Douglas Perry is a journalist and the award-winning author of the true-crime books The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago and also Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Oregonian, Tennis, and many other publications. His first crime novel is Mammoth, released today via Amberjack Publishing.
Mammoth is set in the small, isolated town of Mammoth View, California, which is hit with the news of an attack on a summer morning. It’s not clear what happened, but it’s bad. And it’s not over. As residents panic and leave town, the police chief and his deputy set off into the woods to investigate. The campsite attack is the perfect coincidence for Billy Lane. Looking for the biggest score of his career, he’s targeted the local bank. The robbery does not go well – and the aftermath unfolds catastrophically. Over the next twenty-four hours, chaos descends on Mammoth View. What really happened at that campsite outside of town?
Douglas Perry stops by In Reference to Murder today to talk about about the inspiration and background for his new novel:
I am an historian by training and trade. My three previous books are all histories. So when I launched into writing Mammoth – my first novel – I knew I wanted to stay in the past. Making the setting a little unfamiliar adds an inherent sense of dislocation; it makes the characters and plot pop more.
My last two nonfiction books – The Girls of Murder City and a biography of Eliot Ness – take place primarily in the 1920s and ’30s. I know that era very well. But I didn’t want to go that far back for Mammoth. I ultimately decided on the year 1977. Because of the march of technology, it can seem very far away. There was no Internet. No smart phones. For most people, there wasn’t even cable TV. This is a valuable background for my story, which revolves around a mysterious incident outside a small ski-resort town in California. Something terrible and dangerous has happened, and our protagonists must figure out what it is – and survive. All without Google or 24-hour TV news.
1977 is also a good year to set the novel because you don’t have to be too old to remember it. I did a lot of research into the time period – there have been quite a few good histories of the era, such as David Frum’s How We Got Here – but I also have memories of that year. One of the main characters in Mammoth is a 16-year-old girl who dreams of being an Olympic runner. She could have been my babysitter in 1977.
The 1970s don’t get the credit they deserve as a turning point. Popular culture – That ’70s Show, Boogie Nights, the Studio 54 movie, etc. – reinforces the idea that it was the self-absorbed Me Decade, the vapid, fashion-challenged Disco Age. But that’s just the surface sheen. The politics were radical, bizarre, and outrage-driven. The idealism of the 1960s had curdled into something darker. The economy was tanking; crime was exploding. Mammoth is set in 1977 in California. So in the next year, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk will be murdered. The Jonestown Massacre will happen. (Remember, Jim Jones built his following in California.) The Zodiac Killer is still on the loose in the Golden State. The Hillside Strangler, also in California, is about to start his murder spree. The Prop 13 tax revolt is brewing.
Three years earlier, in 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley. During much of the decade, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, co-founders of the Weather Underground terrorist group, are hiding out in Marin County. (As it turns out, the house where they secretly spent a few years was three miles from the one where I grew up. They probably shopped at the same grocery as my mom.)
So there was a lot going on, in California and in the culture in general. It’s a fertile backdrop for a crime novel. And that’s what Mammoth is: a straightforward, old-school crime story. The 1970s were a great time for that, too. The decade produced a lot of first-rate crime novels. It’s my hope that Mammoth harkens back to the best of them, with the added benefit of historical perspective.