Tuesday, January 29, 2002

John Wessel weaves 'Goodbye'

Cincinnati native's third novel jam-packed with mystery and mayhem

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It all happens so quickly in John Wessel's new thriller Kiss It Goodbye. One minute, his defrocked PI Harding (no first name) is swilling a Scotch with his girlfriend, Alison, and the next thing you know, a cop friend is showing him pictures of a gruesome murder.

        Within a few paragraphs, Harding's a suspect, a target of the real killer and the lead investigator on the case.

        This is Harding's third appearance and the third novel (This Far, No Further and Pretty Ballerina) for Mr. Wessel, a Cincinnati native (Colerain High School, Class of 1970) who has been living in Chicago since 1994.

        He has been writing professionally since 1994, when he won a Cincinnati Magazine fiction contest with a few chapters of a mystery he was working on. He expanded it, found a publisher and soon found himself banking a $900,000 advance ($5,000 is average for a first novel).

        “That contest, I don't know what would have happened to me without it,” he says. “I probably wouldn't be writing at all now. I was at a point where I was wondering if anything I wrote was any good. I was ready to shove it in a drawer and forget it.”

        Star mystery writer Sue Grafton convinced him otherwise (conferring with her was part of his prize).

        Today, Mr. Wessel is recognized as an elegant writer of inelegant tales. His first victim in Kiss, for example, is raped, strangled, dismembered, packed in a Hefty bag and tossed in the river.

        Then, there's the equally coarse Harding. Stripped of his investigator's license, he's an ex-con who did 18-months for manslaughter, has been reduced to working cases no one else will take and is living life on the sleazy underbelly of the PI business.

        In this gleefully grisly case, the dismembered woman in the photos is Tracy, an old friend and ex-lover of Alison. The two of them, along with nine other Bohemian souls, lived together in a big old house called Grand Terrace when they were students at the University of Chicago.

        One by one, the other tenants enter the novel — each with a secret, each with a motive, each with opportunity. That means plenty of characters and myriad plot lines for readers to savor and Harding to unravel.

        Like, what is Alison hiding? Besides her love affair with the dead girl and possibly Charles, too. He's a Grand Terrace alum who disappears, then is discovered in a drunken daze in the very city where Tracy disappeared.

        Charles is also hiding something and is bright enough to hide it well. Professor Henry Dahlgren probably knows what it is, but it looks as if he's hiding a few skeletons of his own. And then there's Logan and his collection of nudie photos of the Grand Terrace women.

        “I do like those complicated plots,” Mr. Wessel says. “I guess that's why my books have been shopped around Hollywood but never bought.”

        Harding eventually unravels it all on a path littered with red herrings, dead-ends and false starts. Mr. Wessel keeps dishing them out right up to the last chapter and the book's biggest surprise.

        Along the way, readers get reacquainted and fall in love with Harding again: cynical as all get-out; full of wisecracks and one-line zingers; confident to the point of arrogance; and luckless enough to get beat up a lot.

        “I like Harding,” Mr. Wessel says. “He's part me and part somebody I'd like to be — a whole lot braver than me but not quite as cynical as I am. I just don't want to get beat up all the time like he does.”

        Harding won't be in Mr. Wessel's next novel, but Cincinnati will. It's a still untitled thriller about a serial killer working Cincinnati's west side — “Sayler Park, Dent, Delhi, I love those places. I tried putting Harding in, but it just didn't work. He evolved out of it as I wrote.

        “It's due in late 2003, but as you know, I'm slow. This one's a year late and don't think I didn't hear about it from my publisher. But, you know, sometimes I rewrite a scene 30 and 40 times to get it just right.

        “I so want this to be better than the average mystery series.”

        Trust us, it is.

        John Wessel will sign and discuss Kiss it Goodbye at 7 p.m. today at Books & Co., 350 East Stroop Road, Kettering; and 7 p.m. Wednesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Edwards and Madison roads, Norwood.


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