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School is back in session in Penns River, which means it’s football season in Western Pennsylvania. The Penns River team is loaded after a few substandard campaigns and the town is so revved up a new gambling ring opens to allow PR supporters to put their money where their hearts are.

The “entrepreneur” responsible has no idea how to set point spreads and nowhere to look for help; it’s not like Vegas handles small town high school football games. The vast majority of money put down is on the locals—who bets against their own kid, or the one next door?—and the team covers all the spreads; the cash paid to winners far exceeds what the operation takes in. Only organized crime offers loans to cover the shortfall, which opens the door to a whole new world of problems, including murder.

If only this was the only problem facing detective Ben “Doc” Dougherty and his fellow police officers but
• A motorcycle gang is solidifying its position in town.
• A civilian ride-along sparks controversy and an official complaint that re-opens an old wound for the department.
• A baby shower turns violent.
• A routine investigation leads to signs of possible police corruption.
• Doc’s cousin, Chicago-based private investigator Nick Forte—a man not prone to leaving things as he found them—comes to town to visit his parents.

Welcome to Penns River, where incomes rarely increase and crime rarely decreases. This would be bad enough if it were the same old crimes, but the changing criminal landscape constantly demands more from a police department in transition.

Dana King caught up with The Big Thrill to discuss the newest title in his Penns River series, THE SPREAD:

© Dana King

Can you pinpoint a moment or incident that sparked the idea for this book?

I think it was when sports gambling became legal across the United States. It so quickly permeated sports coverage, right down to proposition bet odds displayed onscreen during games, that I wondered what a logical extension would be, and what pitfalls might be involved.

When you first created your protagonist for this book, did you see an empty space in crime lit that you wanted to fill? What can you share about the inspiration for that character?

Ben “Doc” Dougherty is an attempt to create an “everyman with skills.” Doc has no superpowers, either literally or figuratively. He’s a guy who gained law enforcement experience as an MP and turned down several lucrative offers from private security companies so he could return to his home town. He loves the place, though his experiences while away allow him to view it honestly. That’s the main thing I wanted to get across: that small, decaying towns still have much to offer, warts and all. Too many books either describe them through rose-colored glasses or depict them as virtually post-apocalyptic.

A novel is such a major undertaking; there’s the writing of it, of course, then you’re spending months and months revising, polishing, and then promoting it. How did you know this was the book you wanted to spend the next couple of years on?

The gambling angle wasn’t going away any time soon and this story opens the door to some police corruption plotlines I plan to use in future books.

In addition to a great read, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?

That a small town is neither Brigadoon nor American Rust. There are good and bad elements, good and bad people who are not beaten down, and there’s a lot of fun in the day-to-day living. Basically, a lot more variety in attitude and character than is typically shown.

Were there any particular books, movies, or songs that were knocking around in your head while you were writing this one?

Not so much for this one, which is a little unusual. The idea for THE SPREAD was as organic to the series as anything I’ve written. As the book progressed, I came across a documentary about police corruption in New York (The Seven-Five) and David Simon’s newest series for HBO (We Own This City). Truth be told, those will probably have more of an influence on the next Penns River books than they did on this one.

What’s the one question you wish someone would ask you about this book, or your work in general? And please provide an answer.

Q: You write series, but the books can be read as standalones. Are there threads that run through all of them, aside from the obvious?
A: Yes. While the middle class has lost ground economically over the past forty years, no one ever seems to talk about, or worry about, the working class. I did pretty well for myself in my working life and would now be considered “middle class,” but my roots and sensibilities—and sensitivities—are working class. I want to be sure others are aware of them at some level.

What can you share about what you’re working on next?

I’m taking a break from Penns River for a bit to research where I want the series to go. I recently finished my sixth Nick Forte novel and need to decide what to do next. Could be another Forte. Could be a Western. Could be something else altogether. For now, I’m having a lot of fun researching and kicking ideas around.


DANA KING is the author of fourteen books, including eight Penns River police procedurals, of which THE SPREAD is the newest; five Nick Forte private eye novels, two having received Shamus Award nominations from the Private Eye Writers of America; and a standalone novel titled Wild Bill, that is not a Western. His short fiction appears in numerous anthologies and websites. He is a frequent panelist at conferences and reads at Noirs at Bars from New York to North Carolina. You can learn more about him at