Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Nelson DeMille

Let me state the obvious: there is no song lyric about Spencerville, at least that I’m aware of. And so I find myself stretching to make a completely unrelated burg serve as a stand-in so I can maintain a conceit about post titles.

Well, I had to fail sometime. And since none of this has anything to do with this past summer’s light reading we’ll just move along.

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes send my brain to vacation in the bestseller aisle.  Often-enough, I find myself choosing from among a half dozen or so storytellers who I trust can move me along and keep me interested. I number Nelson DeMille among that group and haven’t been disappointed.

Until now.

Lon Island's own Nelson Demille

Long Island’s own
Nelson Demille

Aspiring novelists are often told to write what they know. That probably explains the abundance of literary fiction set in and around college towns since being a literary novelist is now a profession and there’s a graduate degree for that. Popular novelists, especially ones that write about crime, have a lot more latitude.

Still, as I’ve noted before, they tend to stick close to ground they know well. (James Michener, with those millenia- and eon-spanning historical tales, may be the exception to the rule.)

I had thought DeMille was firmly in that camp since everything I’d read by him was set on the East Coast or, in one instance, Vietnam. The latter location was easily explained by the fact that DeMille’s official biography always mention his service in country during that war.

A recent picture of Spebcerville, Ohio (Psst, it's a real place)

A recent picture of Spencerville, Ohio
(Psst, it’s a real place)

So what are we doing in Ohio?

Because make no mistake about it, that’s where this novel is mostly set. Oh it starts out in Washington, and there’s a brief return to DC in the middle of the tale, but mostly we’re in the Northwest Territory.

I have nothing against the Midwest. There was a time, when my life was falling apart, that I could manufacture meetings in Wisconsin as needed and I did. You haven’t lived until you’ve finished a fine meal in late August eating just-baked Door County cherry pie on a back porch as the day dwindles. And I was sitting on the edge of a wheat field in central Illinois bathing in the warm, yellow Septmber light that exists nowhere else only a week before my daughter was born.

There’s just one thing that the Midwest doesn’t have and that’s wiseacres. I’m being polite because back here in the New York metro area well know what our preferred second syllable would be for that word.


Bowling Green State University
A locale that figures in the background in the present tale.

Yet that’s why I read DeMille. His best heroes–John Cory, John Sutter, Paul Brenner, Tony Abrams–are all based on the archetypal New York beat copy who is smarter than the system and can’t help mouthing off. I can assure you from personal experience, mouthing off is considered impolite west of the Alleghenies. DeMille must have noticed the same thing since there’s little of it in this book.

Spencerville is a tale of love gone wrong made right. Keith Landry, a veteran of Cold War intrigue, has returned home to rural Ohio, a place he left to fight in Vietnam some 25 years earlier. The world has changed, Keith has changed but, somehow, Ohio hasn’t…well, not much. And one thing that hasn’t changed is that his one true love, Annie Prentiss still lives there.

Their romance started in high school, as it should in a good Ohio tale. And it took them through college after which Keith moved on to war, both hot and cold, and Annie returned home. She is now married to the town’s  police chief.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of GisbourneIf Sir Guy were certifiable he'd be the model for Spencerville's Chief of Police

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne
If Sir Guy were certifiable he’d be the model for Spencerville’s Chief of Police

It would be idyllic if that chief were not a sociopath. A candidate for the  guy-carrying-the-most-grduges-since-High-School award, the Chief runs the town like a mad barony, exercising terror and a twisted version of the droit de seigneur He’s also got a vaguely homoerotic thing going on.

You can see where this love traingle gone wrong is headed. Reconciliation, recrimination, romance rekindled and a whole lot of other things that don’t begin with ‘r’ ensue. There is the obligatory climactic battle which breaks some new ground, at least for this reader who, admittedly, is not up to date on snuff/bdsm literature.

One last note. The midwest is easy to caricature, perhaps too easy. So I took Spencerville to be an everytown. It wasn’t until I went looking for the book image in this post that I discovered it’s a real place, population 2,223. From the looks of it DeMille has done a thorough job of describing it

But by the last page I had the same feeling I always get in Wisconsin or Illinois or Ohio: time to get back to New York.





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