Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Featured Author: Herbert L Smith


The Hog Ranch near Hillville, Iowa, is a notorious place. All kinds of illegal ‘business’ prospers there. It’s a known hideout for the criminal element, and its proximity to Omaha is a major plus for the goings-on inside – and outside as well. The sturdy old log structure sits along the shoreline of the Missouri River; that mighty waterway flows just steps outside the back door and provides a good place to dispose of dead bodies. Set in the middle of the 1950’s, the tale of Hurricane Kingdom – who seems (at first) a minor character in the entire scheme of things – twists and forks along the muddy trails of the riverbank behind the Hog Ranch with its gambling Cellar, gigantic barroom, and a well-populated House on the top floor.

The quiet and somewhat dull town of Hillville is nearby but also a world away, exactly as the town and the Ranch both want it to be. Guy LeFevere and Caleb Starfire, the men who shoulder the burdens of the Starfire Detective agency, share the responsibilities of policing the town as well as all of Bogger County with an inept, portly and rather absurd sheriff, Fred Baylor. It’s a mixed match-up, but despite all the fuming and fumbling of the dull-witted sheriff, the detectives prevail, and more often than not the criminal element is subdued or eventually rendered harmless – and sometimes actually imprisoned. Frequently, however, the criminals inflict their deadly punishments upon each other. The 1950’s shine through the novel and offer a fun-filled romp through Hillville and its environs, creating renewed memories for those who survived that time, and a lesson in human history for those who missed all the fun.


Herbert, please tell us about Hurricane Kingdom.

The books are filled with Iowa dialect and the foods of the area (as a recurring joke), as well as the colorful people. A blundering sheriff creates more conflict, and other citizens of Hillville present different perspectives of the idyllic life of the 50’s. There are several who seem sensible, but many of them are a little too zany for anybody’s good. Somehow the crimes do get solved, and peace – for  a short time at least – is restored. But Hillville was never quite the same after the enigmatic Guy LeFevre came to town. 

Hurricane Kingdom is part of The Starfire Mystery Series. There are four books in the group so far: The Eggstone Murders, Liquor is Quicker, Murder in the Library, and Hurricane Kingdom. They are all set in Southwest Iowa in the 1950’s, with Caleb Starfire and Guy LeFevre, two very dissimilar men, as the detectives.

Where are you from?
I grew up in Iowa – in Glenwood – the town I have renamed Hillville, and I know the sounds of the dialect and can talk the talk, but I left it behind when I was sixteen.

I’ve lived all over the world, North Africa and Qatar, Europe and Argentina, working as a teacher and linguist in various universities, and am now settled in Eugene, Oregon, where I’ve lived for the past ten years and where I started writing.

Eugene is pleasantly, verdantly green (a redundancy, I know) and after years of desert life, an essential change.

What's the most daring thing you've ever done?
Probably the most daring thing I’ve ever done was to get on the plane and go to Cairo. I wasn’t young – middle fifties then – but I was determined. I had a great new job in Egypt, although I didn’t know much about it yet, and to make it even more daring, I knew almost nothing about modern Egypt. I got what information I could and read it, but nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for the Adventure of a Lifetime. I came out of Egypt a different person, and I live as that person today. A part of my heart is still in Cairo.

Do you have a "day job?"

Along with my university work, I am an organist and pianist. I have had a second career (if I can call three of four working hours a week a career) for more than sixty years – I started in church music at age sixteen – and I have always considered the music as my voice to the world. That is, obviously, until I started writing, which became a second voice.

I retired from church music four years ago. I don’t exactly miss it because I volunteer as a pianist in the ‘Sounds of Healing’ program at a local hospital.

How did you meet your wife?
The story of how I met my wife is one of the best I know. And it’s all true. I met her at the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise. Not really at, but in - inside the prison.

I was a volunteer pianist at the prison for a few years while I was in college. I met the chaplain at a church where I was organist, and he asked me if I would be willing to drive over a couple of times a month to help out. The prison chapel met early, so I could get back for my regular job.

We met each Sunday in the little stone-walled guardroom where the armored entry door with an electronic locking system opened into the interior grounds. The first time I went inside, it seemed a little creepy. Tall stone walls – built in 1870 – surrounded the rectangular space, with guard towers at the four corners. There was a well-cared-for flower garden with three walkways through it that led to the cellblock buildings. The chapel was at the far end. There were no trees inside the prison.

The chaplain and his wife (she always attended the Sunday services there) walked ahead, I came behind, followed by two guards. We passed several men who were walking on the side paths, and they all waved and smiled, happy to see the chaplain and his visitors.

After a couple of months, I got used to the routine, and met with the choir to go through some of the music before the other men came in. I sat with the choir while I was there; we were on the main floor, with the chaplain and his entourage on a raised platform about six feet higher. Security.

Sometimes there were other visitors, and one Sunday, about two years after I had started playing there, a trio of young women form a college in Nampa came to sing. That was the place and the day that I met Glenda for the first time. We were married about three years later.

That is a great story! What brings you seer delight?
Probably the thing that brings me the most ‘sheer delight’ is clever conversation, filled with humor and wit. I love to talk to people – usually this is a one-to-one - who are intelligent and can articulate their thoughts easily. When that happens, everything seems to flow in an endless ribbon of meaningful talk, and if we both pick up the cues correctly, we can learn a lot from each other while having the time of our lives. It’s rare, but it does happen!

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Where could I live if I weren’t settled in Eugene? I often wonder about that. I love Cairo, and would have willingly retired there, but Glenda wouldn’t go back for any reason. She has no love for the place. Women, I will admit, are not treated well there. So I erased that from my go-to places.

Another place I love is Jerusalem, but I knew I couldn’t live there. Visas are difficult to get, and as a non-Hebrew they are nonexistent.

Glenda and I both love Paris, but the expense is far beyond what we could manage, and visas are a problem there too.

So we affirm our choice of Eugene, and are happy here. There are good restaurants, at least a few, and the classical music venue – The Hult Center – is excellent.

There are wonderful green tree-covered hills all around, and two rivers to add to the scene. The university with its immense library and other kinds of services is close, and if we want a large city, it’s just up the road.

I often think about all these things, and am satisfied that we made the best choice for retirement – in Eugene.

Is your book based on real life?
Hurricane Kingdom is based in reality. The Hog Ranch, a prominent place in the novel, is an actual place that was built in 1900, precisely for its gambling hall, brothel, and huge barroom. There was also a large horsetrack on the premises, and a large part of the business was illegal racing.

I discovered those facts in an online search. In less than thirty years, however, the place was closed – prohibition – and two farmers bought it and turned it into the Hog Ranch, a place where huge numbers of pigs came to be slaughtered.

I have a family connection with the agricultural use of the place. My parents lived there shortly after it was turned to hog farming, but my mother was afraid of the place due to its past reputation, so they left after only a few months. I heard stories about it as I grew up, and my take on it, with a slight change in the timing, came from what I heard.

What are you reading now?
A fascinating book I just finished reading (two days ago) is Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg. A scientist and a parrot discover a new world of animal intelligence and bond with each other at the same time. As a true tale, it is mind boggling.

Another book I am reading (it takes a long time to get through – over 1000 pages) is The October Horse, by Colleen McCoullough. This is one of her quartet, dealing with the ancient Romans, and I must say that Caesar and all the rest take on a living, breathing presence. I read the first two of the quartet about thirty years ago, and when I heard of McCoullough’s recent passing, I took on the rest. This is the last one.


Herb Smith, the author of eight books and counting, is a native of Glenwood, Iowa, the town that is the prototype for Hillville, which is featured in the Starfire Mystery Series. He has memories of people and events that stretch back to the 1940’s, and his memory is not only long, but detailed as well.

He has recreated the Iowa of his youth in the Starfire Mystery Series. (This is the third book in the series.) The stories are all set in the 1950’s, something of an American Golden Age, and the joys and struggles of life, along with the murders, are evident as the reader becomes ever more beguiled by that world.

Smith’s own life has included places far flung from Southwestern Iowa: Egypt and the Middle East, Argentina, Idaho, and even exotic central California, where he spent thirty five years (except for the time he was working outside the U. S.)

He is a musician – mostly church music – and has worked in all kinds of churches as organist, sometimes doubling as choir master as well. He also taught English as a Foreign Language in California Universities and other schools around the world. Currently, he lives the retired life in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, Glenda. Their daughter Melanie and her husband William live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Theirs is a small but closely linked family, and they spend holidays and many other times together. They don’t have dogs, but Pippa, the colossal cat, reigns unquestionably in her California home.
Smith’s future remains bright. A new series, called the Quest Samson Mystery Series (based in Eugene), is in the works, as well as other  unusual but interesting book projects, and he is considering some musical compositions that will add to his artistic credentials.