Mystery novels have been set in virtually every workplace imaginable, from coffee shops to wineries, libraries to law firms. But Mark S. Bacon has come up with a unique setting for his series of books: Nostalgia City, a theme park that aims to recreate a small town from the ’60s and ’70s.
Over the course of his latest novel, THE MARIJUANA MURDERS, Bacon does an excellent job of making the park and the people who run it—as well as the murder investigation that unfolds there—seem real.
Maybe that’s because he’s drawing on his own experience.
As a former reporter, Bacon spent day after day on the police beat. “I learned about police work, the exciting times, and the monotony,” he says. Later, as a copywriter, he worked “in the advertising department at Knott’s Berry Farm, the big theme park just down the freeway from Disneyland.”
He knew he wanted to blend those two experiences for a story, but the question was how?
“I didn’t want to copy Disneyland or any of the roller-coaster type theme parks,” he says. Inspiration came when he moved to Reno, Nevada. One of the city’s signature summer events is Hot August Nights, a celebration of all things ’60s and ’70s, from classic cars to the rock stars of yesteryear. “Gazing at a red convertible Mustang from the 1960s one day in August,” Bacon says, “I figured out what my theme park would be.”
That flash of inspiration led to his first published novel, Death in Nostalgia City. The third book in that series, THE MARIJUANA MURDERS, is out now. In it, things seem pretty groovy at the retro theme park until Nostalgia City executive Kate Sorenson finds a mechanic dead inside the park’s garage. Kate teams up with her sort-of boyfriend, park cab driver Lyle Deming, to figure out whether someone is using old cars as a front to smuggle in drugs and to solve the crime.
As they continue to dig deeper, they find themselves tangling with dangerous drug traffickers, a heated battle over legalized marijuana, and of course a killer.
When you wrote your first novel, Death in Nostalgia City, did you know it was going to launch a series? And how much groundwork did you try to lay for future novels?
I had no idea it would be a series. I had the idea for my two protagonists and the theme park, but beyond that I didn’t know I’d be writing more books about them. As to the groundwork, I happened to end Death in Nostalgia City with Lyle’s and Kate’s future uncertain because I wanted it open-ended.
After the book was published, several friends said they liked the story and wanted to know when the next one would be out. Next one? I put Kate and Lyle to work again because I love doing it.
Like me, a lot of people may think that working at a theme park seems like great fun. But I imagine that maintaining that sense of fun takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes. Given that you worked at Knott’s Berry Farm, what was your experience like?
For me it was fun. I was a copywriter. I wrote commercials and ads for the park and although I spent much of my time at a keyboard, I did get an inside view of what it takes to make a giant theme park run. Good communication, planning, and maintenance seem to be among the most important ingredients.
Occasionally I’d work on special events out in the park and I got to know some of the costumed employees who worked on the attractions or roamed the streets. The people I knew enjoyed entertaining guests, but it was demanding work. I found out that when you put on a costume or even just a park name badge, you’re immediately on stage. And believe it or not, when people go to a theme park they are not always on their best behavior.
Have you had to do a lot of research into the ’60s and ’70s, the era that the park is designed to reflect? Or are you mostly just drawing on your own experiences and recollections?
It would be a mistake just to rely on recollections. I do lots of research and triple check my facts and sources. Yes, my experiences, my memories fuel the stories, but I still check everything. When I have one of my characters listening to a tune from the 1970s, I make sure to know who recorded the song and when it was released. I have to research music even harder because one of my characters, Earl Williams, is a DJ and music expert. I can’t get a song wrong.
My internet search history is filled with questions such as: what years were Nehru jackets popular, who created the lava lamp and when, and what year was Patty Hearst kidnapped? Cars, especially muscle cars from the 1960s and ’70s, play a part in my stories. For that I consult experts. I talk to mechanics, dealers, classic car collectors, people who can supply the little, specific details that make a story element authentic.
I love your main characters—Lyle Deming is an ex-cop turned cab driver at the theme park, and Kate Sorenson is the PR director and a 6’2” college basketball player. As park insiders, they make for great amateur sleuths—how did you first develop them as characters?
I started with Lyle, but Kate came soon after and I’ve imagined lots of backstory for her. In some respects she’s a little more deeply developed than Lyle—at least in my head—even though large parts of Lyle are patterned after me.
In essence my characters are each an amalgam. I give them the characteristics and traits of some people I’ve known. With Lyle, I let the insecurities come to the top. Anxiety—do we all have it to some degree? I do. In developing Lyle, however, I realized that you can have a mélange of insecurities and yet when trouble is inescapable, you just react and only later wonder how you managed to persevere. He was a cop but didn’t necessarily fit the mold, one of the reasons why he quit. He majored in lit in college and appreciates nuances in language.
My youngest daughter was a basketball player in college so it’s easy to see where a little of Kate comes from. But my daughter was a guard. She’s 5’7” so she didn’t have to deal with being the tallest girl in school, but some of her teammates I knew did. I wanted a strong female protagonist, but again something a little different. As a former athlete, Kate is strong physically and mentally. Her height can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the circumstances.
Given that Nostalgia City itself is a kind of character, I’m curious—do you have a map of it that you refer to as you work? Or is it all in your head?
I do have a map of the entire theme park. Nostalgia City is made up of Centerville, the 1970s town; the Fun Zone that contains most of the rides; a cluster of hotels; a golf course; a dude ranch; and company housing for park employees called Timeless Village. The map showing the location of all those places is in the front of Death in Nostalgia City.
I don’t have a detailed map of Centerville itself, but it’s clear in my head. In my fourth book there’s so much going on in Centerville that I plan to draw a street map. The precise location of different offices and buildings will be key to the mystery.
You do something really interesting in this novel, which is using your characters to play out different sides of the argument of how legalized marijuana should be sold. How do you strike a balance between keeping the story moving and getting into some of these issues?
That’s the classic challenge for authors, explaining background for readers without slowing the story. I tried to spread out the background on marijuana production without doing what authors call an info dump. I have characters arguing over pot, getting mad, refusing to compromise. That keeps action moving but also touches on the pros and cons of pot marketing and pot smoking itself. Conflict is the heart of fiction—especially crime fiction. It can be a way of maintaining interest and discussing a topic while moving a plot forward.
Are you working on another Nostalgia City novel? If so, is there anything you can tell us about what lies ahead for Lyle and Kate?
I’m working on mystery number four. A film company wants to shoot a movie in Nostalgia City. It’s a post-Vietnam war film set in the 1970s. And readers will get a glimpse of the high-tech, behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating and operating theme park dark rides—that is indoor rides, as opposed to Ferris wheels and roller coasters. It’s due out sometime next year.
After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of Nostalgia City theme park.
Before turning to fiction, Bacon wrote business books including Do-It-Yourself Direct Marketing, printed in four languages and three editions, named best business book of the year by the Library Journal, and selected by the Book of the Month Club and two other book clubs. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Antonio Express News, Orange County (Calif.) Register, and many other publications. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.
THE MARIJUANA MURDERS is the third book in the Nostalgia City mystery series that began with Death in Nostalgia City. The first book introduced ex-cop turned cab driver Lyle Deming and PR executive Kate Sorensen, a former college basketball star. Death in Nostalgia City was recommended in February by the American Library Association for book clubs.
Bacon is the author of flash fiction mystery books, including Cops, Crooks and Other Stories in 100 Words. He taught journalism as a member of the adjunct faculty at Cal Poly University – Pomona, the University of Nevada – Reno, and the University of Redlands. He earned an MA in mass media from UNLV and a BA in journalism from Fresno State. He gets many of his ideas while walking his golden retriever, Willow.
To learn more about Mark and his work, please visit his website.