Veteran professional athletes, so accustomed to enduring extraordinary physical challenges and periodic abuse, seem to have a habit of re-creating themselves as investigators in mystery fiction. Think, for instance, of former Los Angeles Rams guard Brock Callahan, who, during the 1950s and ’60s, starred in a fine series of private-eye novels by William Campbell Gault. Or how about Harvey Blissberg, the ex-Boston Red Sox outfielder who first turned to a life of crime-solving in Richard Rosen’s Strike Three, You’re Dead (1984)? Then of course there’s Miles Jacoby, the boxer-turned-gumshoe who has starred in half a dozen novels by Robert J. Randisi. And we can’t forget Dick Francis’ former champion jockey, Sid Halley, or Steve Hamilton’s onetime minor-league pitcher, Alex McKnight, or Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, who in his younger days, considered making his living as a heavyweight boxer.
Wyatt Storme blitzed his own path from jock to sleuth. A Vietnam War hero, ex–wide receiver with the Dallas Cowboys and widower, the now middle-aged Storme has invested his sports earnings well, built a couple of backwoods cabins (in the Missouri Ozarks and the Colorado Rockies) and sought to escape “society’s neon glare.” However, with his best friend and sidekick, Chick Easton, a smart-mouthed, damaged former CIA operative, he keeps getting involved in other people’s troubles.
Storme Warning, the fourth entry in author W.L. Ripley’s series, finds this pair providing protection to Cameron Fogarty, a charismatic but indomitably irresponsible young Hollywood hotshot who’s portraying 19th-century outlaw Jesse James in a big-budget Western film being shot on Storme’s Missouri acreage (much to the retired NFL star’s displeasure). Fogarty has reportedly received death threats, yet he’s not the only one at risk here. A racist, conscience-deprived former mob enforcer, “Glory Rory” Marchibroda, has recently been freed from prison and wants vengeance on Storme for what he sees as a past injustice. Trying to keep Fogarty safe from would-be killers—not to mention his own poor judgment—while steering clear of confrontations with Marchibroda will be a full-time job for Storme and Easton, one that may bring them down before they get anywhere near this tale’s end zone.
Pleasant Hill, Missouri, resident Ripley saw his first Wyatt Storme novel, Dreamsicle, published back in 1993. He followed that up with Storme Front (1994) and Electric Country Roulette (1996), before debuting a second series, this one starring “enigmatic ex-Secret Service agent” Cole Springer (Springer’s Gambit). It looked as if Storme might have run his final play. But when authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman were preparing the 2014 launch of their crime-fiction publishing company, Brash Books, they asked Ripley to join their stable of writers. Among the results of that deal will be the early February release, in both print and e-book versions, of Storme Warning, to be followed this coming April by a fresh edition of Dreamsicle (retitled Hail Storme); Storme Front and Electric Country Roulette (the latter now known as Eye of the Storme) will be reissued later in 2015. In addition, the 62-year-old Ripley, who retired three years ago from his long career as an educator and basketball coach, is concocting a fifth Storme outing and a fourth Springer adventure for Brash.
I took the chance recently to ask Ripley some questions about his debts to fellow authors, his up-and-down experiences in book publishing, the difficulties Storme faces in his romance with a celebrity journalist and much more.
Did you always want to pen fiction, or did you develop that interest later in life?
Always wanted to write fiction. Even as a high school student. I wrote several hundred thousand words before Dreamsicle and have always wanted to write. Coaching college basketball is more than a full-time job, and though I did write every day at that time it was difficult to carve out a consistent time to do so. For years, I awoke at 4:30 (before the kids got up) and wrote. I wrote every weekend and on snow-day cancellations, and didn’t golf for years.
What made troubleshooter Wyatt Storme your ideal protagonist?
First, my background is athletics. Storme evolved from a character I had been formulating for many years. I love the outdoors and when I was younger I hunted frequently (I’m too beat up from playing basketball to climb trees and fences in my advanced middle-age). Also, as a college coach and high school principal I was a public figure who wanted some privacy. I’ve never liked being in the public eye, which sounds funny for a guy who was a coach. People always think writers are “rich and famous,” but I’ll take the money and they can keep the fame. I don’t find “celebrity” an attractive thing to become; mostly they seem unhappy.
Storme dropped out of the limelight and disappeared after playing his greatest game. I wanted his name to be elemental, thus the surname, Storme. I wanted him to be a neo-Western hero, so I chose Wyatt as a first name. Also, Wyatt was the name of the lead character (played by Peter Fonda) in [the 1969 road movie] Easy Rider and I wanted an iconoclastic character. Storme is always comfortable in his surroundings yet always an outsider.
It’s hardly uncommon for folks to liken the partnership of Storme and Chick Easton to that of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk. Do you relish or resent the comparisons? And how do you view those respective crime-fighting duos?
Anytime one gets compared to a giant like Robert B. Parker it’s a compliment. I admired and respected the man, who was a true gentleman. Parker wrote to me a few times and endorsed my Cole Springer novels—my all-time favorite blurb [“Springer’s Gambit is both fluent and riveting. Cole Springer is a comer…and so is W.L. Ripley.”]. The comparisons and influence are there, but there are singular differences. Storme is more like Travis McGee in that he is not a detective, whereas Spenser’s job is being a private investigator. As for the Chick Easton/Hawk comparison, Chick is deadly like Hawk, but whereas Hawk is supremely confident and even unknowable, Chick is troubled by his past and more influenced by Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin. Goodwin and Easton are sharp-witted men of action. Easton goads Storme into action, even violent action, when Storme demurs, which is how Goodwin interacts with the corpulent Nero Wolfe, pushing Wolfe to work so they can pay the bills.…
A more apt comparison would be Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Storme is steadfast, clear-eyed and larger-than-life. Easton is a hard-drinking and lethal sidekick. Storme commands respect, whereas the bad guys quickly realize that Easton is the one to fear. Easton’s only friend is Wyatt Storme, much like Holliday’s relationship to Earp.
You saw three Storme novels released between 1993 and 1996, but then the character, well, disappeared. Was that by your choice, or were you finding it hard to place more Storme books with a publisher?
My editor for my first two Storme novels, with Little, Brown & Co., was fired and moved to a new house. Little, Brown had been doing a fine job, but I went with my editor to the new house and that publisher flat dropped the ball on Electric Country Roulette. I won’t mention the house or the editor, but I soon learned that my editor only wanted revenge on Little, Brown and gave little attention to my work, then he retired. It has made me more cynical about some people in the industry.
In between Storme and Springer I was urged by my agent at that time, Al Zuckerman, to write a blockbuster novel. That relationship went nowhere (my fault—I didn’t enjoy the process Zuckerman laid out), but I learned much from Zuckerman, which improved my writing and resulted in Springer’s Gambit, my most successful novel to that time. When I submitted the first Cole Springer, my editor at St. Martin’s Press read it in one sitting and told me my previous publisher (one of the biggest publishing houses in New York) was notorious for doing a poor job at promotion and that Electric Country Roulette (which he found and read) was an excellent book and deserving of better. Springer’s Gambit was accepted right out of the box, and almost immediately picked up as a film option by Kurt Russell….Since then, Springer’s Gambit has been optioned by other producers but at present is open.
In your new novel, Storme Warning, you have Storme and Easton trying to provide protection for the thoroughly obnoxious star of a Western film being shot on Storme’s property, around the site of a long-gone town where the James-Younger Gang supposedly pulled off a robbery during the 19th century. Is there a real-life model for that town site somewhere?
It’s a fictional town and basically a fusion of places in the James-Younger Gang’s Missouri haunts. It gave me a Wild West flavor for the atavistic Storme character. A movie set is a hell of a place to put Wyatt Storme. He’s a man who shuns fame interacting with people seeking fame, and that makes for tension in every scene.
And it seems appropriate that your heroes should be involved with a Western movie, since they’re more or less latter-day cowboys.
Exactly….They are iconoclastic throwbacks—Storme to the Old West, and Easton is a product of the Cold War. Storme has a classic Mustang and in the earlier novels he had a Bronco (updated to a Jeep in Storme Warning). He was a Dallas Cowboy and dubbed “the fastest hands in the West” by sportswriters.
The relationship between Storme and his girlfriend, TV personality Sandra Collingsworth, is coming to a head in Storme Warning. After years of shooting segments for FOX-TV’s Fox and Friends morning program, that network is interested in moving her up to a higher-visibility midday slot. But this means Sandy will have to relocate to New York City—a place Storme doesn’t want to live. What did you originally see as Sandy’s contribution to this series, and where do you imagine their relationship taking them in the future?
Ironically, I killed off Sandra in the first draft I submitted to my editor of Electric Country Roulette, but by that time she was so popular that my editor thought I’d lost my mind. I had to rewrite a major part of that book and keep her alive.
Sandy grounds Storme in the realities of the 21st century and like Chick prevents him from becoming a hermit, which is Storme’s proclivity. I’ve had many female readers, especially my relatives, ask about her. “Are they going to get married?” “They have to get married.” “Why are you teasing us with Sandy?”
The Storme novels are testosterone-charged, so Sandy brings in a softer character who is an equal to Storme and Easton in intelligence and attitude, and brings the flavor of grace and charm to the books. My female audience likes her so she stays, I guess…for now that is. In future novels, Sandy will bring Storme into a world where he is a fish out of water, but I don’t want her to become Lois Lane.
Is Storme Warning a recently penned work, or is it something you produced in the 1990s but couldn’t sell in those days?
It is a recent work. There was a germ of Storme Warning back then, which I had entitled To Kill a Cowboy, but it is Wind Storme, the fifth Storme book I’m working on presently for Brash Books, that I was writing to submit in the ’90s. I’m now changing, updating and revising Wind Storme. It is hardly the same book.
Can you say a bit about the plot of Wind Storme?
Sure. Storme goes to Texas to visit Murphy Chandler, his old quarterback and friend from their playing days with the Dallas Cowboys. Murphy Chandler, I believe, is one of the most intriguing and humorous characters I have written in many years. Chandler asks him to look into a problem he’s having with cattle rustlers, which evolves into illegal worker smuggling, money laundering and a hit-and-run incident Chandler has had hovering over him like a dark cloud. When Storme starts to probe and asks questions, he is threatened, shot at, lied to and soon learns he is up against some vicious characters, one of whom is a former teammate who never liked Storme, who will not hesitate to cancel him out. Storme enlists the help of his buddy Chick Easton to come to the rescue.