Off the Grid

Brinker has lost his magic. The agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail.

If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.

Throw in toxic waste, a nude car wash and a gun-toting presidential candidate and the czar of PR will have to spin some potent magic to escape the snare of sex, lies and greed that threatens to destroy his job, his sanity and the love of his life.

Brinker does so in Mr. Magic, the second in the series of crime novels starring the defrocked journalist. Mr. Magic plays out in the post-industrial snowbelt of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, an area I know well after working there in marketing for a decade. While Brinker vows to give up drugs and violence, he’s pulled into the netherworld of forced disappearances by a self-styled travel agent who helps clients vanish in places like Fukushima, Chernobyl and the deserts of the American Southwest.

Published by Allusion Books, the novel is the sequel to Mr. Mayhem. Both books are available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere. They join the the novels in the CW McCoy series, Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise, that play out in the tony beach towns of Southwest Florida.

And be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

The nuclear reactors at Fukushima

The nuclear reactors at Fukushima

Return of the antihero

Brinker’s back. Can the advertising world survive?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]The antihero of last year’s Mr. Mayhem has lost his magic. The agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail.

If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.

Throw in toxic waste, a nude car wash and a gun-toting presidential candidate and the czar of PR will have to spin some potent magic to escape the snare of sex, lies and greed that threatens to destroy his job, his sanity and the love of his life.

In Mr. Magic, the ad world struggles to cope with the defrocked journalist famous for sex, satire and PR events that push the boundaries of legality and taste.

Published by Allusion Books, Mr. Magic is available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere. It is the sequel to Brinker’s debut novel Mr. Mayhem, a book Kirkus Reviews calls “eccentricity at its finest in a detective story, and proof that a flawed protagonist can still earn sympathy.”

And be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

Month of Magic

J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.

We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.

As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.

The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)

Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?

 

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

 

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

 

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

 

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

 

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

 

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

 

 

Month of Magic

J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.

We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.

As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.

The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)

Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

 

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

 

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

 

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

 

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

 

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Thinking Out Loud

I met Anna Quindlen at a video store in Snydersville, PA. We were feeding cassettes into the drop-off box. It was after hours and getting dark. I think I startled her. She used to live in New Jersey and was living in Cherry Valley, not far from my home, near Stroudsburg. Maybe she still lives there.

I worked for the local newspaper. She worked for the New York Times. I’d written a corporate history. She’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Now she writes novels with an eye a detective would envy.

millers-valley-coverMiller’s Valley is her latest book. At times the novel sounds like the saga of the Tocks Island Dam. At times it sounds universal, as if the flooding and evictions take place everywhere, all the time.

In a passage near the center of the book, the narrator, a high-school student named Mimi Miller, is talking to her brother Tommy, who’s just back from Vietnam.

“I didn’t know exactly what Tommy did with himself all day, but he was still in basic-training condition. All the other guys at the VFW had big bellies sloping over their belts. ‘Baby likes beer’ they would say, rubbing their midsections like a genie would show up and they would get three wishes.”

I wish I could write like Anna Quindlen. I wish I could see like Anna Quindlen.

Just thinking out loud.

Phil Woods rides again

This week, jazz musicians will honor one of the greatest alto saxophone players in memory, the late Phil Woods. This year’s Celebration of the Arts, the annual outdoor music festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., is dedicated to Phil, and his friends and admirers will gather tonight for a benefit concert to continue his legacy.

Forty-one years ago, I sat with Phil in his home in the Pocono Mountains for an interview published on Sept. 29, 1975 in The Pocono Record. He’d already played with the greats of jazz and two years later would conquer the world of pop music with his lyric solo for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

This is my contribution to his memory.

Phil WoodsPhil Woods is alive and well-known (in jazz circles) and living in your back yard.

The alto saxophonist has 30 records to his credit, a grant to compose a major work for sax and orchestra and a cool manner smoothed by years of roadwork with Count Basie and myriad jazz greats.

He lives in Delaware Water Gap in a modest white clapboard house with his lady Jill and at least five cats, composing his three-movement “Sun Suite” in front of a blackened stone fireplace in his vaulting living room.

He began writing the suite under a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts; it comes to fruition in October when Woods, his quartet and an orchestra tape it for RCA Records.

Like many musicians, artists and writing living in the Poconos, Woods’ work is known nationally and internationally, yet he camouflages himself here, lays back and enjoys the scenery for a month, then flies through Japan and Holland, touring jazz festivals or debuting a new work.

He left home (Springfield, Mass.) at 15, powered by Art Tatum and later Charlie Parker, jazz jingling in his blood, hauling a horn willed to him by his uncle. He hit the road with the Birdland All-Stars tour, petrified but hungry to learn with his heroes—Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell—riding the band bus and playing the southern Tobacco Warehouse circuit in the late ‘50s.

Living on the road out of a bus taught him about life, he feels. “There are still some big bands out there. But there’s no place for young people to get that experience, although the colleges have tried to replace that in a sense with the stage band situation. But that doesn’t teach you too much about life. That teaches you about the music, but not the invaluable things about living.

“You just keep your mouth shut and watch what the veterans do. I think that’s ideal, don’t you? Any man who’s been doing it five times as long as you have must have something to say.”

images-coverWoods has studied at both schools, trekking from Bach to bebop, from four years at Julliard through two decades of big bands and his own quartet. With a common twine called jazz running through his career, he has turned out eclectic potions like “Charity” on his 1973 album for Testament (“This is my boogaloo period.”) and “Images,” his latest LP for RCA with Michel Legrand and his orchestra.

His phrases are lithe, never overblown or dirty. He ranges from the cool (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) to the big and brassy to the sporadic. (The experimental sounds on the Testament album Woods said didn’t go over in a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley.)

Woods’ rather eclectic life seems to give his music its dynamics.

“I used to interview American jazz artists for a French magazine, a jazz magazine,” Woods said as he lit a cigarette and settle back in a chair in his living room.

That was during his 1968-72 stay in Paris, a trip Woods feels everyone should take. “It’s one of the most magnificent cities in the world. If you’re an artist, you owe it to yourself to go see it—why it’s different—so you can relate to what you have here. You need that contrast,” he said in a gravely baritone voice.

A musician before he found an instrument, Woods stumbled into the field. “I could whistle and make up a melody. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. I was totally frustrated, and it would just sound terrible.

© Garth Woods“But I remember the attraction. That’s the reason I got the saxophone, because my uncle died. And when I was evidently nine, ten or younger, I would go look at his sax. It just intrigued me, all that white—the pearl and the gold, you know. I just loved to touch it.”

He was hooked after one lesson, took a four-year crack at classical clarinet and composition (“I had dreams of perhaps playing Mozart but I found out that was not my road.”) and gravitated toward jazz.

With a photographic memory for a melody, Woods set out to imitate his heroes of the big band era. “I guess you have to imitate before you can stretch out. That’s how you learn how to play. Essentially you can’t teach jazz, but a great way to help a student learn how to play is to have him learn how to play different solos.”

That background and the awe Woods says he feels for the jazz greats who have survived the decades (“It’s easy to be a swinger when you’re 26; let me check you out when you’re 46.”) led him into his present brainchild, “Sun Suite.”

“It will be a piece that everybody will be able to play, hopefully. It is meant to be used—not just recorded once and discarded. Hopefully published and used in schools. I’m trying to construct it in such a way it can be played with almost any instrumentation.”

Lighting another cigarette, Woods described his round-the-world tour of jazz festivals, culminating with the recording of “Images” before the Concord Jazz Festival this year in California.

But can he describe in words what his music’s about?

“No. Only when I have a horn in my mouth.”

Month of Mayhem

Next week kicks off a Month of Mayhem, with a look at the places that shaped Brinker’s story in his debut crime novel Mr. Mayhem—all in preparation for the return of the defrocked journalist and PR whiz this fall in the sequel, Mr. Magic.

Brinker returns a kinder, gentler guy who draws inspiration from his girlfriend Carly, a mate he calls The Buddha and the landscapes of the Greater Lehigh Valley. But in the meantime, he’s still stalking the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Each day in August, visitors on social media view the scenes that inspired Brinker’s day job and his extracurricular work, as well as the ones that fueled his loves and addictions. Here’s a look at some of the sights that became models for the novel.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

 

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

 

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

 

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

 

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

 

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

 

Infamous intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., host to politicians and fatal accidents.

The intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., plays host to politicians and other fatalities.

 

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.

The locus of murder

In fiction, when does setting become a character? When does location move from background to foreground?

Readers from Pennsylvania to Florida have called out locales they recognize in both the CW McCoy and Brinker series of crime novels. Even with altered geography and names, those places seem to resonate like the voice of a friend.

As they did with me while doing research for Tourist in Paradise, Peak Season and Mr. Mayhem. Here, then, are some of the images that inspired the characters that inhabit those books. As well as the writer.

Sarasota marina, similar to one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

Sarasota marina, similar to the one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

 

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of models for DeSoto Park complex in “Tourist in Paradise”

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of the models for the massive DeSoto Park complex in Tourist in Paradise

 

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in “Peak Season”

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in Peak Season

 

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

 

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz, Delgado work

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz and Delgado work

 

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds second body in “Peak Season”

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds a second body in Peak Season

 

Key Breeze stands in for galley of Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop

Key Breeze stands in for the galley of the Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop in Tourist in Paradise

‘No More Dead Dogs’

“Did you kill off the dog?” my wife said as she read the chapter in Tourist in Paradise on Sugar Bear. My wife is a fan of Gordon’s Korman’s children’s book No More Dead Dogs and doesn’t truck with such nonsense.

“Yes,” I said, maybe regretting the decision to let her edit the manuscript. “Is that a bad thing?”

Sugar Bear feature photo 800x800Sugar Bear is the name of an American bulldog adopted by Susan Thompson in the second of the CW McCoy crime novels. I based the dog on the unofficial mascot of the Sarasota Sheriff Office’s Animal Services Center, a sweetheart that goes by the same name. The office let me photograph her during one of our classes in its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy.

The fictional Sugar Bear, who makes her debut a few chapters before the one my wife was editing, isn’t as mean spirited as some of the people coming after CW, her mentor Walter Bishop, his new friend, Lois, and Officer Chip Stover. But crime novels aren’t known for happy endings. So given my wife’s warning, I had a decision to make.

Was it the right one? The final paragraphs of Chapter 29 set up the outcome. I’ll let CW tell the story:

“Oh, my God,” Lois said. “Where’s Sugar Bear?”

“If she’s here,” Walter said, “the police would have found her.”

“Stover didn’t go through the house,” I said

“The fire crew has heat sensors,” Walter said.

Lois shook her head. “I heard them say they didn’t need them, that the neighbor said there was no one inside.”

I headed for the house.

“CW!” Walter yelled but I was already running across the shell-covered driveway, stamping through a watery scum of burned wood and sand, knocking aside the fence that circled the outdoor shower to let myself into the house through the back door.

Enough fiction. Let’s talk reality.

The Sarasota Animal Services Center is a class operation. Supervisor Tami Treadway, Volunteer Coordinator Kristen Little and staff are eager to match good people with pets that deserve good homes. If you want to see animals like Sugar Bear thrive, visit the shelter at 8451 Bee Ridge Road or the center’s website or call (941) 861-9500.

Tell them CW sent you.