One colorful September day back in 1984, two acquaintances of mine, Roland and Maram Hanel, were brutally slain in their isolated ski chalet in the hills of Jay, Vermont, each shot multiple times with a 9mm machine pistol. Nothing was stolen from the house, nor did investigators uncover any helpful clues. The case remains open today, and the Hanels’ executioners are unknown.
More than 10 years passed before I got around to looking into the crime myself with a loose plan to use the peculiar circumstances surrounding my neighbors’ deaths (and surrounding the frustrated investigation) in a novel about the dismal solve-rate in this country of stranger-on-stranger homicides. I talked to the state police detectives, the state’s crime lab technicians, the medical examiner, the state’s attorney, Maram’s parents in Montreal, the Florida Coast Guard, and many others. The 650-page novel I spent three years writing featured a Vermont dairy farmer who, because of how he reported finding the victims’ bodies, finds himself the prime suspect in the killings. Even his own wife is not sure of his innocence. So he embarks on his own stubborn, inept, and willful investigation. By the end of the story, he manages to exonerate himself–although he does not ever find the true killers.
My agent sent THE SUGARWOODS MURDERS to half a dozen publishers. They all passed. Meanwhile, an old friend, the novelist Howard Mosher, read the manuscript. He said, “Don, I think what you’ve got here is actually a mystery. It wants to be a genre novel, but the book you’ve written is almost anti-genre. What this story needs is a sleuth character who solves the crime.”
Howard was right. That’s how Hector Bellevance was born. I spent two more years rewriting the book, introducing Hector, a Boston Police Dept. homicide dick who has retired under a cloud–he’s the half-brother of the accused dairy farmer–and inventing an outlandish set of motives and villains partly inspired by the factual events. The revised literary mystery, now called COLD COMFORT, came in at 370 pages or so.
It took another year and a new agent to seal a two-book deal with Shaye Areheart at Harmony Books for COLD COMFORT and a sequel. At the time, I told everyone, “Hey, the good news is I sold my suspense novel! The bad news is I have to write another one.” It was a good line, but the truth was I really wasn’t sure I could write another one. These things don’t come easy to a writer like me. My stories tend to be less plot-driven than character-driven, so they’re quirkier and more surprising than many of the more standard plot-driven mysteries, and they take a lot longer to write.
I latched onto another inspiringly awful local crime (Google “Carl Drega” to learn more), and over the next three years I wrote the second Hector Bellevance suspense/mystery, THE FIFTH SEASON. It came out in 2005 to excellent notices. Kirkus Reviews said, “Bredes writes superbly and creates compelling believable characters.” And Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Book Review wrote, “…inexplicable outbursts of violence take years, generations even, to fester into a poisonous hatred of one’s neighbors–a position that Bredes argues with grave eloquence in this disquieting novel.”
The third Hector Bellevance mystery, THE ERRAND BOY, came out in September, 2009. This one was also partly inspired by an unresolved (but not unsolved) crime, the Orville Gibson murder in Newbury, Vermont, in 1957, and by the dark fact that in some rural communities there may live a person everyone knows to be a killer but who cannot be held to account because the evidence to support a conviction is lacking. Gibson’s killers were known to the townspeople and the state police, but at their trial no one would testify against them. They died unpunished.