Writing as a Way of Life
Gerry Boyle ’78, called the ‘dean of Maine noir,’ reflects on a life of writing crime (fiction)
Just like in a good mystery story, there are plenty of clues to the vocation of Gerry Boyle ’78 salted inside the neat-as-a-pin office in his early-19th-century home in China village.
A computer monitor rests on a thick copy of the textbook Practical Homicide Investigation. Writing awards are discreetly tucked against the wall at floor level. Books, family photos, and an old Royal typewriter make a cheerful clutter on a shelf adjacent to his writing space, while various editions of the books he’s written are lined up on a bookshelf behind it.
It doesn’t take a sharp-eyed detective to deduce that Boyle is a writer, one with two popular crime-fiction series under his belt.
Now, the former journalist and columnist for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel and longtime editor of Colby Magazine has turned his full attention to fiction writing. This winter, he traveled around the state to talk about Robbed Blind, the 13th—and penultimate—crime novel featuring his signature character, investigative reporter Jack McMorrow. Thirty years after the first McMorrow book was published, readers have had a lot to say, and for Boyle, that never gets old.
“After all these books, it isn’t lost on me that it’s somewhat remarkable that people like these characters and are as involved with them as I am,” he said. “And they’ll talk about them at these events, or when they write to you, or if you’ve done something where they don’t really like what happened to the character, and they will communicate that. And I don’t take that for granted. I think I’m very fortunate.”
‘Writing was important’
Boyle, considered by some to be the “dean of Maine noir,” grew up in suburban Rhode Island, where he spent as much time as possible outdoors. He learned about Colby when a high school friend enrolled, and he came to Maine for a visit.
“I liked the small town. I liked the mill town. It just really felt like the right place for me,” he said.
He was an English major and credits professors such as Peter Harris, the Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus, and Ira Sadoff, the Roberts Professor of English, Emeritus, with helping him become the writer he is today.
“What they did was they told or showed me that every word was important in writing. And even beyond that, that writing was important,” Boyle said. “They tell you that this is not a game.”
Although the College today is different from the way he first knew it, it’s moving in a direction that feels exciting to him.
“I’m thrilled for Colby. I think Colby’s just strengthening in all the right ways,” Boyle said. “It always had such tremendous potential, but I always felt like it was under-recognized for what it did for students. Colby had a sort of New England reticence to it in those years. Colby didn’t brag, didn’t boast, didn’t put anybody else down. They still don’t do that, but they also didn’t strut enough.”
That is changing, he said, with a new focus on recognizing the strength of the College and a desire to make it even stronger.
“As a Colby alum, I’m very proud of the diversity of the student body, the amount of financial aid that people are awarded, the level of the academics, the places that students go, and what they go on to do,” he said. “I’m very happy with all of it. I think expanding its geographic reach has been so important for the community. I think every year, it reflects the world better.”
Seeds of a novel
After graduation, Boyle found a job at the Random House publishing company in New York City, but it wasn’t a great fit. It didn’t take long before he came back to Maine, this time for good.
Boyle was hired by the Rumford Falls Times, a weekly newspaper in the Oxford County mill town. It was about as different from the New York City publishing world as it could be, and he loved it.
“It was an amazing place. The people were welcoming. The mill was just a fascinating megalith, with piles of pulp hundreds of feet high on the trucks,” he said. “I liked everything about it.”
He and his wife, Mary Foley Boyle ’78, only lived there a year, but his experiences at the Rumford Times inspired his first book, Deadline, about a hard-bitten big-city reporter named Jack McMorrow, who took a job as the editor of a weekly newspaper in a western Maine mill town.
After Rumford, Boyle continued his journalism career at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, where he was a general assignment reporter and then a columnist. He wrote reported columns, meaning that he needed to be out and about to talk to people in the community. His heroes were writers like Mike Barnicle of Boston and Mike Royko of Chicago, columnists who covered their respective cities with humanity and heart, fire and poetry.
“The columns would allow me to talk about the human condition that led to this, or what it was like to be there. All the stuff that doesn’t fit in the straight news stories,” he said.
Rejection and success
Boyle’s columns were limited by space, but there was so much more in his notebooks than he could fit. That extra became the fodder for his books. His motivation for writing fiction was the opportunity to take the little bits of their lives they shared with him—“or even the big bits”—and shape them into stories using his imagination.
After finishing Deadline, he sent the manuscript to six different agents and publishers. All rejected it, though each said they’d reconsider if he made certain changes. “But they didn’t agree at all,” he said. “There were six different ideas about how it could be improved.”
Rather than grapple with the editing question, he sent the manuscript out again to a couple who ran a small publishing house in Belfast. And this time the answer was different. North Country Press would love to publish the book.
“I was thrilled. The idea that it was going to be in print was amazing to me,” Boyle said.
When it was published, Deadline got strong reviews in national media outlets, and soon he found himself with a new, bigger publishing house, a literary agent, and a contract for three more books.
Creating a world
That was 30 years and many pages ago. In addition to his McMorrow mysteries, Boyle has written three books about loner cop protagonist Brandon Blake of Portland, who also makes an appearance in Robbed Blind. There are more in the pipeline—the final McMorrow book is due next year, along with another in the Brandon Blake series.
Along the way, his characters have grown and evolved. Jack McMorrow, who married and had a child with longtime partner Roxanne, is contending with the changing landscape of journalism. For instance, he’s finding that some people are more interested in true-crime podcasts than in his unique brand of shoe-leather reporting, a development he has mixed feelings about. He has become tougher over the years, too.
“McMorrow isn’t afraid to go really off the journalism tracks,” Boyle said. “When I first started writing him, I could feel this kind of swagger that I was taking on, because I had created this reporter, and he didn’t take any crap from anybody. And so why should I?”
Boyle is joking, but the truth is that McMorrow’s world can be dangerous. It has a wild edge; a feeling that anything can happen as he works to get the story. In the more recent books, he packs a gun in his vehicle along with his reporter’s notebooks.
“What it comes down to is a need for justice. I think that drives a lot of people in law enforcement. I think generally it drives people in journalism,” Boyle said.
Continuity and change
Over the years, some things haven’t changed. The stories come to life in the same way, starting with the germ of an idea that takes shape in a composition book that Boyle fills with character sketches, scenes, questions, timelines, and more. He spends at least a year immersed in the research and writing for each of the books, so it’s a commitment.
Boyle decided it’s time to wind up the Jack McMorrow series because he wants to try his hand at writing something new. Going forward, he is interested in writing short stories, perhaps featuring some of the secondary characters from his books.
He also wants to end the series on a high note.
“I don’t want to retire like Tom Brady,” he said, laughing. “I’d like to finish with the best book.”
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