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Plotting Success.  Stephen White Weaves Boulder Into Mysterious New Bestseller

By Clay Evans
Daily Camera, April 2, 1998

It's been three books and four years since bestselling Denver mystery writer Stephen White closed down his Boulder psychology practice, and nearly a quarter of a century since he mixed cocktails behind the bar at the Red Lion Inn in Boulder Canyon.

But with "Remote Control" debuting recently on the New York Times paperback best-seller list and his latest hardcover, "Critical Conditions", climbing the charts, White doesn't seem to miss "work" very much.

"I know what it's like to have a job—this is better," White says over a cup of coffee at the Bookend Cafe, which makes an appearance in his next novel, completed and due out late this year. "It's a real privilege getting to do this for a living."

"This" would be rising each day to saddle up with Alan Gregory, the Boulder psychologist-sleuth who has a starring or supporting role in each of White's first six novels; it's setting a daily minimum of three pages written — "That way I finish a novel in six months," he says; and it's conducting curious research, including, for the latest novel, exploring the once-maligned baggage system at Denver International Airport and delving deeply into the world of luxury recreational vehicles.

The pay isn't so bad, either, White says: "I haven't made a million a book, though we're getting closer. But I'm making a living and I'm proud of that.

White's intricately plotted novels have found a nationwide audience since his first, "Privileged Information", was published in 1991, and his tales have wandered away from their original Boulder setting on occasion. But "Critical Conditions" plays out in the shadow of the Flatirons, with a dose of Denver, and a smattering of mountain settings. Local readers will get a kick out of White's copious references to familiar landmarks, businesses, and institutions.

For example, he writes: "For a month or so we struggled to find the right place to meet. We tried the brewpubs, Walnut and Oasis, and played some pool. We tried some coffeehouses. We met in a few of Boulder's bars—the West End, the Boulderado, even one memorable evening at Potter's." There also are several broad references to the as-yet-unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey throughout the novel.

Early in his career, White was one of just a handful of mystery-thriller writers using a Colorado setting. Now, according to Tom and Enid Schantz, owners of The Rue Morgue mystery book store, nearly 40 major mystery series are set in the state. But White doesn't feel trapped—so far—in his Boulder setting, which he says he renders in an "affectionately irreverent" style.

"I have fun with this town and I like it that way," says the 46-year-old married father of one son. "It's colorful, it's unique. This is the kind of town you couldn't make up as a fiction writer, because nobody would believe it."

University of Colorado law professor Marianne "Mimi" Wesson, whose debut mystery-thriller "Render Up the Body" is set largely in Boulder, admires the way White handles his setting.

"I think anyone who lives here and loves it has to enjoy the authenticity of his Boulder settings," she says.

The setting may be real, but White insists that his characters spring almost whole from his imagination, with only bits and pieces of real Boulder people thrown in for flavor. There is one exception: Gregory's dog Emily is a "totally non-fictional character" based on White's dog Casey, a bouvier des Flandres.

His journey to success has been long and winding, but White's urge to write goes all the way back to his undergraduate days on three separate University of California campuses.

"I started off as a creative writing major, but on my first three papers I got two D's and an F. I dropped my classes, I dropped my major, and did not write another word of intentional fiction until I started my first novel 20 years later," he says.

He dabbled in history and music history before earning a psychology degree from Berkeley, then bartended his way through graduate school and received his Ph.D in psychology from CU. From there, he headed into a series of jobs at Denver hospitals and then into private practice in Boulder at the corner of Spruce and 11th streets.

Sitting on the ethics committee of the Colorado Psychology Association in 1988, White imagined an ethical conundrum that wouldn't leave him alone: the legal Catch-22 when a psychologist sworn to confidentiality suspects a patient is going to hurt somebody, though the patient hasn't made an actual threat. Indulging his notion, he began to write a few pages in the basement of his Boulder home each day before work. Seven months later, he sailed into uncharted waters, seeking a publisher for "Privileged Information", but unlike most neophytes, he found almost immediate success.

White's continued success may hinge on his technique of using major social issues as the canvas on which to paint his complex plots. "Critical Conditions", for instance, examines the increasing role of managed care in the American health care system. "I wanted to highlight that decisions about health care are being taken out of the hands of (patients') doctors," he says.

The novel also touches on such hot topics as mercy killing and adults having sex with minors: One character is approached by an attractive teenage girl, to which the author says, "I want every male to wonder, 'Could I say no to this kid with the absolute knowledge that it's my job to say no?'"

White's success with his trademarks—-topical situations, entangled plots, and Alan Gregory—have made his publisher loathe to let him free of that formula. Though he admits he'd like to stretch his wings, he's also still content to see what Alan Gregory has in store for him next, he says.

"In mysteries and thrillers, I can give readers some context for what they read in the paper, the unexplainable things," he says, mentioning the recent alleged bludgeoning death of a Boulder woman at the hands of her grandson. "We can give them some context to make sense of things like that. We can do what life rarely does, and that's tie things up at the end."


Line of Fire by Stephen White

Coming August 2012

The Last Lie (paperback) by Stephen White

In Stores Now