Lowell is mystery novelist's canvas

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By DAVID PERRY

WESTFORD- In David Daniel's youth, the idea of being a writer seemed romantic but impossibly distant.

"They were people," he says, "who if still alive, were somewhere else. But I fell in love with the idea of being one."

These days, he is one, with seven novels under his belt, soon to begin a semester as UMass Lowell's Jack Kerouac writer-in-residence. But every now and then, the romance is somewhat overshadowed by the reality.

"I'm sitting here, struggling with a scene," says the 57-year-old Westford resident. "I just can't seem to make it work."

Kerouac was an influence on Daniel he continues to work on a novel called Jack Kerouac's Ghost but his birthplace, Lowell, is Daniel's inspiration. He lived in the city for seven years before settling in Westford.

"I'd written novels before Lowell, but the city is really my muse in a lot of ways. I was almost like an 18-year-old guy, drafted off to war, who thought he'd write the great novel about it. But too naive to understand the war," he says.

"In my naivet, I wandered around and found a place that looked good, had interesting people. But I hadn't really understood the layers of the city. So with this sort of bravado, I started writing about Lowell."

It's the look and feel of "an honest-to-goodness old New England mill city" that appeals to him.

"Of course, I write about my Lowell. I try to make it accurate, keep the streets running in the right directions, but I take liberties. I always try to make it larger than it is," he says.

Next month, the third in Daniel's Lowell mysteries, Goofy Foot, arrives through St. Martin's Press. It joins 1994's Heaven Stone and 1995's The Skelly Man in an ongoing series of mysteries set in Lowell. All feature the hard-boiled private investigator Alex Rasmussen, a former cop with an arsenal of wisecracks and an office overlooking Kearney Square.

This time, Rasmussen takes on a missing-person case that leads him to a "sunshiny New England town" on the South Shore called Standish, a place much at odds with Lowell's grit and history.

It was the patchouli-laced White Rabbit, last year's novel redolent with the spirit, music and hippiedom of San Francisco's '60s, that led William Roberts, chair of UMass Lowell's English Department, to call Daniel about the writer-in-residence post.

"That's a book I wanted to do for a long time," Daniel says of White Rabbit. "Being a member of the '60s generation, I'm sort of in love with the whole thing."

As Kerouac writer-in-residence, Daniel will teach a creative-writing class to upper-level students and make special appearances. He has taught part time at the university's continuing-education program since 2001, and "really found a great rapport with the students."

"This is a very cool thing," he adds. "Like other people, I've been a champion of Jack Kerouac, and in some way, I have a personal understanding of him. And I don't think all his work has a universal appeal. But had he continued down the road he was on with his first work, The Town and The City, he might have been completely forgotten by now. But his genius was the ability to invent the thing he did, the genre."

Jack Kerouac's Ghost, a work in progress, is the story of a middle-aged writer who moves to Lowell, pads the cobblestone streets looking for inspiration, "and meets Jack Kerouac in a bar, never mind the fact that Jack's been dead for 30 years."

There's also a fourth Lowell mystery in progress, revisiting the city's old jazz and blues club scene.

Daniel began writing in his youth, mostly imitating writers he read. But he headed off to college (Stephen King was a classmate at the University of Maine) and found a voice.

Always, he wrote. He filed stringer sports stories for papers around Boston, and some pieces for The Real Paper. He wrote about the East Coast surfing scene for Surfer Magazine. He crafted short stories for a while, honing his craft but finding the pay awful.

Eventually, Daniel decided to chuck journalism and an ill-suited stab at poetry.

"I realized what I wanted to do was tell stories of my own," he says.

Now he is, even if the candle of romance flickers and sputters every now and then.

"Many days, you just sort of lumber around and get struck with the notion you need to produce something," he says.

Other days, it comes easily.

"The thing is, if you can do it halfway well, there are people who are amazed that you can do it. But if I were a pretty good plumber or electrician or school teacher, I don't know if I'd have much work. But I can't think of anything else I could, or would, rather do."