I enjoyed my own Sharon Ervin “book festival” in June, reading all three of her Jancy Dewhurst romantic suspense novels, bam-bam-bam, one right after the other. A quick backtrack here to explain:
I graduated from a small rural high school during World War II, which meant no tires and no gas for a real senior trip. My class of 13 rode a school bus to nearby McAlester, site of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, generally referred to in those days as “the pen.” We went inside and looked at the electric chair. We toured the Woolworth’s store, where I bought a ring for a dime.
You don’t forget such an outing if you live to be 100, so my curiosity was piqued when I learned that Sharon Ervin lives in McAlester, population about 18,000. The town gets its name from J.J. McAlester, who was immortalized as a character in the novel TRUE GRIT, which was then made into a movie starring John Wayne.
McAlester is still a small town. Is Sharon a celebrity or do people take her career in stride? A little of both. Did she set her books in McAlester? Not really, but close by.
There’s a saying in the military world: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” In the world of journalism, it might be said: “Once a reporter, always a reporter.” Sharon had an extensive career as a reporter/editor before marriage. In our e-mail exchange, she wrote:
“My husband Bill, a lawyer … doesn't read fiction of any ilk. He absolutely didn't want to read mine; was afraid he would comment and inhibit. Eventually, he did listen to Ribbons (THE RIBBON MURDERS) when it went on audio, as we traveled. Bottom line: he thinks I am less fiction writer than reporter. He recognized many scenes, characters and dialogue. Well, a girl has to start some place.”
Sharon sent me a copy of CANDLESTICKS, published in June by Five Star and third in her Jancy Dewhurst series. My local library has a copy of THE RIBBON MURDERS, first in the series. I decided to start there and work my way through.
THE RIBBON MURDERS involves the bodies of men found with ribbons tied around their male organs. As far as I know it’s unique among murder mysteries. The murders aside, I identified with the down-home setting, the small newsroom, the helpful, no- nonsense county sheriff. I e-mailed Sharon to ask if her fictional town of “Bishop” is really McAlester.
Turns out it’s really Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, where Sharon earned her journalism degree. Her e-mail illustrates that Sharon writes “faction” – a mix of fact and fiction:
“A young woman (forty-ish) came into Full Circle at a signing on THE RIBBON MURDERS and had recognized Bishop. She laughed and said she also had known former Cleveland County Sheriff Bill Porter, my model for Sheriff Dudley Roundtree. She said I had nailed him. We whooped as we remembered Porter and his wife, Chris, both colorful characters in real life. Porter took me to my first homicide scene out on a county road between Norman, Moore and OKC back in 1966 or so, then wouldn't let me get out of his car until the nude body was properly covered. Thirty officers there couldn't figure out whose jurisdiction we were in. I used it all in Ribbons.”
Sharon’s second book, MURDER ABOARD THE CHOCTAW GAMBLER, is much darker and I found the violence a little disturbing. The “factional” CHOCTAW GAMBLER is a casino, a 4-deck replica of a paddlewheel showboat built on a permanent foundation and rigged so that water runs over the paddlewheel to make it look like it’s turning.
The story opens with the murder of an itinerant croupier, possibly shot by mistake because he resembles casino owner Jesse Chase. A likely suspect is G.C Gideon III, former friend and partner who owes the casino a huge debt. Playing both ends against the middle is a thug named Bubba Valentine. He’s G.C.’s bodyguard and lifelong friend but handles dirty business for Chase.
The deceptively minor murder of the croupier is a harbinger of things to come. What follows literally copies the infamous 1970 Mullendore murder in Osage County. When Sharon says Osage County has a “rough reputation” that’s an understatement.
As described in “Osage County History” by Jenk Jones, Jr.: The Osage is the largest county in Oklahoma, larger than either Delaware or Rhode Island. The “Four Pillars of the Osage” are the Indian tribe itself and the county’s history of oil, cattle and outlaws. In the pioneer towns could be found the “Four Bs” of oilfield living: Baptists, bootlegger, bar and bordello. (The full article is at http://tinyurl.com/2cc2wkz)
The huge Mullendore ranch is partly in Osage County and partly in Washington County, as is the city of Bartlesville where Sharon and her husband Bill were living in 1969. Her e-mails to me detail the real murder and how it relates to her book. She writes:
“Bubba Valentine is Chub Anderson, who was E.C. Mullendore's body guard when E.C. was shot and killed on his Osage County ranch in 1969 (sic). We were living in Bartlesville in 1969. Bill was an assistant D.A. I met E.C. several months before his death when Tulsa World Managing Editor Travis Walsh asked me to run records on rumors that the Mullendore Ranch was going under. Jancy's experience at the ranch was my own, almost verbatim.
“Travis called me again the morning "one of the Mullendores" was murdered. I agreed to cover the story, but Bill flatly refused to let me go, since we didn't know if the victim was Gene (E.C.'s dad), or E.C. (who) had scared me to death that afternoon at the ranch.
“Chub's story was that a black limo cruised up to the house where he and E.C. were staying; that he was upstairs running E.C. a bath when unknown persons fired dozens of rounds at E.C., killing him. Sheriff George Wayman and I doubted Chub's story. There were several fishy details. I called and Chub agreed to an interview. My actual 'interview with Chub' is precisely what happened in Jancy's interview with Bubba's mother.”
The Mullendore murder is still unsolved and still “hot” 40 years after it happened. Chub is still Suspect No. 1 but he’s not talking and nobody is pushing him. Sharon’s next e-mail brought me up to date:
“Chub Anderson disappeared before his second or third trial for the alleged murder of his best friend and employer, E.C. Mullendore. Newspapers reported that he was picked up just over a year ago on an Oklahoma warrant in Michigan, I believe. They brought him back here for trial, but witnesses were gone and he was (and is) on dialysis three days a week. He refused to talk to anyone about the Mullendore thing, then asked for a private meeting with former Osage County Sheriff George Wayman.
“They visited privately for more than two hours, according to news accounts. Afterward, neither of them would talk to news people or prosecutors. I figure Wayman's (and my) original take on the case was accurate (as described in GAMBLER) and Chub just wanted to clarify any questions Wayman had. Both are affable guys.
"Officials apparently would not allow Chub to live in Oklahoma. He lives across the state line in Kansas now. Although there is no statute of limitations on murder, apparently his kidneys are failing and he's in bad shape. Maybe just desserts.
“Following press releases when GAMBLER was published, several people came to book signings because they had known E.C. or his dad and recognized the case. Many of them shared their own theories of his death. The case remains officially 'unsolved.' Truth is stranger than fiction, you know. Cops and sheriffs can tell you riveting tales.”
There’s something reminiscent of the old Code of The West in all this. Sheriff tells the bad guy: “Waaaaal … we cain’t hang ya so just get outta town … on the horse you rode in on.”
You can read excerpts from all of Sharon’s books at her web site.
On her web site she has this to say about life in Oklahoma and why she writes:
“Life is comfortable here and familiar. America’s heartland is richly blessed with fictional characters. Critics say I write good dialogue. That’s because I eavesdrop. A lot. I am attuned to the thrum of life around me, like the rat-ta-tat-tat which, though it does not carry the tune, enriches the music of the carousel. And that thrum compels me to write books about the undercurrents in life which drive us. They are neither social commentaries, nor texts. They are, rather, the books of my heart.”
Prison photo from www.digital.library.okstate.edu/