Shelf Media hosts the annual Shelf Unbound Indie Best Book Competition for best self-published or independently published book. You can find the winner, finalists, long-listed, and more than 100 notable books from the competition in the December/January 2023 issue of Shelf Unbound.
For Scott Hatcher, a former television writer turned struggling novelist with a failing marriage to boot, social-distancing and mask-wearing feel like fitting additions to his already surreal life. When his wife Marie and neighbor John Bergman disappear in the middle of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Scott is naturally mystified and disturbed, but he is also about to learn that his picturesque neighborhood hides more than just the mundane routines of suburban life. When a fire claims the empty house for sale next door, the entire community is shocked when the charred remains of Marie and John are found inside. Stranger still, stockpiles of valuable PPE clearly stolen, were destroyed in the blaze alongside them.
As the neighborhood reels from the loss, Scott and Bergman’s earthy and enticing widow, Rachel, not only find themselves under investigation for the crime, but also inexorably drawn to one another. As tensions reach a fever pitch, the tale–which is at once familiar and ordinary, yet bizarre and eerie–shows that, just like life in 2020’s uncertain times, dread and danger lurk below the hidden underside of everyday suburbia.
About The Author: Raymond Benson
Raymond Benson is the author of over forty published books. He is most well-known as the third–and first American– author of continuation James Bond novels, commissioned by the Ian Fleming copyright holders. In total, six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories were published worldwide between 1997 and 2002. His bestselling and critically praised five-book serial, The Black Stiletto, is in development as a possible film or TV series. Raymond’s other recent acclaimed novels of suspense are Blues in the Dark, In the Hush of the Night, and The Secret on Chicory Lane.
Interview with Raymond Benson
Tell us a little about your book.
RB: I like to say it’s a wry and darkly comedic work of twisted Americana. The setup is that a quaint suburb of Chicago finds itself rocked by more than just the uncertainties of Summer 2020. A former television writer turned struggling novelist (Scott) with a failing marriage to boot, social-distancing and mask-wearing feel like fitting additions to his already surreal life. When his wife (Marie) and neighbor (John) both disappear in the middle of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Scott is naturally mystified and disturbed, but he is also about to learn that his picturesque neighborhood hides more than just the mundane routines of suburban life. When a fire claims the empty house for sale next door, the entire community is shocked when the charred remains of a male and female are found inside. Are they the missing spouses? As the neighborhood reels from the loss, Scott finds himself under investigation for the crime along with John’s earthy and enticing wife, Rachel. I’m hoping that readers find that the tale is at once familiar and ordinary, yet bizarre and eerie. Just like life in 2020’s uncertain times, dread and danger lurk below the hidden underside of everyday suburbia!
What was your inspiration for the idea?
RB: It was May 2020 and my wife and I were in lockdown at home with Covid-19 raging outside. At that time, no one knew what the future would hold. There was no vaccine in sight, and there was still so much that was unknown about the virus. The geographical environment in the story mirrors where we were living (fictionalized, but yes, we live on a street not unlike “Marigold Way” and in a town very much like “Lincoln Grove”!). For months prior to the pandemic, and during it, the house next door to ours was for sale. It took a long time to sell it—not sure why. As with most writers, my imagination, fueled by the fever dream of the paranoia and bizarre life we were leading during the lockdown, took off and created a strange back story for that unsold house… and the story grew from there. The book was written over the next two to three months. That said, I was also perhaps influenced by Thornton Wilder; I might have wondered what his classic play Our Town would have been like had he written it in 2020. Movies by the Coen brothers or novels by quirky Tom Perrotta may have also been in the DNA… so perhaps that gives you an idea of the kind of book it is.
What was the experience of writing this book like for you?
RB: I would say my existence during the writing process was pretty close to the protagonist’s (Scott Hatcher) daily life—staying home, going for walks, social distancing, wearing masks at the grocery store and such—but I certainly am not as stupid as he is! Being happily married, I was not in the rather shattered mental state that encourages him do the irrational and impulsive things that push the story forward. I actually had a lot of fun writing it; it certainly distracted me from the bizarre world outside that summer.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing this?
RB: First of all, I had no reservations at all with regard to writing a story set during the pandemic. History is history. Especially now, more than two years later, the pandemic is a part of the world’s timeline and it can’t be ignored. I, for one, will have trouble buying into any novels or movies or TV shows that supposedly take place recently or “now” that do not acknowledge in some way that we’ve been through a pandemic. Secondly, I learned that I could have fun with this milieu! We were living in the Theatre of the Absurd, and hopefully readers will latch on to that absurdity.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away reading this book?
RB: The book really isn’t about the pandemic. It’s merely the backdrop, the “special world” of the story that informs how the characters behave. When one is frightened, paranoid, and uncertain about the future, a person might do some crazy things. The book is about some of those crazy things. But perhaps it’s more about the hidden underside of suburbia and the dark recesses of the human heart. There is a labyrinth of a mystery that is the backbone of the novel, but it is placed against the larger Mystery of Life itself, all with a touch of down-home humor.
What are you working on next?
RB: I do a lot of ghostwriting and tie-in work along with my own original fiction, and for the past year I’ve been working on a lucrative ghostwriting gig. I’ve been at the writing game for nearly forty years (with another fifteen years of theatre and other creative work prior to that!). I do find myself slowing down a bit, as I once averaged two books a year. There are still untapped ideas, to be sure, but I like to think that any future projects will be carefully considered and measured. But in answer to the question… “Watch This Space!”
Article originally Published in the December/January 2023 Issue “2022 Indie Best Award Winners”