Home ANS Feature Mystery and Murder: Keith McCafferty on Life and Writing (And a little on Ernest Hemingway for Good Measure)

Mystery and Murder: Keith McCafferty on Life and Writing (And a little on Ernest Hemingway for Good Measure)

by Brian Nixon

 By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service


KeithMcCaffertyFlyFishingALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – July 16, 2017) — Ok, I admit it: I’m a softy for a good mystery novel. Since I was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes as a kid and then to Agatha Christie’s assorted characters (largely through BBC broadcasts on PBS), my enjoyment of the mystery genre has been with me for years, growing more pleasing as I get older.


Yeah, I’m familiar with the opinion of some regarding reading fiction as a “waste of time.” But the “waste of time” isn’t true. Cognitive scientists point out that reading — in any genre — is good for the brain [1]. I liken reading to brain training or practicing a musical instrument; it helps improve intelligence and sharpen our senses. The bottom line: reading is both relaxing and refining.


That said: the question is what type of mystery books do I read? Beyond the British-variety (Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Sidney Chambers), I tend to gravitate towards mystery writers whose writing is regional in content. And since I live in the mountain region of the Southwest, my mystery reading pursuits points to the Rocky Mountains.


I’ve settled on a few authors that represent the Rocky Mountain region well. These include:


New Mexico: Tony Hillmerman, Aimee and David Thurlo, J. Michael Orenduff, Michael McGarrity, and Robert Kidera, to name just a few.


Moving up the mountain region, there’s more. In Colorado, I’m partial to John Dunning and his Cliff Janeway mysteries. In Wyoming, there’s Craig Johnson and C.J Box. But then something happened: once I hit Montana my knowledge of mystery writers stopped.


Were there any notable mystery writers in the Gold and Silver state, someone that captured the big sky country with skill and an eye to the nuances of the land?


The answer is yes. But I discovered this just recently. As I opened an issue of Outside Magazine, I read an article on mystery writers who have a penchant for blending mystery with nature. Three writers were highlighted: Erick Stoery, Keith McCafferty, and Linda Greenlaw. The author of the article in Outside Magazine — Jon Billman — gave Keith McCafferty rave reviews [2].


handmadefliesuseSo like any mystery buff, I ordered McCafferty’s first book in the series — The Royal Wulff Murder. The novel follows painter-private detective-fisherman, Sean Stranahan, on an adventure to uncover the murder of a man found in a river with a Royal Wulff fly attached to his lip. I enjoyed the book, particularly its modern take on the west and deep knowledge of fly-fishing, a sport I enjoy but am not good at. And after meeting Keith McCafferty — at a recent lecture in Albuquerque, New Mexico to promote his book Cold Hearted River — I’m even a bigger admirer of the man as a great storyteller.


McCafferty began his time at Bookworks by showing pictures of his travels as a Field and Stream magazine editor and handing out — a show and tell type thing — some fly’s he recently made. And then he did the unexpected: he handed out cookies. And they were darn good.


McCafferty briefly mentioned his work as a wild bird rescuer, his love of cats, and his time as a crime reporter in Bakersfield, California.


But it was with his story of his first visit to New Mexico to write an article for Field and Stream of a man who captured mountain lions without shooting them, that McCafferty’s story telling talents were on full display. Apparently, the man named Orville would climb up trees and rope the mountain lion. No joke. McCafferty had us hooked with his story.


McCafferty moved on to discuss how his love of nature grew. While growing up in the Appalachian hills of Ohio in the 1950’s, McCafferty was exposed to the natural world on a daily basis. As a child McCafferty remembers that he and a friend, Marty, were outside when Marty screamed “copperhead,” pointing to a snake. It turned out that it wasn’t’ a copperhead snake but a garter snake. Thus began McCafferty love of snakes and a fascination with the natural world. Keith later learned all the species of snakes, including the Latin names.


McCafferty’s love of mystery books began — like so many people — with Sherlock Homes. But it was on a family vacation while driving a Volkswagen across the country when the VW broke down in Denver that McCafferty determined he’d be a writer. The mechanic needed three days to fix the car. So McCafferty’s mom brought him to the public library. It was there McCafferty read chapters from nature writer James Edward Corbett’s books. From that point on McCafferty wanted to be an author.


With his love of nature and his yearning to be a writer in tow, it seemed logical to want to write for an outdoor publication. But this is not where he began his writing career.


McCafferty began his writing career as crime reporter in California, where he met his wife Gail (now an education reporter in Montana). But McCafferty’s goal was to write for Field and Stream magazine like A.J McLane. According to McCafferty, McClane was a “legend. He could cast a fly line with his hand.” Sadly, Mclean died before they met.


coldheartedrivefrontcoveruseMcCafferty eventually worked for Field and Stream, becoming the Survival and Outdoor Skills editor. And according to McCafferty, he’s written between 1,500-2,00 articles for the esteemed magazine, saying, “Before there was Bear Grylls, there was me.”


But it was during one of his assignments that his thoughts turned towards novels. “I was placed on a mountain for four nights. I lived in a hut. It was cold. It was harsh. I determined that I was too old to be the survival editor. I stared to write the novel in my mind. The Royal Wulff Murders was birthed.”


Over the next few years Keith continued writing articles, all the while working slowly on the novel. He was a finalist for one of his articles with Field and Stream, having to travel to New York for the awards assembly held at the Lincoln Center, Martha Stewart presenting. It just so happened that a publisher was across the street from the Lincoln Center. Contact was made with an editor, a bite on the novel’s line ensued.


Seven books later, McCafferty has taken his character Sean Stranahan (the name was chosen because McCafferty used Sean Stranahan as a pseudonym during his college days) all over the world. McCafferty won the coveted Spur Award for Crazy Mountain Kiss in 2016. Even Oprah Winfield has gotten on the McCafferty train, choosing The Gray Ghost Murders for her book club [2].


But it’s his newest novel Cold Hearted River that’s garnering attention with its connection to Ernest Hemingway. Penguin Publishers describes the book as follows: “When a woman goes missing in a spring snowstorm and is found dead in a bear’s den, Sheriff Martha Ettinger reunites with her once-again lover Sean Stranahan to investigate. In a pannier of the dead woman’s horse, they find a wallet of old trout flies, the leather engraved with the initials EH. Only a few days before, Patrick Willoughby, the president of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club, had been approached by a man selling fishing gear that he claimed once belonged to Ernest Hemingway. A coincidence? Sean doesn’t think so, and he soon finds himself on the trail of a stolen trunk rumored to contain not only the famous writer’s valuable fly-fishing gear but priceless pages of unpublished work.


The investigation will take Sean through extraordinary chapters in Hemingway’s life. Inspired by a true story, Cold Hearted River is a thrilling adventure, moving from Montana to Michigan, where a woman grapples with the secrets in her heart, to a cabin in Wyoming under the Froze To Death Plateau, and finally to the ruins in Havana, where an old man struggles to complete his life’s mission one true sentence at a time.”


McCafferty told us about the how he came to write the book. It began on a fishing excursion with Ernest’s son, Jack. Along with McCafferty, Jack was a fishing editor for Field and Stream and was “a steelhead bum. He lived to fish.” While on the Thompson River in British Columbia, the Graveyard Run, McCafferty helped Jack “handle a fish.” McCafferty asked Jack about Ernest: “Would your dad enjoy a day like this?” After sharing some insight into Ernest, Jack let McCafferty “know about Ernest’s lost fishing equipment, and how Ernest’s love of river fishing subsided after the equipment loss.”


HemingwayIdaho1McCafferty retold the story of how Ernest’s tackle equipment was misplaced — or stolen, saying, “The tackle was lost on the railway express, traveling by train from Miami. Ernest had just purchased a home in Ketchum, Idaho. He was living with Martha at that time, going through an acrimonious divorce from Pauline. When the fishing equipment was lost Ernest felt it was a major tragedy in his life. Ernest basically lost all interest in fishing after that.” And though Hemingway lost an interest in fishing, his writing didn’t suffer while living in Idaho. He worked on his novels For Whom the Bell Tolls and Islands in the Stream, and his memoirs A Moveable Feast. According to McCafferty, this period of Hemingway’s life was “very productive,” being “one of the least documented periods of Hemmingway’s career.”


Concerning the connection of the lost tackle to Cold Hearted River, McCafferty stated, “My wife heard about a man who was giving Hemingway tours in Idaho. My wife wanted to write a story about the Hemmingway’s connection to the region. I went to help her research. We rented a cabin and began the inquiry. My wife suggested that I weave some of the research into my book. My mind went back to my fishing trip with Jack. But I couldn’t remember what was in the tackle box. So I went to Ernest’s secretary, Valarie, who was Ernest’s son, Greg’s, wife. Valarie was Ernest’s confidant for about nineteen months prior to Ernest’s death. She didn’t remember the story. So I ended up meeting with Ernest’s second son, Patrick Hemmingway. Patrick remembered the incident. Patrick recalled sitting down with his dad ordering equipment from the Hardy Brothers catalog, a famous fishing publication out of England. Patrick remembers helping translate pounds to dollars. I knew I was on firm ground with my book after meeting with Patrick. This is the story I weave in Cold Hearted River.”


McCafferty ended his hour discussion with insight into how he writes his novels, stating, “Writing novels can be an isolating and lonely experience. As a crime reporter, I knew the city and was up on all the stories, engaged with the community. But as a novelist, I seldom talk to people. So I end up writing in the seat of my car, at a coffee shop, or by a river.”


In a question and answer time, McCafferty was asked if he outlines his novels. “No, I don’t. I write them as I go, from start to finish. My friend C..J. Box outlines his stories, and if he ever gets stumped, he turns to his outline. I can’t write like that. I prefer to write the novels in the order they’re read.”


TheGrayGhostMurdersAnd with a question on how long it takes to write the novels, McCafferty stated, “I had my whole life to write the first book. But by the second book, it became harder. There were deadlines, expectations, and pressure from the publisher. The second book took about sixteen months to write. By the third book, I was averaging between eight to nine months.”


When asked which book was his favorite, he mentioned the often-used quote, “The one I’m working on now.” But said that his second novel The Gray Ghost Murder was memorable because he was “caring for wild birds as he wrote it, feeding them back to life.”


Maybe that’s why we read murder mysteries; they help us remember the importance of life. And Keith McCafferty’s stories about life and death are as good as any murder mystery writer out there, be it from the Rocky Mountain region or beyond; they are worth the time and attention, told by an expert storyteller and a fascinating human being.


To learn more about Keith McCafferty, click here: https:keithmccafferty.com/  


1) https://www.realsimple.com/health/preventative-health/benefits-of-reading-real-books 


2) https://www.outsideonline.com/2195121/summer-sherlocks 


3) http://www.oprah.com/book/Mystery-The-Gray-Ghost-Murders?editors_pick_id=45526 


Photo captions: 1) Keith McCafferty fly fishing. 2) McCafferty handmade flys. 3) Cold Hearted River. 4) Hemingway in Idaho with son. 5) The Gray Ghost Murders. 6) Brian Nixon.


Brian NixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon 


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