Captain Culpepper refurbished his steamboat to withstand the rigors of navigating the Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana. The vessel would be the largest steamboat to ever make the trip, but it was well equipped, powerful, and had a shallow draft. He hired the most competent pilots and officers available as well as a young Civil War veteran, Danny Barton, to keep the peace on board. The Captain's careful preparations promised an uneventful trip, but that was before he took on passengers.
A variety of characters booked passage on the riverboat, including three deadly brothers, a Union traitor, a woman fleeing her past, and a girl seeking to avenge her brother's death. Add to this the treacherous, muddy Missouri River with her snags and sandbars, marauding Indians, incompetent wharfmasters and flatboat operators, and it will take all of the Captain's resolve and his crew's skill to avoid disaster.
Congratulations on your June 3rd release! The Missouri River Murders, a western, is your second novel with Avalon. Tell us in your own words what it’s about.
Following the Civil War, the nation was in a race to settle the west. It was known that the Missouri River penetrated much of the Great Plains, but it wasn't known how large a vessel could navigate to Great Falls. A retired Civil War commander has used his personal fortune and money from investors to purchase and outfit a large stern wheeler to take freight and passengers as far up the Missouri River as possible. By chance, a murderer and his former female accomplice find themselves on the boat, pursued by the sister of one of their victims. She enlists the help of the young security officer aboard the steamer. But the murderer and his accomplice are not the only hazards facing the Captain and crew. Rapids, rocks, snags, river rats, and irresponsible vessels in the river all conspire to end the voyage prematurely.
It sounds like your readers are in for a lot of twists and turns! You live in what I would imagine to be an amazing and inspiring place--the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska. What inspired you to write a book set along the Missouri River?
I'm fascinated by history, especially the nineteenth century in the U.S., and equally fascinated by transportation systems. I've written about trains and stagecoaches, as well as riverboats. The Missouri River, which is really the greatest river in the U.S., was much more a frontier than the Mississippi at this point in time. And yes, the Kenai Peninsula is lovely. It's not quite the frontier that it was when I moved here forty years ago; I have phone service, electricity, internet, satellite TV, fire and police protection. But a loon flies over our house every morning, crying its unique cry, there are a half dozen moose within a mile radius of our house, most of them calving, and I picked fiddlehead ferns in the woods behind my house last week and made a nice salad. Life is good.
Your world sounds breathtaking. I’ve never known anyone outside ‘Chopped’ (one of the few television shows I watch with my family) talk about fiddlehead ferns, but I digress…tell us about what makes Captain Culpepper tick.
The Captain's full name is Barnard Clinton Culpepper, and he named his refurbished sternwheeler Barnard Clinton, so he's not an especially modest man. But he is strong-willed. He held the rank of Colonel in the Union Army, but was not able to inspire his junior officers to perform to his standards.
After the war, he resigns his commission in disappointment and tries to rebuild his life by commanding a stern wheeler on the Missouri River, an immense challenge. He is intolerant of laziness, carelessness, and incompetence and can be ruthless when his vessel or his crew is threatened. He is totally practical and always seeks solutions which will most directly attain his goals. He commands his boat as if he were engaged in battle. He is cold, taciturn, and not gregarious, but he is tolerant of other races and beliefs and can be, at times, compassionate. He values honesty, loyalty, and industry.
You make out Captain Culpepper to be an impressive hero, and he’s clearly well thought out. I’m interested to learn more about what will challenge such a man. Tell us about the three deadly brothers in your story and what makes them so deadly.
They are without conscience. Any boom era attracts opportunists who will take advantage of the unwary. These three, working in concert as only brothers can, proficient with their weapons, and caring nothing for human life, are especially dangerous.
They sound ruthless, but if I were on that voyage I think I’d feel safe with Captain Culpepper at the wheel. What's your favorite scene in The Missouri River Murders?
I'd like to mention two, if I may. In chapter 14, I like the image of Melinda, a woman of questionable virtue, and Delbert Gray, a middle-aged, pleasant, and seemingly naive businessman, attending church and a potluck dinner in Council Bluffs, and charming everyone. A perfect day for both of them which would never be repeated.
And in chapter 20, Elizabeth standing on the hurricane deck all night with her newborn baby in her arms, singing to him as she watches the river, hoping for the return of her lost husband.
Your synopsis makes it sound like you have some solid expertise on both steamboat travel and the historical time period. Where and how did your knowledge?
There’s a lot of information available on the internet, of course, but I also have acquired (and am still acquiring) a nice little library about steamboats, trains, coaches, Indians, cowboys, peace officers, outlaws, etc. I sometimes get obsessed with detail. For instance I once spent a lot of time trying to find out the moon phases for a particular date in history, but I finally gave that up as silly. I'm a pain in the neck when watching a western movie, because I point out the inconsistencies.
That makes me laugh, because living in Arizona I notice a lot of inconsistencies in western films too. You must have a lot of stories as a retired Fire Department Battalion Chief. Have any of those made it into your novels one way or another?
Most of my fire service career I was in a relatively quiet district, but several of my novels have, as a plot element, some sort of fire. What I use most from my fire service career are the personalities (always altered, of course), and the interaction of the people I worked with and for, in stressful situations. The knowledge of human trauma and disease that I gained as a paramedic is also sometimes handy.
Besides pointing out the inconsistencies, what do you love most about the western genre?
I'm fascinated by all the emerging technology of the nineteenth century - railroads, telegraph, steam power, automobiles, electricity, the metallic cartridge, matches, pencils, timepieces. These things made life more convenient in the East, but they made life possible in the West. What I dislike the most, is the fact that most westerns, mine included, ignore the treatment of Native Americans.
Tell us about any other projects you’re currently working on.
I'm working on a sequel to Train To Cheyenne, my first novel for Avalon. I'm also working on a romance that's set in the Civil War, but returns in the last part of the twentieth century. Avalon is going to publish a sequel to The Missouri River Murders, The Last Voyage Of The Steamer Barnard Clinton, and I have written a third which I have also submitted to them. I have a rough outline for a novel about a Pawnee man and an Arapaho woman which needs more research.
So we have another three novels at least to look forward to! Where can readers learn more about you or keep in touch?
The Avalon website lists their authors and books. Being old-fashioned, I love to get letters in the mail. My address is: 53645 Timber Lane, Kenai, Alaska, 99611, and I'd be pleased to exchange email addresses with anyone who writes me.
Thank you very much for your time today, Dave. I wish you much success with the Missouri River Murders an its sequel. Blog readers, if you’d like to check out David’s novels visit your local library, BN.com, Amazon.com, or Borders.com. You can also order directly from Avalon Books.
About the Author
Dave Unruh is a retired Fire Department Battalion Chief/Paramedic. He makes his home on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, where he writes, reads, and plays professional guitar on the weekends.