In a town a lot like Memphis, Tennessee, Baker Davis, private investigator, is having a tough time. His license has been suspended and he's under suspicion after the money in a drug ring that Davis helped bust goes missing. Plus the rent on his second-floor office inside a downtown building known as McDermott Center is due.
On the 20th floor of that same building, lawyer Richard McDermott, Esquire is having cash-flow problems too. So is the bank on the ground floor, which has obligations to its investors.
More money problems: McDermott’s half-sister, Gloria ... she’s just discovered that Orion Pallet Company is close to bankruptcy, and the head of the company, Karl Orion (Gloria’s much older husband), knows why. He’s been paying a woman named Mira Ogilvy $20,000 per month for several years.
Mira has it worst. She’s been murdered, her body discovered in a weed-infested lot in a neighborhood called Sloetown, “where bad news is no surprise.” It’s a crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhood not far from the big river in this unnamed city.
Cheryl Lester lives in that neighborhood, and she’s doing her best (waitressing by day; schooling by night) to take care of her younger brother and her baby girl. But then she meets Richard McDermott. Baker Davis meets Gloria Orion. And readers of Twenty Grand, a debut novel by Memphian Austin McLellan, will eventually learn what the checks for 20 grand every month and signed by Karl Orion are all about.
“I think all the characters love in their own way, though I don't name it as such,” McLellan said of the men and women in Twenty Grand.
“It's never obvious. Sometimes they’re hot and passionate, sometimes loyal and strong, sometimes desperate and manipulative. A few times they're just a little drunk. As they say, it's complicated. But no, this is hardly The Bachelorette. I wanted to write about people overcoming adversity; characters struggling with poverty, grief, violence, and desire.”
He might have also mentioned guilt.
Who is Austin McLellan and what prompted him to write Twenty Grand? According to the author (who’s been published on the Akashic Books website and in small reviews; his play, King Henry, Mayor, was finalist in the 2014 Tennessee Williams Play Contest):
“The characters, their speech, the sights and sounds in the novel have crowded my mind for a long time. The plot developed itself, so to speak, though I always planned to use suspense to drive the action. But I was never sure how the story was going to end until the characters 'told' me. During revisions, I worked hard to leave myself open to surprises, discoveries.”
McLellan’s life has had its own share of twists and turns.
He earned a degree in philosophy from Rhodes College, a master’s in literature from the University of Memphis, and taught English and writing at the university level both here and abroad. He once operated an art gallery, sold used cars, and today works in real estate. Memphis, where McLellan has lived most of his life, helped inspire Twenty Grand.
“I simply wanted a broader appeal,” McLellan said of his decision to leave the city in the novel unnamed. “Others have captured the local vibe better than I can. But sure, any Memphian will instantly recognize a few scenes. (The cover photograph was taken on Mulberry Street, a few steps from the front door of the Lorraine Motel.) I think Twenty Grand could happen in any major Southern city — Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville.”
What about any major non-Southern city? Seattle, say, or Boston? In the words of Austin McLellan, “No, maybe not.” •
Twenty Grand is available at the Booksellers at Laurelwood, at South Main Book Juggler (548 S. Main), and on Kindle. Austin McLellan will be reading from and signing Twenty Grand at Book Juggler on Saturday, June 6th, at 1 p.m. For more information on the signing, call the store at 249-5370.