Interview with Jim Musgrave
English Majors Publishers (2013)
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (7/13)
Article first published as Interview: Jim Musgrave, Author of ‘Disappearance at Mount Sinai’ on Blogcritics.
What makes an author go insane? Well, when you combine his coming from the horror genre and then mixing with a bunch of ne’er-do-well steampunk writers over at Steampunk Writers and Artists Guild, you get what you pay for. Sure, Musgrave’s been awarded with accolades for his fiction (Bram Stoker Award Finalist, Heekin Foundation Award Finalist, blah, blah, blah). And sure enough, he taught college writing for over twenty-four years, and he loves all that literary stuff, but his new love of Steampunk has made him into a deviant.
If you read the first three mysteries in the Pat O’Malley Steampunk Mystery series, you will see why this once responsible and upright teacher was lured over to the “dark side.” Just as his protagonist (also a military veteran) was lured by the death of his employer, Edgar Allan Poe, to search out a serial killer and murderer, Jim Musgrave has been lured out of a cushy teacher’s retirement (ha, ha) to pursue the devilish enterprise of featuring steampunk artists in his work and on his interactive web site! How crazy can this man be? What will become of Patrick James O’Malley, the sleuth in this series?
Here’s what Steampunk philanderer and Tea Dueling Champion, Kurt Khave, has to say about this Musgrave gentleman:
“Jim Musgrave maintains his high level of detail, era-specific description, and narrative style as he makes a seamless transition from historical mystery to a world of ever-increasing supernatural and steampunk wonders. The dystopian powers of tomorrow have come crashing back in time and landed squarely on top of Pat O’Malley. How will our beleaguered hero fare against these occult forces and their fantastic machinery?”
Tyler: Welcome, Jim, and what a great introduction for you. I’m pleased you could join me today for this interview. I understand “Disappearance at Mount Sinai” is the second book in the Pat O’Malley Historical Mystery series, so for beginners, will you tell us a little about your detective, Pat O’Malley?
Jim: Thanks, Tyler. It’s great to be here. Patrick James O’Malley, 35, came with his father, Robert, and his brother, Timothy, to New York City from their home in Kilkenny, Ireland in the 1840s. Kathleen, the mother, died in the famine. O’Malley, like many of the poor Irish, served in the Union Army as a stand-in for a wealthy stock broker, so he could get an extra paycheck for his family back home. After fighting alongside General William T. Sherman, as his orderly, O’Malley saved the general’s life and was awarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor as a result. This medal was all he had when he came back to New York to live in 1865, but he was able to get lodging at the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage out on Fordham Road in the Bronx. O’Malley had served as Poe’s manuscript messenger before the war, and his veteran’s status and connection to the Poe estate gave him free lodging for a year. This is where O’Malley’s life as a detective begins. He is visited by an apparition of his former employer, Poe, and O’Malley subsequently discovers a strange note affixed to the headboard in the bed where Poe’s tuberculin wife, Virginia, had died. O’Malley decides to prove that Poe did not die a drunk in Baltimore, 1849, but, instead, was murdered. O’Malley’s gifts of intelligence, valor and humor get him through a lot of difficult challenges in this series. He is infused with a new-found ability of intuition thanks to his war-time friend and confidante, Rebecca Charming Jones.
Tyler: Do you see “Disappearance at Mount Sinai” as a sequel to the first book or can readers read it without reading the first?
Jim: Tyler, I would say it can be read as a stand-alone, unless you’re the type of reader that hates any references being made by characters that you don’t completely understand. If that’s the case, then I would suggest reading “Forevermore,” the first novel, first.
Tyler: I understand for this new case that Pat O’Malley returns to the South. How does he first get involved in the case?
Jim: The main conflict is the anti-Semitic, world-wide movement that takes hold in the Reconstruction South of President Andrew Johnson. O’Malley must travel down there to find the kidnapped Dr. Mergenthaler because he suspects they’re using him for nefarious purposes. O’Malley has reason to believe the anti-Semitic push goes to the very top of the Johnson Administration, including General U. S. Grant and his own former boss, General Sherman.
Tyler: What kind of “nefarious purposes” does he suspect?
Jim: I actually did research into the letters of Johnson, Grant and Sherman and discovered some brutal facts about their anti-Semitic beliefs. This led me to my idea for the “nefarious purposes” in my novel. What if Johnson were suspected of being behind a group of international racists? Readers need to read the book to find out if he was or not.
Tyler: What made you decide to write a mystery revolving around anti-Semitism, and what kind of research did you do about anti-Semitism in this period in history?
Jim: My wife, who is Jewish and from New York City, gave me the idea about showing the issue of anti-Semitism following the Civil War. I was intrigued, so I began doing research and I came up with a plot that featured a kidnapping that takes place inside the Mount Sinai Hospital in December, 1866. The victim is the wealthiest man in the United States, Dr. Arthur Mergenthaler, who also happens to be a Jewish autistic savant (those terms were not known in the 1800s). The sub-plot involves my Detective Pat O’Malley’s father, Robert, and his anti-Semitism and racism, and how he learns acceptance of other cultures and races.
Tyler: Can you tell us what is the significance of Mount Sinai in the book’s title?
Jim: On a literal level, Mount Sinai is the hospital where the kidnapping takes place, and although it took in people injured during the Draft Riots, it was a segregated hospital for only Jews. On a symbolic level, it symbolizes the hope that any minority has to gain civil liberty and equal rights. On a religious level, it is the mountain where Yahweh appeared to Moses and the Jews.
Tyler: Tell us about the Jewish father and his eight-year-old son, Seth, at the crux of the investigation. I understand there’s something very special about them.
Jim: Arthur is an eccentric inventor from Germany who is also what we today call an “autistic savant.” He believes he and his son are “mazikeen,” which are supernatural beings from Jewish folklore. Among their special skills are the ability to shape-shift into other people and animals, disappear, see into the future and even fly. However, since they are only half-angel, they must die like humans. This fact plays an important part in the mystery of the disappearance of Arthur at the Mount Sinai Hospital.
Tyler: Jim, you mentioned Pat O’Malley’s war-time friend and confidante, Rebecca Charming Jones earlier, and how she helps him be intuitive. Can you tell us a bit more about her and their relationship and how he becomes intuitive because of her?
Jim: She’s a Vassar College grad, and she knows the Transcendentalists and their concept of the Oversoul. She tells O’Malley he must see the connections of symbols to the world of crime detection and how they can be hidden gems of connectivity to clues needed to solve crimes. Even though they might not, at first, be cause and effect related, with the application of intuition and dreams, O’Malley can see how these symbols can be relevant.
Tyler: I don’t want to give away too much else of the plot, but what else about the novel can you share with us that you think readers will find intriguing?
Jim: The sub-plot involves Patrick O’Malley’s father, Robert. At the start of the second mystery, “Disappearance at Mount Sinai,” Robert is a lonely widower who is bigoted and cut-off from the rest of the world. He believes the code of “Irish first” in Five Points is the proper morality, until his son, Patrick, and Becky Charming, get him involved in a case that involves confronting his prejudices directly. This becomes the sub-plot of the novel, as the trio go together to attempt the rescue of the wealthiest man in America, Jewish inventor and philanthropist, Dr. Arthur David Mergenthaler. As a result of his experiences down south with his son, Robert becomes more community minded and is elected alderman for his Five Points neighborhood.
Tyler: I’m a student of nineteenth century literature myself and know the first detective novels really started to be written right about the time of the Civil War, so I’m curious what makes you so interested in the nineteenth century and detectives of this period?
Jim: Edgar Allan Poe and his mysteries actually inspired my sleuth, O’Malley, to become a detective. Specifically, Poe’s story “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” figures prominently in my first mystery novel. Patrick O’Malley wants to be a detective worthy of Poe’s sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin. Therefore, the history of the detective story plays an important part in my research.
Tyler: Jim, I also know you’re a big fan of “steampunk” literature and have written other books on that topic. What “steampunk” aspects are in “Disappearance at Mount Sinai” and will you share a little about steampunk with us and why you find it intriguing?
Jim: When I decided to thrust my detective sleuth from the 1860s in New York City into the world of steampunk, I was being subconsciously prodded by authors like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon. Patrick James O’Malley, my hero, needed to be shaken to his roots. What better way is there for an author to give his main character some SciFi credibility than to use the steampunk genre?
After reading Beth Daniels’ excellent book “Writing Steampunk,” I was all fired up! I had been searching for such a genre of story-telling all my life. It had its literary roots in the world of the absurd as well as the science fiction classics of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In addition, the mysterious world of Edgar Allan Poe was the gothic inspiration for many steampunk tales. Daniels’ book, along with the “world of steampunk” on the many Facebook group pages, had me mesmerized with wonder at the possibilities of creating an entirely new world for my O’Malley to explore.
The Jewish folklore of my wife crept into my subconscious, and up popped the characters of Arthur Daniel Mergenthaler and his son, Seth. They are at the crux of this second mystery, and I suppose O’Malley was being led into the steampunk world by them, even though O’Malley’s mind does not want to accept this absurd notion that Mazikeen are real. Who would?
Even in the 1860s, supernatural beings who are half-angel and half-human, who can shape-shift and disappear, were not easily accepted in the world of criminal investigation. O’Malley is able to solve his kidnapping mystery because he does believe, somewhat, in the reality of Seth’s “disappearing act,” but it would not be until my third mystery in the series, “Jane the Grabber,” that the full force of Seth’s supernatural abilities would come to the fore.
Tyler: Are you able to tell us just what the steampunk element is in the book—is it related to the Jewish folklore? Or is that giving too much away?
Jim: The steampunk element is the use of the supernatural “mazikeen” and the way O’Malley is being led into his new ability to think using the dream world of “intuition.”
Tyler: What’s next, Jim? Will there be more Pat O’Malley historical mysteries?
Jim: Yes, I’m now beginning the fifth novel in the series. It’s called “Manifest Trickery,” and in this one the Steam City Pirates led by the robot from the future, Abraham Toky Manette, has a new scam whereby he’s sending New York citizens on missions to other parallel universes under the guise of populating the “Wild West.”
I’m also working on completing (I’m now half-way finished) the first comic book in the series based on the novel “Forevermore.” My artist, Vali Lancea, is quite talented, and readers interested in seeing how he creates this comic can visit my web site at www.contempinstruct.com/Forevermore
Tyler: Thank you again, Jim, for the interesting interview. I know you have a lot of information at your web site about all of your books, so I’m sure our readers will find it interesting. Best of luck with continuing the growth of your series in its many forms.