Hello all and welcome to our continuing series of author interviews. Today’s guest is retired English professor and campus assassin Gary Guinn.
Okay, he’s not a campus assassin but campus murders are much on his mind as he develops his Lam Series of books about Professor Lam Corso.
Ever notice how many academics who become authors murder people on campuses? Probably because it’s easier than flunking people. Or dealing with campus administrations. Or department heads.
I’d like everyone to stand up and give Gary Guinn a big round of applause for taking part in our exciting adventure.
Gary Guinn’s Bio
Gary Guinn lives in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, with his wife, Mary Ann, and their lab mix, Seamus, and their Corgi mix, Peanut. He writes both literary and mystery/thriller fiction. His first novel, A Late Flooding Thaw, a literary/historical novel set in the southern Ozark Mountains, was published by Moon Lake Publishing in 2005. His poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of magazines, and his short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, the latest being Yonder Mountain, from the University of Arkansas Press. His mystery/thriller novel Sacrificial Lam, released by The Wild Rose Press March 3rd, 2017, is set on a small Southern college campus. Since retiring six years ago, he and his wife learned to sail and thought they might want to get a boat and live on it somewhere warm during the winter months. But their most recent adventure is the purchase of a 1992 Safari Trek RV, which is in cherry condition, and which they intend to take to Arizona and southern California this winter. Then they will have to decide—sailboat or RV? Either or both would be a fun way to try and live on the cheap in good weather. His favorite pastimes are reading, writing, traveling, and brewing beer (and of course, drinking it).
Gary and I talked about academia, small colleges, gender-bending writing, the troubling experience of women in a patriarchal culture, RVing, getting out of the cold, using 1st readers and critiquers, intentionally forgetting all the rules of English, great southern gothic wiiters, growing us in the Ozarks, the history of the South and more.
You can find links to Gary’s books on the right or at the bottom of this post (depending on your device). You’ll also find links to Gary’s sites underneath the video.
Gary also recommends Nanowrimo.
An excerpt from Gary’s Mystery/Suspense novel A Lam to Slaughter
In the dim lighting of the stairwell, the flashes from the police camera illuminated the body, hanging inert and heavy, and cast grotesque shadows on the concrete wall, barely registered on the retina before they were gone. The voices of the officers working the scene were subdued, quiet and strained, as if they were friends of the dead.
On the second-floor landing, a thin man in tan slacks and a white shirt with rolled up sleeves stared intently through wire-rimmed glasses at the handrail, where the rope that held the body was tied. He worked slowly with his brush, methodically dusting the metal pipe of the rail. On the small landing between floors, Detective Stephen Warner, in his thirties, in khaki pants and sport coat, his tie pulled loose at the neck, stared out at the body suspended in front of him, his narrow set eyes focused intently.
“Ben, you about through up there?” He looked up at the detective working on the rails.
“A few more seconds,” the man said without looking away from his work.
Detective Warner looked at the photographer and raised his eyebrows.
The photographer looked at the screen of his camera, then nodded at Warner.
Warner looked tired, his eyes lined and weary. He was trim, five feet ten inches, strong nose and jaw. “We need to get him down.” He reached out over the handrail and touched a light stain on the lapel of the jacket worn by the corpse. The body turned slightly away from his touch, then drifted slowly back.
The detective at the rails above stood and nodded. “All done, Stephen.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing clear here. No surprise. Students and faculty would be touching it all the time.”
“Bring him down,” Warner said.
Two uniformed officers placed stepladders on each side of the body and lifted it gently while another officer on the landing above cut the rope. They lowered the limp body into the waiting arms of two more officers at the foot of the ladders, who laid it out on the concrete floor.
“See what you can find,” Warner said to the officers, then stepped through the exit door onto the small porch outside.
Doctor Lam Corso, forty-one-year-old professor of English at Mid-South Methodist University, in black cycling shorts and a yellow cargo jersey, sat on the top step staring out over the green lawn in front of him. A cycling helmet lay on the porch behind him. It was Saturday morning, and he had ridden his bike to campus to do some work for his Monday morning World Lit class. He did not get as far as his office.
He had stopped on the first landing to retie his shoe. Squatting there in the dim light of the stairwell, he felt that someone was watching him, the small tingle in his chest. Snugging up the shoestring, he turned to look over his shoulder at the entryway below, and saw the dim shape hanging just to his right. For a second, it did not register as a body. When it did, he leapt back against the wall. The silent, vacant stare came from the face of his colleague, Doctor Ronald Ballesteri, professor of comparative literature, whose wavy black hair hung down over his forehead. Lam fumbled with his phone, called 9-1-1, and went immediately to the porch to wait for the police.
“Dr. Corso?” Detective Warner offered Lam a hand to help him up, but Lam stood on his own, the cleats on his Shimanos clicking on the concrete, and leaned against the handrail.
“Detective Warner, it’s been a while.” He smiled and reached out.
Warner shook Lam’s hand and said, “Since soccer season ended, I believe.” Warner‘s son played in the same youth league as Lam’s older boy.
“Yeah,” Lam said. Youth league soccer ended with the start of school in the fall. He took his glasses off, black plastic frames with round lenses, and cleaned them on his shirt.
Lam nodded. “I think so. Scared the hell out of me when I looked up and saw—.” He hesitated. “Saw him.”
“I can imagine. Not what you expect on a sunny Saturday morning.”
Lam looked across the yard toward the art building. Police tape hung from the railings across the base of the stairs. “No.” A couple of students, backpacks slung over their shoulders, walked across the green. One of them gesticulated, and the other laughed. Lam smiled, but the smile faded. A student might have found him.
The shock of finding the body still gripped Lam. The bike ride to the campus had been pleasant. It was a warm, sunny November day. Lam and Susan had slept late, then eaten breakfast on the patio. When Susan had loaded up their two boys—Billy, ten, and Simon, seven—to take them to pee wee football practice, Lam had hopped on his bike and ridden the five blocks to campus. He’d planned on a longer ride when his work was done. It was the kind of day that made him glad to be alive.
But the gladness had faded. He a guilty felt relief, and being alive had a different texture. Preparation for his Monday morning class was the farthest thing from his mind. He thought instead about how to tell Susan about what he had found, about a dead body hanging in the stairwell of the cathedral. Lam wasn’t sure how a colleague hanging in the stairwell would affect her. He feared it would trigger the anger she had struggled with for months, an anger that often focused on a bewildered Lam and for which she had been in counseling.
“So,” Lam said, “was it suicide?”
Detective Warner pulled his lips to one side. “That would be my early guess. Has all the signs. You know the old saying, ‘If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.’”
The forensics detective stuck his head out the door and said, “Stephen, we found something.”
Detective Warner started that way. “Excuse me, Lam. I’ll be back in a minute. Hang around, will you? I have a couple of routine questions for you.” He slipped through the door.
Lam was left alone again in the warm sunshine, the sound of birds in the oak trees to his left, a car pulling away from the stop sign beyond the grove of trees. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. Detectives become hardened to these things.
An hour earlier Lam had been deep in the rhythm of his quiet, satisfying life. When he rolled down the driveway on his bike, the sound of a lawn mower had come from up the street, someone doing one last trim job before winter set in for good. At the end of the block, Ava Miller, a good-looking blond divorcee, was washing her car in the driveway. Lam stopped to say hi. Her three kids had become friends with Lam’s two boys, and Lam and Susan had them all over for dinner and drinks a couple of times. Her long legs were tanned, and Lam couldn’t help noticing that she was not wearing a bra under her snug tee shirt. As they talked, he had to work to keep his eyes engaged with hers. Her smile seemed to say that she saw right through him.
When he pulled away on his bike, he felt her eyes watching him. Over the past year Lam had pushed himself to do at least twenty miles three times a week, and he had lost the midriff paunch that had developed as he approached forty. His legs were strong.
Standing on the small side porch of the cathedral, warmed by the sun, he felt hollow, as if the joy he had felt earlier had been sucked out of him and all that remained was stunned disbelief. Ronald Ballesteri, who had come to Midsouth three years ago, had been a high-energy teacher and scholar, popular with students. An Italian Catholic, he and his wife Marla, a nurse at the local hospital, had six kids. They were a boisterous, apparently happy family. A year after coming to Mid-South, Ballesteri had taken a master’s degree in counseling from the state university in Riverton, thirty miles away, and started a practice, moonlighting to supplement his income, which never seemed adequate to support his large family. The practice had gone well, and he had talked about getting out of teaching and going into counseling full time.
And now this. Lam tried to remember the past six months, the past year, tried to find any signs from Ballesteri that this was possible. There was nothing. It had come out of nowhere, a bombshell that would upset the equilibrium of campus life. And Marla would now have six kids to raise alone. The life insurance, if there was any, would not pay, negated by the fact that her husband had killed himself. How could it happen and nobody see it coming?
Detective Warner stepped back out onto the porch. “Well, it’s a duck,” he said. “They found a note in his jacket pocket. Contents are pretty typical for this kind of thing.”
“Jesus,” Lam said. “Poor Marla.” He looked up at Warner. “That’s his wife. They have six kids.”
“Tell me again how you found the body,” Detective Warner said. “Just for the record.”
Lam described again how he had started up the stairs and stopped to tie his shoe. “I was whistling when I came in the building,” he said. “It echoes like crazy in the stairwell. Seems a little ghastly now.” He paused. “I normally wouldn’t have come this way. I always use the big stairway off the lobby, but it was roped off because of wet paint.” The sign had said “Use the elevators,” but Lam wanted the stairs, a little more work for his legs. So he had gone to the stairwell at the end of the hall.
“How close were you to Professor Ballesteri?”
About three feet, Lam thought, and it was terrible. But he knew that was not what the detective meant. “Not very close, really,” he said. He felt a twinge of guilt. He should have been closer. Ronald and Marla Ballesteri had reached out to Lam and Susan early in Ballesteri’s tenure at the university, inviting them to the Ballesteri house for dinner a couple of times. Lam and Susan had reciprocated once, but the chaos of the Ballesteri family with five rowdy kids and one severely handicapped son, had made it seem like more work than Lam and Susan could bring themselves to repeat. The Ballesteris never seemed to hold it against them. Lam wished now that he had made the effort to get to know them better.
“So,” Warner said, “did you notice anything that would have seemed like a red flag with him? Do you know of any problems that might lead to suicide? Trouble at home maybe.”
“No,” Lam said. “I was trying to think of something while you were inside, but there’s nothing.”
“Nothing with the marriage? At work? Six kids can put a lot of strain on a relationship.”
Lam shook his head. “Nothing that I know of.”
“Well,” Detective Warner moved a small stick on the porch in front of him with the toe of his shoe. “If there aren’t mental health problems, it’s usually something in the marriage. But not always. Sometimes there’s no warning. Maybe his wife can help us with that.”
Lam tried to imagine Marla sitting with Detective Warner, trying to answer the question, trying to understand the unfathomable reality of her husband’s death. He closed his eyes. “Jesus.”
“Dr. Corso, we’re through here for now.” Warner reached out to shake Lam’s hand. “Again, sorry about the circumstances.”
Lam shook hands. “Yeah, it’s still hard to believe it’s happening.” He started down the steps. “See you later.” He lifted the yellow tape and slipped under it, his cleats clicking on the sidewalk.
Detective Warner lifted his chin in goodbye. “Say hi to Mrs. Corso for me.”
Lam rode home slowly, hardly noticing the cars that passed him, unable to shake the image of Ronald Ballesteri hanging in the dim light of the stairwell. When Lam taught Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” the discussion always found its way to those disturbing lines “for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.” College students, in their hormone-driven angst, seemed fascinated with Keats’ flirtation with death, as tuberculosis drew him inexorably toward it. “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” the poet says, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain.”
Death seemed so easy. For Ronald Ballesteri, a short drop from the second-floor landing into total darkness. Something in his life had made him half in love with easeful death. A terrible seduction. The end. But not the end for Marla and the kids. For them it was only the beginning.