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Matthew Sullivan talked about writing “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” to a room filled with readers at Littleton’s Bemis Library on Jan. 12. He was a prize-winner for his short stories, but this was his first full-length book. He laughed as he said “I worked for years on this book — and ended up at 600 pages!” His editor suggested he might cut 200 or so, and “That’s when pieces began to click together.” The final product weighs in at a fast-paced 328! A paperback edition has just come out and the mystery is published internationally.
Sullivan grew up in Aurora with seven brothers and sisters, and recalls watching out the school windows from St. Therese’s, where he could see action on Colfax Avenue. The colorful Denver street is almost an additional character in the story. There was a still-unsolved murder committed near where the family lived that served as a starting point for his story, which centers around bookish Lydia Smith. She works at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver — and empathizes with the marginal people who drift into an inviting store that makes them feel comfortable.
He tried to write about customers as Lydia would see them, “a story about my Colorado.” He also live in Buena Vista for a while — perhaps related to the fictional Rio Vista in his story.
After attending college at the University of San Francisco, with a master’s from the University of Idaho, Sullivan said Colorado still feels like home, although he hasn’t lived here for 20 years. He currently lives in rural Washington’s high desert with his wife, a librarian, and two children and teaches at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.
He teaches about mystery writing: “The Mystery Story in Literature,” and tries hard to find texts his rural students will relate to. About writing mysteries, he cites early patterns: Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” horror types, detectives like Sherlock Holmes, victims, with not fully realized human personalities. (We don’t feel so bad about them.) Not much humanity — the intention is to get the plot moving! After World War II, “the victim becomes more likable…” For his book, Sullivan wanted to focus on character and indeed does develop a number of very different types and ages who live and work in Denver — including some who read — and one who kills.
The Bright Ideas Bookstore is modeled after the LoDo Tattered Cover, where Sullivan once worked — a multi-storied turn-of-the-century building with hundreds of volumes on all subjects, big comfortable chairs, nooks and crannies and an assortment of regulars who hung out there. (Sullivan also worked at a similar independent bookstore in Boston.) “It’s a homage to that time and to independent bookstores generally and the people who were curious and passionate about outside worlds.”
One night at closing time, bookseller Lydia finds her favorite loner type, Joey, has committed suicide on the top floor, after she has heard books falling from shelves ... She later learns he has bequeathed his meager belongings to her, including books with curious letters carved out. As she tries to figure out his messages and learn about his past, her own difficult, violent childhood comes back to her and there’s another mystery to solve. We meet her school friends Raj and Carol — each with a family story that eventually connects through clever plotting by Sullivan. Lydia gradually works through various situations to various resolutions.
Sullivan read from his book about Lydia, who had a reasonably happy childhood, with school and afternoon time with her librarian father after a stop at the doughnut shop — until it came to an abrupt halt when she was 10 … and witnessed a murder … her father moved her to the mountains, trying to disappear … why?
Joey is described as “a haunted but harmless dust bunny wandering about the store …” Sullivan’s story here about how Lydia finally managed to decipher Joey’s messages to her is classic detective work. And, unlike some books, this one manages some resolutions in a satisfying manner.
Naturally, someone in Sullivan’s audience asked: “What’s next?” He’s contemplated developing a story around Moberg, the aging detective in this book, who worked on the Aurora murder, without solving it …
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