Dale T. Phillips has published novels, story collections, nonfiction, and over 70 short stories. Stephen King was Dale's college writing teacher, and since that time, Dale has found time to appear on stage, television, in an independent feature film, a short political satire film, and compete on Jeopardy (losing in a spectacular fashion). Learn more about Dale and his books at his website.
The setting for my Zack Taylor mystery series is the great little city of Portland, Maine, a jewel by the sea. The people are terrific, there are a number of vibrant cultures, it’s a four-season vacationland alive with music, art, and literature, and it’s a foodie and craft-beer-lover paradise. I spent a lot of time there in years past, and wanted to set a mystery there. Why let the big cities of New York, L.A., and Chicago have all the sleuths and fun?
So when I wrote my first mystery, A Memory of Grief, I created a protagonist who comes to Portland in the 1990’s as an outsider, a complete fish-out-of-water. Zack Taylor has a troubled past and arrives on a mission to find the truth. He finds so much more and decides to stay in Portland for further adventures.
Although I use many real settings that those familiar with the area will readily recognize, I freely change things around. It sounds so attractive that some have asked if I work for the Maine tourism bureau. I always tell people that if they haven’t yet been to Portland, my series will make them want to go there. Still, I frequently show the dark side of Maine as well: the poverty, the widespread and chronic unemployment, the backwoods close-minded mentality, the small-town bigotry.
But I show Portland as a healing place, an environment so completely different from what Zack has known in glittery cityscapes like Las Vegas and Miami, that he turns his life around. He finds a love that has heretofore eluded him, although it is a difficult and complicated relationship, due to the violence that surrounds him. He finds a friend and mentor in Joshua Chamberlain (J.C.) Reed, a long-time reporter for The Maine Times. He also finds a host of enemies and has to deal with violent people, despite the fact that he doesn’t like or use guns, which puts him at a decided disadvantage.
Setting is vital to the events of the mysteries. In the first book, A Memory of Grief, Zack takes on a cadre of killers out at Fort Williams, the park that contains the iconic, oft-painted/photographed Portland Head Lighthouse. A Fall From Grace details Zack taking on a small Maine burg, which has turned against a single mother after the murder of the Town Manager. Later in the series we see Zack involved in the movie business, the coastal art scene, and a world where politics and crooked outside-money interests collide.
People know Stephen King writes about Maine, but Portland is also a rich ground for great mystery and crime writers, including: Kate Flora, Bruce Robert Coffin, Gerry Boyle, James Hayman, and Chris Holm. You can meet many of them at the Maine Crime Wave, an annual mini-con gathering of writers, fans, and special guests. Between this handful of writers, we’ve upped the annual murder body count of Maine by hundreds. They often paint Portland as a dark place of intrigue, although I like to show off the good points in my protagonists’ desire to set things right.
So when you’re in the mood for a trip to Maine, or a touch of murder and personal struggle, you can pick up the Zack Taylor series in many places, including, of course, the many Portland area bookshops: Letterpress Books, Sherman’s, Longfellow Books, or Nonesuch Books.
A Memory of Grief
Troubled ex-con Zack Taylor is haunted by the accidental death of his brother years before. Zack's guilt and anger have pushed him into a shadowy, wandering life, with little purpose and few attachments. When he hears of the death of his close friend Ben Sterling, a supposed gunshot suicide, Zack finds he now has a purpose—to find out what happened. Then his purpose becomes an obsession.