Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Bartender stars in Kensington writer’s third mystery

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Mystery writer Con Lehane, author of the new book ‘‘Death at the Old Hotel,” has much to draw from when writing about Brian McNulty, the Irish American bartender at the center of his three murder mysteries.

Lehane spent close to a dozen years tending bar in New York and New England while honing his writing craft. He decided a bar in New York was a good place to view the world.

‘‘I was enamored of the idea of a bartender. It has a mythic quality,” Lehane says.

He based McNulty on bartenders he knew in New York ‘‘who had a jaded view of the world but were solid, good people,” he says.

While admitting he shares some characteristics with McNulty, Lehane says he didn’t base the bartender on himself.

‘‘He’s me,” Lehane says, ‘‘but I’m not him.”

For example, McNulty is divorced with a teenage son, but the author is married with two sons. Both Lehane’s parents were born in Ireland, a heritage he does share with McNulty the bartender.

Among the Irish, there is a strong tradition of storytelling and singing, especially in bars, Lehane notes.

‘‘I can’t carry a tune,” he adds, ‘‘but I am interested in the aspect of storytelling.”

Lehane grew up in Greenwich and New Canaan, Conn., where his father worked as a gardener. Most of his relatives lived in New York, which, he recalls, was ‘‘the center of my world” at the time. New York plays a central role in ‘‘Death at the Old Hotel,” and it’s not just the New York found on picture postcards.

‘‘If you work late at night, you see a different city,” Lehane explains, especially depending on the kind of bar you work at.

‘‘At one I worked in on Upper Broadway, there were numbers guys, drug dealers, young men and young women, prostitutes and pimps and junkies,” Lehane says. ‘‘Different bars had different aspects.”

Bartenders who have worked for any length of time learn not to talk about certain things.

‘‘Fiction is a nice cover,” Lehane says. ‘‘There are things I write about in fiction I wouldn’t talk about in my own life.”

He has found it uncomfortable at times reading from his own fiction, coming across words he writes easily but doesn’t want to be caught saying aloud. Thus, he has learned to preview certain passages before giving a reading so he doesn’t work himself into a corner.

‘‘I feel unfettered in my writing,” Lehane says. ‘‘I feel I don’t have to hide anything.”

Lehane did not grow up reading mystery novels, but became interested in the genre after reading ‘‘The Maltese Falcon” and being drawn to the distinctive voice of mystery narrators.

‘‘That’s what hardboiled is,” Lehane says. ‘‘It’s the voice that speaks much more than words can say about a view of life, the school of hard knocks. There’s a lack of sentimentality, a lack of illusions in how they look at the world.”

Lehane earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Columbia University. He wrote several short stories and an unpublished literary novel about the culture and politics of the 1960s.

In 1990, he decided to ‘‘dash off a detective novel as an easy way to get my first novel published,” and then return to a more literary style. He got his first acceptance, from a French publisher, in 1998, nearly six years after he finished his first mystery novel, ‘‘Beware the Solitary Drinker.”

Lehane expects to continue with the McNulty series, and has already started plot lines for two different books.

For eight or nine years, Lehane taught English and journalism at Rockland County College.

‘‘When I wanted to write a crime novel, I designed a course so I could read mysteries on the clock,” he says.

A resident of Montgomery County for 12 years, Lehane credits ‘‘temporary insanity” for his decision to leave New York. He came to the area to work for a union—unions play heavily into the plot line of his new book—but then ended up not taking that job.

He works as a higher education editor for the National Education Association, a teacher’s union. He adds that he has worked for half a dozen unions over the years.

A member of the National Writers Union, Lehane says that writers in the U.S. don’t have the same sense of collective bargaining that writers in other countries do, but notes they do support each other in other ways.

‘‘Working people are really the ones who fight for social justice in the world,” Lehane says.

‘‘Death at the Old Hotel: A Bartender Brian McNulty Mystery” ($24.95, Thomas Dunne Books) is available at local Borders stores, Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Chapters, and online at amazon.com and bn.com.