Riordan writes about love and death in San Antonio

July 5, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Rick Riordan is a new name in mysteries and a writer who will be sure to delight anyone with connections to the state of Texas, particularly San Antonio.

However, until recently Riordan was classified as a Northern California writer who wrote about Texas.

His background explains the connections:

"I'm a San Antonio native, moving back home this summer," he said. He gave two readings in Yolo County recently. The first was at the Woodland Public Library and the second was at Capital Crimes and Coffee in Davis.

Riordan grew up in Texas, spending his first 25 years there. He graduated from University of Texas at Austin with a degree in English and history. Then he moved to the Bay Area and lived in Oakland with his wife and two children until recently. He made a living teaching in a middle school. But Texas was too deeply ingrained in his soul to make living anywhere else a possibility.

He said his first book, "Big Red Tequila" (1997) was a novel driven by nostalgia.

It opens with his feisty protagonist, Tres Navarre, moving from San Francisco back to San Antonio in order to re-open an investigation into his father's drive-by murder, which took place a decade earlier.

Riordan said he took the conventions of a murder mystery and set them in the place he knew best. Traditional mysteries have been set in New York, Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. But San Antonio expatriates from across the country wrote to Riordan congratulating him on his hometown choice.

Even non-Texans approve. Marie Bryan of the Woodland Public Library loved "Big Red Tequila" for many reasons, not least of which included the fact that in it Riordan gives a recipe for the perfect margarita (page 14).

"I made the effort to bring Rick to the library because I wanted to catch him before he left the state," said Bryan. "I love the fact that he's an English teacher. You can see that language and characterization are really important to him. He says that plot is secondary."

Bryan also loves a certain character who makes repeat appearances throughout Riordan's book: Robert Johnson, an enchilada-eating cat, named a after a blues musician.

"I was particularly taken with Robert Johnson," said Bryan. "It's obvious that Rick is a cat-owner."

Bryan has visited San Antonio several times and admits to following the action in "Big Red Tequila" on a map, something she also does for mysteries set in New Orleans and Venice.

But the characters make Riordan's books stand out. Tres Navarre is an unlicensed private investigator who has a Ph.D. in medieval English from Cal. He reads Chaucer on stake-outs. His expertise in research turns out to be a handy skill to have when he needs to follow a criminal paper trail. He also is an expert in tai chi, a fact that always surprises the many thugs he is forced to beat up. His New Age mother lives nearby and dates younger men, several of whom Tres knows from high school. His father was a sheriff. His half-brother lost his legs hopping a freight and is a wheelchair-assisted computer wizard who follows Jimmy Buffet.

"Tres is a combination of paths I never took," said Riordan. "He is an accomplished screw-up and I wouldn't want to be him."

Riordan is a family man still committed to teaching middle school history and English.

"I have a teaching job lined up in San Antonio," he said. In fact, he says his experience teaching helped him produce his first novel.

"Years of editing student papers gave me a foundation in English," he added.

His first novel was followed by "The Widower's Two-Step" (1998), a murder mystery involving the music business, and his third novel is "Gunman's Cantina," which will be out in 1999. He landed a five-book contract with Bantam.

Riordan said reviews of his novels have been good.

"But I am needled about how many characters there are and they got me there. I love creating characters. It's one thing I love about Dickens, he created complete personalities, rich and full. Some are modeled after people I know, some are not."

He has some advice for would-be mysteries writers, too: "Get the whole thing written, don't edit yourself to death." He says word-polishing is to some extent a waste of time because if the manuscript is accepted for publication changes will undoubtedly be made.

"Get the whole manuscript done first, because it will change," he said.

Oh, yes. And get an agent.

"Publishers are swamped with unsolicited manuscripts," he said.

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