Don Harstad: it’s like walking out of Wal-Mart!

Excerpts from the interview by Lynn Kaczmarek in the August/September 2000 issue of Mystery News


One cold day in February Don Harstad sat down to write a book. Eleven days later he had one – the aptly-named, Anthony-nominated Eleven Days. Harstad introduces the unsuspecting to Nation County Iowa’s Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman, and his sometime investigative partner, Hester Gorse from the Iowa Division of Criminal investigation. Eleven days is not just what it took to write, but it is also what it took for Houseman and Hester to solve a multiple murder case that began with a 911 call to the Nation County police dispatcher.

“Help us, they’re killing everybody! Help!”

Arriving on the scene at an old farmhouse, Houseman finds the caller gone and the owner of the house dead and mutilated. At a nearby farm four more victims are found. Remember the lines from Field of Dreams “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa?” This is the other Iowa – the real one. In the real Iowa, people die for a lot of reasons, only one of which is because other people kill them.

Filled with unexpected action, wonderfully realistic characters, and snap-cracklin’ dialogue, Eleven Days is a stunning debut. Carl Houseman’s first person narration is terse, uncomplicated, and surprisingly funny. I was easily drawn in, lovin’ every minute of it.

So, who is this lightning quick writer, this most witty of authors? Don Harstad is just who you would expect after reading his books – a retired Deputy Sheriff of Clayton County, Iowa. He lives with his wife, Mary, in Elkader. If you’re a regular reader of Mystery News, you’ll probably remember issue 174, August/September 1999, where in their reviews of Eleven Days and Known Dead, respectively, both Read Andrus and Harriet Stay sang the praises of this new and seemingly under-appreciated writer. It was these reviews that prompted me to pick up both books. (See what good stuff you can learn from reading Mystery News?) And so, when Harstad’s newest book was announced, I hightailed it to the phone to set up an interview.

Despite the comments that Harstad’s books can be funny, they’re funny in that off-kilter Fargo kind of way. Not that the books are like Fargo; Harstad’s stories are much better, but there is that ironic, violent twist to them.

Witness this: Houseman and two other cops are sitting on a marijuana patch waiting for the owner to come water the plants. The cops are down in the patch, Houseman is up on a bluff providing back up. Muffled shots and a frantic “Be careful, they got machine guns!” draw him down into the patch.

I reached back into the trunk and pulled out an old rubberized green rain jacket and put it on. That’d help. SHOT? I fumbled with the little first-aid kit they’d given us. I’d need that. I looked at the ballistic vest in the trunk. It was white. Its strap-on carrier was white. And, as a joke, I’d drawn a series of concentric circles over the middle in red marker. It was too hot to wear on days like this, so I kept it in a garbage bag in the trunk. I hesitated a second…

Read the complete interview in the August/September 2000 issue of Mystery News