but also to point out additional information that he lets the readers in on while keeping it from his characters. Really, it’s just an oddball blend of nearly Victorian Dear Reader technique with noir-light fiction. I haven’t seen anything quite like it, perhaps since before the 20th Century.

And that’s why it’s worthwhile to make sure you’ve heard of Dobyns.

See you at the Library

(To be published in the Frankenmuth News on June 2, 2021, by Roz Weedman)

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