The Sherlock of St. Paul

Larry Millett and his Minnesota mysteries

It’s a winter’s day, and Larry Millett, career newspaperman and historical-mystery novelist, is leading a walking tour of downtown St. Paul. Millett has pepper-colored hair, with a dash of salt here and there, and subscribes to the novelist’s school of fashion: black turtleneck, rimless glasses, mussed corduroys. He has opted for an aerial tour of sorts, threading his way through the skyways, pausing at each intersection to debate which way to go next. “My skyway skills are rusty,” he apologizes. “I want to be sure you get the best view.”

Tucked under his arm is Lost Twin Cities, the urtext of local urban historians and centenarians looking for the disappeared neighborhoods of their youth, a time when the clamor of hooves and peal of trolley bells still filled the alleys. But Millett, who wrote Lost Twin Cities during his tenure as the Pioneer Press’s architecture critic, is hardly consulting it. Imagine a temporal Google Street View that lets you wander the streets of fin-de-siecle St. Paul, gliding over trolley tracks and past Gothic Victorian mansions, pale Kasota stonework, terracotta and pressed-metal ornamentation, step gables, and plate-glass windows wide as a financier’s outstretched arms. Welcome to Larry Millett’s brain.

Prowling along, past office workers out to lunch and a Salvation Army bell ringer, he finds the spot he’s been hunting for. The murder happened here, he announces, gesturing toward the corner of Sixth and Robert. Today, it’s the Securian building. In 1917, in the landscape of Millett’s imagination, it was the site of Dodge Tower, a 30-story, gilded cage of a skyscraper in whose looming tower a shrewd but cowering financial baron meets the wrong end of a hot piece of lead. And the only door to old man Dodge’s corner office? Locked from the inside.

The “locked room mystery” steals headlines for days and sets the city a panic. But with a young bombshell wife, scheming son, trusted partners with dark secrets, and snoopy secretary among the suspects—whodunit?

Enter Shadwell Rafferty, Millett’s literary detective and the Midwest’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, appearing in his fifth book, The Magic Bullet. Having already solved, among other treacheries, a series of ice-palace murders and the theft of the Kensington Runestone—assisted by Holmes and Watson, on a jaunt across the pond—Rafferty is in the twilight of his life yet cannot resist the call of civic duty. He’s on the scene before rigor mortis has set in.

Millett is a skilled architect of the Holmesian mystery. As a boy, growing up in north Minneapolis and working his way through the city’s Catholic school system, he often lost himself inside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s two-volume set. In his twenties, a graduate of St. John’s University and working as a cub journalist at the St. Cloud Times for $85 a week, he methodically read every story in the Holmes canon, along with hundreds of other mysteries—Agatha Christie, John Dixon Carr, Dorothy Sayers. “That whole group they call the Golden Age of mystery fiction, the classic whodunits. I read tons of those, and that gave me a sense of how it’s done.”

At the same time, he was teaching himself to report. “I’d never taken a journalism course in my life,” he says. “It was something I fell into. But I got to write for a living, so you can’t complain about that.” His first beat was in Sartell, Minnesota, covering city council and school board meetings. “One of my favorites—we spent what seemed like eight hours there one night picking the new band uniforms. They’d bring the kids in, and all the school board members were fashion critics: ‘Oh, I don’t know, that one’s a little too gold, what do you think?’”

After a year and a half with the St. Cloud Times, he moved to the Pioneer Press. “I came down here to St. Paul and put in my 30 years. Nobody does that anymore, but it was pretty common in my generation. You had to do something egregious to get fired.” Millett climbed steadily at the paper. In 1984, he received a Knight Fellowship to study at the University of Michigan and enrolled in architecture classes. Soon, he was writing a weekly column for the Press that blended architectural criticism and urban history. “I had, as a kid, thought about being an architect,” he explains, “but other things intervened. I was interested in history, and this was a way of combining two interests. That’s what led to Lost Twin Cities.”

For five years, Millett haunted historical societies and worked on his magnum opus. “It was the first book to take a look at all the stuff that was here at various times and disappeared in various waves of urban renewal and freeway building. It struck a chord with a lot of people.” Two decades and eight printings later, the book has sold more than 25,000 copies. (He’s since written more than a half dozen architectural guides and urban-history texts.)

In 1996, shortly after John Camp—nom de plume, John Sanford, the mass-market thriller author—had sold a book for “a ton of money,” Millett penned his first mystery: a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which Holmes and Watson leave London to investigate the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 and pursue an arsonist across the state. “I had written a thriller—or tried to write a thriller—which was all right,” Millett says. “But I’m not really a thriller writer. So I decided to take one more stab at it.” While writing, he holed up in his attic study, overlooking Baker Street on St. Paul’s West Side. “It was fated,” he says. “It had to happen. There I was, on my own little Baker Street, writing my little Holmesian stories.” Viking bought the book, and four more after it, and Millett suddenly had a second career as a mystery novelist.

“My dear fellow,” Holmes councels Watson in one of their early adventures, as written by Millett, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Millett, ever the careful student, depicts wartime St. Paul with a convincing mixture of invention and historical reportage. Period pieces are notorious mine fields of cliché, but Millett writes with an authoritative pen. His journalist’s instinct and eye for detail are irrepressible—the architectural details of buildings get longer treatment than minor characters. (For the truly curious, some of his earlier mysteries are footnoted.) Without lecturing, he tells you a thing or three you didn’t know about the industrial zoo that was urban American a hundred years ago.

Millett’s previous mysteries feature Sherlock Holmes as the leading man, following in the long tradition of fan-fiction authors who transplant the detective everywhere from Asia to South America. “The absolute purists don’t like any kind of pastiche,” Millett says. “But there are other people who have taken Holmes to outer space, or turned the stories inside out so Holmes is the dumb one and Watson is the smart one. Or they’re gay. There are some dirty Holmes stories, some erotic ones, pretty much everything you can think of.” But Holmes plays just a bit part in The Magic Bullet, offering his assistance from 221B via telegram. Millett says he did this because he wanted a more hyperkinetic character, a man of action. Stepping away from the genre’s more rigid conventions—“You mess with them at your own peril,” he warns me—Millett dreamed up Shadwell Rafferty: a sardonic, world-weary, somehow endearing detective. Take the tortured misanthropy of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, add a touch of arthritis and Mensa-level deductive reasoning skills, and you’ve got Rafferty.

Rafferty has little of Holmes’s parlor-mystery style, in which suspects parade through to be interviewed as if playing a life-size game of Clue. Instead, Rafferty, still spry at 72, puts himself fully into the action. Where Holmes mulls mysteries over a pipe or two, Rafferty brews a pot of coffee at midnight, downs two cups, and hits the pavement. And then, of course, there’s Rafferty’s keen eye for design: Upon stepping into the crime scene, his “omnivorous eye took in all the trappings—Louis XIV side chairs, carved walnut paneling, cut-glass chandeliers, floors of swirling Spanish marble. ‘Change the color scheme a bit,’ he thought, ‘and you’d have a perfectly respectable whorehouse.’”

Ultimately, however, Rafferty has a tragic view of life, Millett says. “It’s a very Irish sensibility, I think. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: ‘The world will always break your heart in the end.’” Rafferty is, Millett writes, “a soldier in memory’s ancient rebellion against time.” He’s also a helluva crime fighter.

Over coffee in a downtown café, Millett reflects on the writer’s craft and drops hints about his next book. His agent wants a New York City mystery, but Millett is dragging his feet on the idea. He’s grown so comfortable navigating St. Paul’s tangled one-ways and dead-end alleys, looking for traces of 19th-century façades and the hidden handiwork of Gilded Age architects, that the very idea of Manhattan seems overwhelming. Besides, Shadwell Rafferty is a hometown hero, the Joe Mauer of detectives, with no appetite for fame. “I want to keep him local,” Millett says.

As a writer, Millett is aging far more gracefully than the father of the mystery genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, late in life and after the death of his son in World War I, discovered spiritualism, séances, and pixies. (Among his final books was The Coming of the Fairies.) But by then, the Holmes series was so popular that when Doyle tried to kill off the detective, tossing him over a waterfall, the reading public revolted and Doyle was forced to revive him. “Doyle wanted, like a lot of writers who stumble upon a popular character, to be a serious writer,” Millett muses, staring into his coffee. “Which is usually a mistake, I might add.”

Kevin Charles Redmon is a Minneapolis freelance writer. The Magic Bullet (University of Minnesota Press, $25) hits bookstores this month.