Nebraska

Created by William J. Reynolds
(1956-

At last! The wait is over! Omaha, Nebraska finally has its own private eye!

All you protesters can go home. Sorry about the pepper spray…

Actually, the aptly-named NEBRASKA (one name only, please, just like Spenser) is a writer and former private investigator who comes out of shamus retirement to solve the murder of his ex-partner in The Nebraska Quotient (1984).

Now, there’s been some great fictional private eye stuff written by real-life private eyes (Hello, Mr. Hammett, hello, Mr. Gores…)but the track record for fictional private eye stuff about writers who are also private eyes is definitely more hit-or-miss (I’m thinking William Benbow’s Chandler or Robert Montgomery’s take on Lady in the Lake).

Fortunately, author William J. Reynolds manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the often-smugger-than-thou writers-writing-about-writing hook as he continued the series, with Nebraska continuing to take on occasional  “private-eying” gigs to pay the bills in subsequent entries, while working on his version of The Great American Novel (which he often refers to, rather sardonically, as just… “THE BOOK”).

And that’s part of the real appeal of the series–Nebraska refuses to take himself too seriously. He’s able to laugh at himself and his own literary pretensions, playing (mostly) by the rules of the genre while gently subverting them with a few well-placed jabs. It’s obvious Nebraska–and Reynolds–were having fun.

The “private-eying” also took Nebraska’a mind off trying to figure out his relationships with various women. And there were a lot of ’em.

There’s his estranged wife, Jennifer. They’re separated, but they have what they call an “understanding.” Then there’s his girlfriend, Koosje VanderBeek, who is a psychologist. And there’s OPD cop Kim Banner whom the author says he had originally envisioned as the romantic interest. And then, of course, there are the various damsels, alternately in distress or just distressing, that he seems to run into…

But that’s the way things go. In fact, when he wrote the first book, Reynolds cheerfully admits he wasn’t planning on a series at all. He was content with “having a little fun with the PI genre–borderline parody, I sometimes call it–and so I did things I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d thought I’d still be writing Nebraska books and stories ten years later. Like naming him “Nebraska.” Like getting rid of a supporting character that I really liked. Like giving Nebraska a backstory that is sometimes difficult to cling to. And so on.”

Still, for all his defensiveness, this is a pretty entertaining series. Nebraska was an engaging and affable gumshoe; a decent, down-to-earth kinda guy, and the Nebraska setting was definitely fresh, while the low-key shout-outs to other mystery writers and their detective heroes added a little sweetener for fans of the genre. I mentioned before that both writer and detective were having fun?

So were readers… I know I was.

But somehow the series fell between the cracks, pretty much forgotten in the ensuing years–until 2021, when Brash Books announced they would be bringing the series back into print and–finally–digitally.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The truth is, Reynolds was a real contender, an up-and-coming detective novelist in the 1980s, but he was dropped by his publisher when his sales didn’t quite meet their expectations (see below). The Omaha native, who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, holds a B.A. in political science from Creighton University in Nebraska, and worked as managing editor of The Ambassador Magazine and as the creative director of a Sioux Falls, South Dakota advertising agency.

STRAIGHT FROM THE AUTHOR’S MOUTH

“When I finished the sixth Nebraska book, Drive-By, I had the dickens of a time getting it published. Putnam expressed ‘disappointment’ with sales of my previous book, and we failed to come to terms… My agent and I were dismayed when Putnam charged $21.95 for The Naked Eye–pretty spendy in 1990–and I believe that had a lot to do with ‘disappointing sales.’

“We showed Drive-By to virtually every publisher in the game, and heard multiple variations of one theme: Love the series, love the book, would love to publish it, but won’t. Several editors said P.I. novels were in decline, contrary to what most booksellers said. One opined that, since most mystery readers are women, books by women are all they want. (I still haven’t figured out whether that’s more insulting to women or to men.)

“During this time, I had lunch with a friend who is a successful publisher of regional non-fiction books. I joked that I should hire him as a consultant and publish Drive-By myself; he called a few days later with an offer for the book. Seems he had for some time been interested in doing fiction, and expanding beyond the upper Midwest region. It appeared, at last, in 1995, published by Ex Machina.

“One of the nicer things about working with a small press is that your book stays alive longer; with the majors, it’s as good as dead within six months. Ex Machina markets and sells Drive-By even unto this day, but since the distribution was not all it might have been, some people don’t realize there is a sixth Nebraska book.

Please note that (I) was not completely indolent during this spell, though I did pull away from the genre, except for some short stories… I taught at a technical school. I consulted on some local political campaigns. I wrote a software manual, magazine articles and advertising copy, plus some non-fiction books, the latest of which is coming through the pipe as we speak.

Now it seems there might be new life for the Nebraska books: An electronic publisher has expressed interest in issuing the six books on disk. I’ve been busy the past few weeks preparing the manuscripts. Once that’s off the plate, I intend to return to a novel I’d started before getting involved in my latest non-fiction project. It’s a mystery, though not a Nebraska — and since I dislike discussing works in progress, I’ll clam up about it now.

Will there be more Nebraskas? Who knows? Never say never, and so on. It is, in the end, as much a mystery to me as to you.”

UNDER OATH

  • “William J. Reynolds dangerously but deftly skirts parody without betrayed the tough-guy tradition. Let’s hope Nebraska doesn’t get out of the business.”
    — Washington Post on The Nebraska Quotient
  • “What’s special about (The Nebraska Quotient) is Reynold’s wit. He takes the hard-boiled detective and turns him into a hard-boiled punster guaranteed to elicit a smile or a groan from even the most hard-core mystery lovers.”
    — Publishers Weekly
  • “Nebraska is an amiable soul with a pungent sense of humor…which makes for entertaining reading.”
    — Associated Press on Things Invisible
  • “Gritty, fast-moving… every bit as good as Elmore Leonard…”
    — Omaha Sunday World-Herald 

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

  • “The Two-Ninety-Nine Alibi (February 1986, AHMM)
  • “Guilt Enough to Go Around” (September 1986, AHMM)
  • “The Lost Boys” (1994, The Mysterious West)

THE DICK OF THE DAY

  • September 3, 2021
    THE BOTTOM LINE: He’s a writer! He’s a private eye! He’s two, count ‘em, TWO guys in one! in this fun & fondly remembered series from the 80s. Coming back soon, if I may be so Brash.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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