A beleaguered gay concierge burdened by the emotional baggage of vacationers. A straight Black private investigator desperate to save herself from personal and professional disaster.
Sounds like the makings of a binge-worthy streaming series.
Hold that thought; “Desert Getaway: A Dante & Jazz Mystery” (Brash Books) must first be devoured by book lovers.
Any way you spin it, Rancho Mirage author Michael Craft is bound to nab accolades for his new novel, a tale worthy of our investment and one that weds the shadowy mystique of noir and the sunny beauty of the desert to winning ends.
“Most people in the valley came from somewhere else so the desert lends itself to beautiful storytelling just because of the natural beauty,” Craft says of setting the tale in Coachella Valley. “The desert can also be described in a poetic sense through the eyes of an outsider who’s experiencing it as something wondrous and enchanting. That makes it a great place for mysteries.”
The novel’s main centerpiece is the misadventures of two unlikely allies.
Dante has nursed a gaggle of dreams—and love interests—that never took flight. (Insert deep sigh.) When he finds a dead body floating in the swimming pool at his rental, his tarnished past of him comes back to haunt him.
Enter: Jazz. Shrewd, tough, and determined to get her life from her in order, the PI — she nearly arrested Dante for the murder of her husband from her way back when — joins forces to solve the befuddling crime.
And perhaps save themselves in the process.
“I wanted there to be an instantly recognizable conflict, or at least superficial differences between these two characters,” Craft says. “They start out as antagonists.”
As the story unfolds Dante and Jazz come to know each better and forge a very “tentative working relationship.”
“By the end of the novel, they’ve become friends in a way,” Craft says. “The important thing is that they’ve each gained some respect and affection for the other person.”
He didn’t elaborate on whether that element — finding common ground — might be an apt message for today’s linguistic cultural conflicts, but no doubt readers will appreciate the inclusion. And it wouldn’t be the first time Craft delivered a thought-provoking read.
A prolific author of 18 novels — four became finalists for Lambda Literary Awards — Craft was raised in Illinois and eventually became a graphic designer at the Chicago Tribune. He rubbed creative elbows with a variety of seasoned journalists who encouraged him to consider writing. An onslaught of how-to writing books later, he decided to give it a try, and within several months, he penned his first manuscript — on a typewriter no less — and “blindly” sent his work to various agents and publishers.
“It never went anywhere, but I was getting nice, useful rejection letters,” he says. “And I took all of that to heart.”
Twelve years later, I found a publisher for his novel. In time, a lit agent entered the fold, and Craft suddenly found himself submitting his work to publishers in need of gay themes.
“I was at the right place at the right time with the right agent,” he says. “I was actually living that dream.”
Eventually, seven installations of the Mark Manning series, which revolved around a determined investigative reporter, followed. Other works were born, too, and in 2017, Craft’s professional archives were acquired by the Special Collections Department of the Rivera Library at the University of California Riverside, a noteworthy honor to be sure.
As were accolades for yet another one of his mysteries, “ChoirMaster” (a Mister Puss mystery). It became a Gold Winner of the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award.
The genesis for “Desert Getaway” began before the pandemic. Local author/editor Barbara Demarco-Barrett reached out to local writers hoping to collect enthralling tales to fill her anthology, “Palm Springs Noir.”
“I really hadn’t written much in the noir genre,” Craft says. “But I immediately thought, ‘You know what? Here’s an opportunity to spread your wings a little bit, get out of your comfort zone and try something quite different.’ I said yes coming in.”
Initially, he wrote “Desert Getaway” as a short story. Somewhere between that and the release of “Palm Springs Noir,” another spark was ignited: Why not expand the original short story into an entire novel and revolve it around two main characters—one a gay white male, the other a straight Black woman?
“I pulled it entirely out of my imagination — these were new characters that came from a new cloth,” Craft says. “The fact that Jazz is Black didn’t come until I was well into the process, and I thought: ‘What to do? I’m not always comfortable with straight people writing gay characters.’ But any writer—any fiction writer—can’t limit every character in a book to just their own experience or identity.Sometimes you just have to stretch.So, I tried writing this Black female character, not just in an inconsequential background role. “
Jazz became the second most important character in the book, in fact.
“It was risky,” Craft muses. “But I knew my heart was in the right place. And I knew how I wanted it. I just fell in love with the characters.”
For the most part, fiction needs to be more than just entertainment. It should also inspire.
“I always tried to do that in my stories,” Craft says. “The reason most people pick up a mystery novel in the first place is that they’re ready to enjoy a puzzle. But it’s not just a puzzle. I strive to never shortchange the aspect of character development in my books. Writing is a wonderful creative outlet, and, on some level, the writing should bring the reader a wider worldview.”
A book launch event celebrating Michael Craft’s new series will take place May 1 from 5 to 6:30 pm at Artists Center at the Galen, 72567 Highway 111 in Palm Desert. Admission is free. Seating is limited. To register, visit eventbrite.com/e/310013688287.
Learn more about Michael Craft at michaelcraft.com.
Greg Archer writes about change agents, happenstance, and the entertainment industry. His work by him has appeared in the USA Today Network, Palm Springs Life, Huffington Post, The Advocate and other media outlets. His memoir of him, “Grace Revealed,” chronicles his Polish family’s odyssey during World War II. gregarcher.com.