Discord in Music City
edited: Monday, April 28, 2003
By Chester D. Campbell
Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003
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Nashville is far removed from the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, so why choose it as a locale for a novel dealing with the subject?
When I say “Nashville,” what do you think of? Probably not Palestinians and Israelis. So why did I pick Music City as the primary locale for a suspense/thriller titled Secret of the Scroll (Durban House, October 2002)? For starters, it’s where I’ve lived most of my seventy-six years. My only addresses outside the old hometown came during military service and a few years of schooling and work in Knoxville. After serving as an Aviation Cadet in World War II, I attended the University of Tennessee, majoring in journalism. I worked as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal during most of my undergraduate days and a couple of years afterward. Then the Korean War took me off to Seoul, where I was an intelligence officer at Fifth Air Force headquarters.
Back home in Nashville, I worked as a newspaper reporter, advertising copywriter, public relations man, speech writer for a governor, magazine editor and manager of a statewide trade association. I watched the town shift from the leisurely paced “Athens of the South”–known for its colleges and universities, its love of the arts, its full-size replica of the Parthenon–to the present-day “Music City, USA,” one of the nation’s major centers of music publishing and recording.
I saw the pace of life pick up markedly since the time when Nashville was known as the “Son-in-Law Town.” Back then young outsiders came to Vanderbilt University, graduated and married daughters of the city’s movers and shakers, taking over cushy jobs in family businesses. In the intervening years we added lots of new subdivisions, new buildings, new industry, new millionaires–including a corps of muscular young men clad in the NFL regalia of the Tennessee Titans. But Nashville still retains much of its Old South charm. The people are polite and friendly and grits and gravy embellish the restaurant menus.
Although the “Athens” reference is rarely heard these days, the city still loves its cultural classics–art, literature and music. Nashville boasts an outstanding Symphony Orchestra, a well-established professional repertory theatre company and a first-class art gallery. It has also produced its share of noted writers. They range from the famous Fugitives group at Vanderbilt in the early twenties that included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, to such notables as Alice Randall, the author who attracted a recent lawsuit from the Margaret Mitchell Estate over The Wind Done Gone. And Nashville has a great current crop of mystery writers, including Sallie Bissell and Steven Womack, an Edgar winner. I, by contrast, am a Johnny-come-lately, with my debut thriller just out.
Which gets us back to the business of why I set Secret of the Scroll in Nashville. Religion is prominent on the local scene, with the United Methodist Church’s publishing house and several other boards and commissions located here. The Southern Baptists also have their publishing arm in Nashville. And Vanderbilt houses a divinity school. That fact provided me with a handy source for translating the ancient Hebrew document.
Greg McKenzie, my protagonist, is originally from St. Louis, but he’s married to Jill Parsons, a Nashville native. So, after Greg’s retirement as an Air Force OSI agent, they move to the Hermitage suburb (named for Andrew Jackson’s famed homeplace). The idea for the book came from a Holy Land tour I made in 1998 with my brother’s Sunday School class from Brentwood United Methodist Church. I used a fictional church, however, to sponsor Greg and Jill McKenzie’s identical trip to Jordan and Israel.
Their problems balloon when they return home with a “souvenir” that turns out to be a genuine first century parchment scroll, wanted by rival groups of militant Palestinians and Israelis. When Jill is taken hostage, Greg roams familiar parts of the city in his quest to rescue her. My references to the music business are few, though at one point he travels along Music Row en route to a key rendezvous. And a character who bedevils him runs a trucking business that transports props and equipment for traveling music acts. To add to Greg’s difficulties, I saddle him with the fallout from a missing person case similar to one that still merits an occasional headline in the Nashville papers.
In short (but, as my editor would probably say about here, not short enough), Nashville is a great place to live and write and offers a lot as a setting for a mystery novel. I’ve already finished Designed to Kill (due out in 2003), a PI story featuring Greg McKenzie and set partially in Nashville. And I’m halfway through another in the Greg McKenzie series with an almost completely Nashville backdrop. My wife and I travel to Perdido Key, Florida (the other locale for Designed to Kill) for two weeks each fall and spring, but we’re always happy to get back home to Nashville. So, I guess it’s no mystery that this is where we’ll stay.